Davis, 85, said it was a dream come true to launch “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives” at Radio City Music Hall since he grew up in Brooklyn and didn’t visit Manhattan until he was 13.
The music mogul was all smiles at the multi-hour event Wednesday night, as performers like Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Barry Manilow and Earth, Wind & Fire took the stage to pay tribute to Davis.
“All of them fresh from not performing at the inauguration,” Robert De Niro, who co-founded the festival, said before the film began, earning laughs and handclaps from the audience.
Jennifer Hudson left the stage to walk into the aisles to dance with the crowd as she sang Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
“Where is Clive at?” she yelled. Davis earned a loud cheer from the audience when he started dancing.
When Franklin — who closed the show — sang “Natural Woman,” she pointed to Davis and sang the lyrics, “He makes me feel.” She also called her longtime collaborator a “chieftain” and “humanitarian.”
Others shared the sentiment on-screen. “The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” directed by Chris Perkel, gave a peek into Davis’ personal and professional life. He lost his parents while he was an undergraduate at New York University, and later attended Harvard Law School. After working as a lawyer for Columbia Records, he was promoted to president in 1967, despite not desiring a career in music.
“I had no inkling that music would be my passion of life,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday from his office at the new Sony building in Manhattan. “I had no money after my parents died, so I went through school on scholarships. And I was going to be a lawyer.”
He said watching the documentary was somewhat hard, especially scenes with Houston, who died in 2012.
“It was very emotional to see artists that I worked with 20, 30, 40 years ago have the same vivid memories of how we interrelated and what we worked on and issues that arose,” he said. “It certainly gives a very compelling picture of the relationship that I had with Whitney Houston and of course that’s filled with emotional impact, and it really showed sides of Whitney that no one has ever seen before.”
Davis went on to become the world’s most popular music executive, discovering talents such as Houston, Alicia Keys and Manilow and creating second acts for legends like Franklin and Santana. He even had a large role in shaping the careers of Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and Billy Joel.
“What a movie,” Manilow yelled before he sang some of his popular hits.
Other performers included Kenny G and Dionne Warwick, who earned a standing ovation after she hit a high note. Whoopi Goldberg worked as the emcee in between the performances.
“No matter who you voted for, fight for the arts in school please,” she told the audience. “This is in our hands now.”
Davis founded Arista Records in 1975 and J Records in 2000. His documentary will be available on Apple Music.