Joe Smith's candid artist talks heading to Library of Congress
Classic-film fans know all about Frank Capra’s 1941 political treatise “Meet John Doe.” Soon, music lovers will have the chance to “Meet Joe Smith,” and in the process get a little closer to dozens of the most important players in 20th century pop music through a trove of one-on-one interviews the veteran record executive conducted a generation ago and is now donating to the Library of Congress.
Smith, who headed three of the most important record labels in the 1960s, '70s and '80s -- Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol Records -- sat down in the mid-’80s with a who’s who of pop music for his 1988 book “Off the Record.”
Over the course of about two years, he interviewed more than 200 musicians, record executives, producers, songwriters and managers, from rock superstars Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Elton John to key pre-rock figures such as Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman. He also interviewed some of his business peers and competitors including Clive Davis, David Geffen and Irving Azoff.
Their stories span half a century of pop music, from the swing era to the birth of rock 'n’ roll through dance music, punk and hair metal. Yet even though his book ran 429 pages, it still contained only a fraction of what Smith and each subject talked about, typically for 30 minutes to an hour.
So, Smith is handing over his collection of unabridged audio interviews -- 238 hours’ worth -- to the nation’s official keeper of recorded cultural history, where they’ll be available to the public, to music historians, journalists and academics interested in hearing musicians’ own words about their lives and careers.
“The Joe Smith Collection is an invaluable addition to the library’s comprehensive collection of recorded sound,” librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement issued Monday (June 18). “These frank and poignant oral histories of many of the nation’s musical icons give us unique insights into them as artists, entertainers and human beings. The world knows these great musicians through their songs, but Joe Smith has provided us an intimate window into their lives through their own words.”
Smith’s original tapes, which will be housed at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpepper, Va., have been digitized and are expected to be accessible to the public at the library later this year and eventually online.
Smith said his marching orders for the “Off the Record” came in the mid-'80s from John Hammond Sr., the great talent scout who was responsible for launching the careers of Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and many others during his five-decade relationship with Columbia Records.
“He was very sick, and I wanted to go see him in the hospital,” Smith, 84, said over lunch at one of his favorite haunts in Beverly Hills, the Grill, where he was greeted by name by most of the staff and many patrons when he walked through the door one afternoon last week.
“So we’re talking -- it was around the time that Count Basie and somebody else died. I said, ‘What a shame. I don’t know if anybody ever got them on tape. I know they’ve done interviews, but did anybody actually get them [talking] on tape?’ And he sat up in bed, and he said, ‘You must do that!’ Get it all -- you know the ones from the past, you know the ones from today.’ And he says, ‘You MUST do this!’ ”
Smith himself had been instrumental in signing the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison and comedian Don Rickles while at Warner Bros. and later Elektra/Asylum. He also contributed to developing the careers of Jimi Hendrix, the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. In the latter part of his career at Capitol-EMI, before he retired in 1993, he helped turn Capitol Records back into a significant player in the music business, in no small part because of the push to promote the artist who became the biggest seller of the '90s and beyond: Garth Brooks.
Smith conducted the “Off the Record” interviews over a period of about two years -- during which he was brought in to help revive Capitol-EMI, which made his work on “Off the Record” all the more challenging. He quickly nixed a suggestion that he film or videotape the interviews. “People like Barbra Streisand are not going to sit still for that,” he said. “She did [her interview] in her bathrobe at the Essex House in New York. That’s not going to happen.”
Born and raised in Chelsea, Mass., and educated at Yale, Smith spent the first part of his life in the music business as a radio DJ, even doing a stint at a country station in Virginia where his on-air persona was Cousin Joe. But he quickly moved north and started spinning the R&B and rock 'n’ roll records that were the musical currency of youth in the '50s.
Upon moving to Los Angeles at the dawn of the '60s, Smith started working with independent distributors, but soon went back into radio as a DJ on L.A. AM rock station KFWB. It wasn’t long before he got an offer to do promotion for Warner Bros., where he quickly rose through the ranks to the top.
Smith established himself as a record executive about a decade behind the influential label owners such as Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic in New York, all-around visionaries who helped give birth to rock 'n’ roll music.
But Smith, along with peers such as Clive Davis and Mo Ostin, saw the potential for that music to reach a much broader audience, and helped usher in the era of the multimillion-selling albums that became a regular part of the music industry in the '70s.
“He was always an artist-friendly executive and a great motivator who knew how to help artists and managers achieve incredible commercial success and at the same time have fun doing it,” Azoff, the Eagles' manager and then owner of Giant Records, said of Smith when he announced his retirement almost two decades ago during a corporate shake-up at Capitol-EMI.
Today, Smith spends much of his time keeping tabs on his favorite basketball team -- the Lakers -- pursuing his passion as a wine connoisseur and collector, lunching at restaurants in and around Beverly Hills and spending time with his grandchildren.
Asked if he still thinks he made the right decision walking away from the music business when he did, Smith doesn’t hesitate.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “What’s happened to the music business is so sad. Part of the reason is there are distractions there never were. The Internet, video games. When video arcades opened up, I did an interview and somebody said, ‘They’re taking our quarters.’ But it’s not only the money, it’s the time. How much time does anybody have to do anything?”
In “Off the Record,” Paul Simon told Smith, “My theory is that every time the industry gets powerful and corporate thinking dominates what the music is, then the music really pales.”
That was a quarter century ago, but today, Smith couldn’t agree more.
“One guy at EMI asked me, ‘In Quarter 3 of Year 4 [of a sales projection report], you show a dip. What happens then?’ I said, ‘You believe all this stuff? I just filled in the page.’ ” He laughed while relating the anecdote, one of countless war stories he’ll have at his disposal this week for a planned oral history he’ll tape at the Library of Congress to accompany his interviews.
“In my farewell when I retired, I said the corporatization of the business -- it sucked all the life out,” Smith said. “When I joined at Capitol, they wanted five-year projections!” I said, ‘Future planning in our business is where we’re having lunch Thursday.’ ”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Veteran record executive Joe Smith with stacks of digitized interviews he is donating to the Library of Congress. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.