[The Record Breaker, continued]
CBS, one of the firm's clients, owned Columbia Records, which offered Davis a position in its law department with the opportunity after a year to become general counsel. The offer meant not only more money, but a chance to work in a more entrepreneurial environment, according to Davis. Though he had never considered the record business, he soon learned that he had found more than just a job.
"It was a crash course in learning the totality of the business," said Davis. "And so I just plunged in the same way I plunged in at school. Never taking anything for granted, and using hard work as the mechanism to trigger opportunities. I plunged in and found that I love music. Found that I loved what I did, and that I was consumed by it and I couldn't get enough of it. And it contrasted with my previous experience, which was, quote, work. This was work but it was the awakening to what was to become a life's passion."
That passion catapulted him to the presidency of CBS Records in 1967, a year in which he truly grasped the power of a musical revolution. That year Davis attended the Monterey Pop Festival and heard the whiskey-soaked voice of Janis Joplin and knew, as Bob Dylan (another Columbia artist) once sang, that the times they are a-changin'.
"It obviously became a turning point in music," he said. "It was a society-changing event as far as the people who were attending, coming out of Haight-Ashbury, questioning tradition and lifestyle. It was the electrification of music and the amplification of what had been pretty much acoustic before that in the folk-rock area. So it was eye opening and exhilarating at every turn. Obviously capped memorably by the discovery of Janis Joplin."
In a position for the first time to discover and nurture artists, Davis signed Joplin. She wanted to mark the momentousness of the occasion in a way befitting her spirit, and the spirit of the times. So she offered to have sex with Davis. "I don't think it became a trend," Davis said drolly.
Though Davis politely declined Joplin's offer, he soon made a name as a record executive who became intimate with his artists. Not in any social way, Davis emphasized, but by building relationships with artists based on a mutual love for music and an ear that could bring out the best in their songs. With Joplin, for example, Davis helped shape her first hit single, "Piece of My Heart," urging her to repeat the chorus of what became her signature tune.
Other artists that Davis brought to the Columbia stable included Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Santana, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Pink Floyd, which he signed for the bargain price of $300,000 before the group made the top-selling album Dark Side of the Moon. The record company--known for its aversion to rock or pop music before Davis' presidency--doubled its share of the market in three years of his leadership. After a decade in the business, Davis had become the preeminent record executive of the era.
And then he was fired--not only fired, but literally escorted out the door. CBS alleged that Davis had used company money for personal expenses. Davis denied the charge, which came amid an unrelated governmental investigation of payola and other alleged violations within the record industry. According to Davis, an employee of the record company forged documents with Davis' name and stole company money. When confronted, the employee tried to implicate others in the Columbia Records division in order to exculpate himself, Davis said.
"[CBS] had no idea whether these charges were true or false, but they were very concerned about their network license," Davis said. "There was a new president who had only been there a few months who I didn't know and, notwithstanding the fact that on a legal investigation there was certainly no wrongdoing, panic set in and this was the solution. I was expendable. So was that shocking? Was it traumatic? Yes. A whole year or year and a half where you can't say a word because your lawyers are telling you you've got this governmental investigation going. The company arbitrarily was protecting itself, but on a personal level it was pretty hopeless."
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