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!’ ”