Arista Records and the Quest for Musical Magic

Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester at the Schaefer Music Festival, September 12, 1975 at Central Park in New York City.
Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage
Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester at the Schaefer Music Festival, September 12, 1975 at Central Park in New York City.
In the music industry, Clive Davis is a legend—and he’ll be the first to tell you so (or, you can watch the 2017 documentary, The Soundtrack of Our Lives). But while his long resume shows his fingers as an executive and label president in a lot of places, it’s his founding and decades-long running of the Arista label where he really made his mark.

Davis had been fired as President of CBS Records in 1973 allegedly for using company funds on personal purposes—including bankrolling his son’s bar mitzvah. But by the next year the energetic executive had already written and published a memoir and hired to revitalize the struggling Bell label, instead created Arista from its ashes.

In Looking for the Magic: New York City, the ‘70s, and the Rise of Arista Records (226 pp., $20, Trouser Press), author and former Arista PR/A&R/Creative Services man Mitchell Cohen tells the story of the label’s growing pains, hits and misses and place in the wide and wild world of the (mostly) ‘70s music biz.

In this book, readers won’t find much about the creative, recording or touring of the acts mentioned, but that’s by design. It’s more about the business, marketing, and distribution of the music, but written with concise and fast-paced prose.

Arista certainly had a wide range of musical acts and genres on the label. Just a partial list includes the socially-conscious jazz man Gil Scott-Heron, punk rockers Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop, teen dreams the Bay City Rollers, chanteuse Melissa Manchester and the resuscitated careers of Aretha Franklin and the Kinks. Though that luck didn’t extend to another high-profile signing—the Grateful Dead. Not that they or their fans really cared about commercial success.

Cohen also dedicates considerable pages to the story Bell Records. Under the stewardship of Larry Uttal, the label scored pop and soul hits with James Carr (“The Dark End of the Street”), James & Bobby Purify (“I’m Your Puppet”), the Box Tops (“The Letter”) and The 5th Dimension (“Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In”).

click to enlarge
Trade advertisement for Patti Smith
More lastingly, Bell was the first home for a young singer/songwriter/pianist whose current gig was backing brassy singer Bette Midler at a New York bathhouse whose clientele was primarily gay men.

And even if the label didn’t know what do with him at first (Was he pop? Show tunes? Soft rock?), Barry Manilow would eventually find his career footing and way up the charts—again and again and again. Other than Whitney Houston later, he became the label’s biggest cash cow.

Cohen also has some great details about Arista’s adventures into jazz, both with the avant garde-leaning Arista Freedom subsidiary (Gato Barbieri, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton) and the Bird/Prez/Trane reissues and new findings from the old Savoy label, which had jazzbos salivating on their turntables.

Part of the fun of Cohen’s text, though, is the rat-a-tat listing of performers and bands with names and songs lost to all but the most dedicated of record crate diggers. The Doughboys? The Panda People? Happy The Man? Elton Duck? The Stanky Brown Group? Cooter Crow and Magic?

Likewise, Cohen details many of Bell/Arista’s more, um, creative experiments. Like actress Sally Kellerman breathily intoning her version of David Crosby’s song about a threesome, “Triad.” Or something called Julius Wechter and the Baja Marimba Band laying down an instrumental version of the theme from the then-all-the-rage hardcore porno movie Deep Throat.

Cohen also chronicles a bygone era (as he points out before anyone with a keyboard and a Wi-Fi password could pass public judgment and opinion on music) where the rock press actually had clout and power. Davis would alternately court and berate scribes like Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs and Paul Nelson for their coverage of his product in an area where one review could have immediate impact—good or bad—on sales.

Also, cocaine and prostitutes were a hell of a way to entice radio programmers and DJs to spin your product.
click to enlarge
Mitchell Cohen in his Arista Records office sometime in the 1980s.
Photographer unknown/Mitchell Cohen Personal Collection
There’s also pages of coulda-shoulda-woulda been musical success stories of artists that just didn’t hit at the time. Glenn Goins was a wunderkind R&B/funk singer-producer who had been in George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and was spreading his own wings with a band called Quazar and a solo deal. But his life was cut short at just age 24 from Hodgkins Lymphoma.

The Dwight Twilley Band was another group with lots of potential that didn’t click. And Davis must have been kicking himself for years when Arista chose that group to sign over another band which that that point hadn’t been as successful as Twilley: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

As MTV dawned, Arista went all in on English synth groups like A Flock of Seagulls, Thompson Twins and Haircut 100, often through licensing deals with other UK labels. Subsequent sales spikes in places like Iowa and Wisconsin—where these bands weren’t getting played on local radio—were proof of the cable channel’s power.
click to enlarge
Arista President Clive Davis introduces Whitney Houston in 1984 in New York City.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Bonus points to Cohen for digging up the story of how A Flock of Seagulls’ lead singer Mike Score developed that iconic hairdo: He was simply caught in the rain on the way to film the video for “I Ran” and decided to comb in a weird way so his head would resemble the form of a seagull.

While Cohen starts the book with the description of a lavish 1988 boat party that a cash-flush Arista threw for its employees and VIPs, he ends the book on purpose with the 1985 release of Whitney Houston’s seismic debut record (meaning nothing about one of the label’s most controversial releases: the Milli Vanilli record).

By that time, Arista was no longer truly or partially independent, with half of it bought out by RCA. And the label’s throw-everything-against-the-record-bins-and-see-what-hits approach became more focused.

Arista was later acquired by Sony, and Davis was fired in 2000 due to an age restriction policy. And while the music business and how it was conducted in the 1970s seems impossible and unrecognizable in today’s era of demographic research, TV talent shows, streaming statistics and YouTube/TikTok successes, Looking for the Magic shows great insight into a time when things were wilder and more offbeat.