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Clive Davis: Jennifer Hudson ‘had something special’ from the start

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Updated: April 7, 2013 6:28AM

Over more than 40 years of mining great talent, music mogul Clive Davis has learned to trust an “it” factor — “really something I feel or sense” — when he first comes into contact with a singer or band.

“I immediately sensed it with one of your own, from Chicago: Jennifer Hudson,” he said during a recent call from his New York home to talk about his new memoir, “The Soundtrack of My Life.”

“The first time I saw that girl sing, I knew she had something special, something great.”

Davis is perhaps the greatest “hit maker” in the world of contemporary music, a role he has played with the careers of everyone from Whitney Houston to Bruce Springsteen to Santana to Alicia Keys.

Currently the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, he has been using that gift ever since he moved from being an entertaiment industry lawyer to running Columbia Records, and later his own Arista label.

“If it’s a rock artist like Bruce Springsteen or Patti Smith — people who are performing their own music — I really look for something that is cutting edge, special, unique … something that I haven’t heard before,” he explained.

“If it’s a pop singer — a Whitney Houston or Aretha [Franklin], someone who likely will be singing other people’s songs — I look for how special they are as performers. I ask myself, ‘Is this someone who will lift an audience out of their seats. Is this someone who will be headlining at enormous venues like Madison Square Garden — and will be able to fill those arenas for years to come?’ ”

He believes that was the case with South Side native Jennifer Hudson, who propelled herself from “American Idol” to an Oscar-winning performance in “Dreamgirls,” and reigns now as a true 21st century musical superstar.

“Jennifer has a voice that is a force of nature,” said Davis, who is working with the singer and actress as she prepares her third solo album for release. “She has the kind of voice and the way of delivering her music that I know she will end up with a long, successful career that will include signature songs that will always be identified with her.”

As an example of Hudson’s star power, he shared a story about his most recent pre-Grammy night party — one of the most coveted invitations in the entertainment world.

“I always have artists perform together at my party that people ordinarily wouldn’t think of as being together. It’s one of the things people always look forward to every year — both those attending, and those performing.

“This year I had Jennifer join Gladys Knight — another unique and great talent — on one of Marvin Gaye’s signature songs: ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’

“People went crazy. No one sat down through the whole number. … That’s what I’m talking about, when I talk about star power and the ability to lift people up with a performance.”

Considering that Davis did not come from a professional musical background and his early career was honed by a love of classic music and Broadway show tunes that were the mainstays of Columbia Records’ business, it seemed fair to ask how he has been able to educate his ear to understand, enjoy and develop artists from the world of rock, rap and R&B.

“It’s all about vigilance,” said Davis. “You cannot ever take anything for granted. I always listen to new music. I get a copy of every new record when it comes out and begins to hit the charts. I’m always looking for signs of a breakthrough.

“To be honest, it’s a case of always having to refresh my ears. Music does change and I have to keep on top of it. “

Davis writes in “The Soundtrack of My Life” how he became close friends with musicians like Sly Stone or Bob Dylan or even Springsteen — artists who would seem to share few interests with the very worldly and suave executive.

“I’m a kid from Brooklyn,” he said. “I grew up in a melting pot. I’m self-made and I was born very poor. Just because part of my education was at Harvard [where he received his law degree on a full scholarship] does not mean I ever have forgotten my roots.

“We all come from our roots, and it’s not remotely related to where we might dine or vacation today.

“I’m all about finding that spark of creativity, finding what’s exciting and new. … I feel as comfortable in the streets as I am at any social party, and those artists I’ve worked with have always understood that.”

The man not only loves new challenges — he openly goes out and seeks them. Among the many things on his agenda is finding a new way to revive one of the greatest musicals of all time and bring it back to Broadway, hopefully next year.

That show is “My Fair Lady.” In Davis’ mind, “even the great musicals we’ve seen come along in the past few years — shows like ‘Hairspray’ or ‘The Producers’ or even ‘The Book of Mormon’ — are successful and well-done, but they don’t have the memorable, signature songs that were in the vintage musicals.

“I believe ‘My Fair Lady’ is one of those musicals, and I hope we can get it cast, get the right director and get it on Broadway.”

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