L.A. Reid takes over from a legend

NEW YORK (AP) -- When Antonio "L.A." Reid was named head of Arista Records two years ago, it marked the pinnacle of more than two decades in the music business -- first as a performer, then a producer, and later as a founder of his own music label.

But Reid didn't have long to savor his achievement. Criticism began even before he had set up his office, due to the circumstances of his ascension. Reid, 45, was selected by BMG, Arista's parent company, to replace Arista founder Clive Davis partly because BMG wanted someone younger, despite the success of the now 70-year-old music legend.

"He was basically asked to do the impossible," said Grammy-winning producer James "Jimmy Jam" Harris III. "He's been asked to come and take over from a legend -- and not a legend whose who's retired by the way, but a legend who's still very much alive and involved in making great music."

There were some in the industry who quietly questioned whether Reid would be able to live up to Davis' lofty achievements, and there were constant whispers that his tenure at Arista would be brief.

But with the growing number of Arista successes under Reid's helm, the doubts are proving to be unfounded.

Last year, Arista's multiplatinum acts included OutKast and Usher. In February, its artists were up for five Grammys; four of them won. In addition, this year's surprising success of singer Pink, and promising first-week debuts from newcomer Avril Lavigne and old-timer Barry Manilow have only further solidified Reid's reputation.

And BMG says that Arista, which lost money after the Davis transition, is on pace this year to make a profit.

But Reid, an admitted workaholic, feels he still has more work to do.

"I don't know that I can take a breath yet," he said in a recent interview in his midtown Manhattan office.

Going to school

Reid grew up in Cincinnati with a love of music, and started playing in bands when he was 14. He first gained prominence in the early '80s as a founding member of the R&B group The Deele, which featured then unknown Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.

Though the group scored hits with "Two Occasions" and "Love Saw It," the production projects of both Edmonds and Reid led to the group's demise in 1987. But the pairing with Edmonds would not end -- they would continue a successful production and songwriting partnership that created hits for artists such as Whitney Houston and later, for the group's own label, LaFace Records, whose artists included platinum acts such as Toni Braxton, TLC and Usher.

BMG noticed LaFace's success and began wooing Reid to fill Davis' position, especially since LaFace already was a subsidiary label of Arista's. The company even sent Reid to Harvard Business School.

The idea of heading Arista appealed to Reid because "I had worked closely with the artists at LaFace, and some of the artists at Arista, like Whitney Houston, like Kenny G."

"It was important to me to continue working with people that I feel like I had an interest in their success," he said.

But Davis had yet to leave Arista, and was reluctant to do so. After he departed in July 2000, he negotiated a deal with BMG to create his own label imprint, J Records, which became an immediate success with acts such as Alicia Keys, O-Town and Luther Vandross.

When Davis left, however, he took key executives with him, and left Reid with very few records set for release.

"We had to really play catch-up," he said.

Arista sustained itself with holdovers such as Dido and Brooks & Dunn; later in 2000, OutKast's Grammy-winning disc "Stankonia" began its platinum run. However, Reid had to work hard to keep Arista on the charts.

"We signed a lot of artists, and we got into production on many of them, and we've now started to release some of the records," Reid said. Among the recent signings that have paid off: Lavigne, a teenage singer-songwriter whose style is reminiscent of fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette.

Reid also helped guided his established artists to multiplatinum success; he helped choose producers for Usher's "8701," and also gave the green light, although a bit reluctantly, for Pink, whose first platinum album was steeped in R&B rhythms, to change her sound and move more toward pop and rock. The album has sold nearly 3 million.

Maintaining relationships

Braxton says Reid's success as a label president comes in part because he's a former artist, and he has a strong relationship with his acts.

"I think a lot of times, record company people and producers have to be therapists," she said. "He's always been very very good at that."

Reid also re-signed Houston, the label's biggest artist and one of the most successful artists in recording history, to a much hyped $100 million, multiyear contract.

Allegations of drug use and erratic behavior on Houston's part have some questioning whether the deal was a smart move.

But Reid brushed aside concerns, saying Houston was in great shape.

"I'm trying to think of which artist hasn't had drug rumors in their careers," he said.

How Reid dismissed criticisms of Houston is similar to how he handled talk of his own demise at Arista. He virtually ignored them -- except for one notable incident. A Billboard magazine writer referred to those rumors in an album review of an Arista artist, drawing a scathing rebuke from Reid himself.

"Many people are capable of putting a spin on things, and I really kind of felt that it was really a shame that people accepted that kind of negative spin," he says. "While I continue to have success, people continue to question my stay at Arista, I thought it was fairly foolish, to be quite honest, because it was never anything further from the truth."

But it's clear that such talk -- and Davis' shadow -- still haunt him, to some extent.

For example, when Reid is asked whether Davis, who discovered Houston and had input in all her albums, would continue to have a role in her new disc, Reid said simply: "I don't want to talk about Clive Davis. He's been in the industry so many years. He's had his moment, let me have mine."

Yet Reid doesn't have a disparaging word to say about his predecessor; and when Davis threw his annual pre-Grammy bash, Reid was there.

Longtime friend Edmonds believes all the negative talk surrounding Reid only helped to make him stronger.

"Ultimately, it's a question of whether you believe in yourself," Edmonds said.

And there's no question that Reid, the married father of four, is confident in his own abilities to lead Arista to new successes.

"I make more records and better records than anybody," he says, before breaking out into a laugh, letting you know that he was joking -- in part.

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