Joe Smith Donates Awesome Audio Chats
By Michael Sigman
oe Smith, one of the most powerful men in American music, is in the news again, this time for his donation to the Library of Congress of conversations he recorded with some 200 of the most important musicians and record industry figures of the 20th Century, including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, George Harrison, Little Richard, Barbra Streisand, Paul Simon, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Les Paul and Ella Fitzgerald.
Smith recorded the talks for his 1988 book, Off The Record. The 238 hours of recordings will be accessible in the Library’s Capitol Hill reading room, and some are slated for streaming later this year on its website.
I first met Smith nearly 40 years ago, when he invited me for breakfast. As president of Warner Brothers Records, he was already one of the top players in the industry. (His colorful early career had included stints as a sportscaster, a radio disc jockey — theme song “We’re Gonna Rock With Joe Smith” by the Valentines! — and a record promotion man; post-WB, he went on to helm Elektra/Asylum and Capitol/EMI.)
By contrast, I was in my early 20s, just a year or so into my job as editor of the music trade journal Record World, a position I attained by default after, in little more than a year, everyone above me on the masthead quit or was fired.
This was to be my first one-on-one with a major-label chief, and what a label it was. The Warner roster — the music biz equivalent of the 1992 U.S. Olympic “dream team” basketball squad — boasted Neil Young, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. (Norman Greenbaum, too!) Smith and Mo “Chairman Mo” Ostin cultivated a SouthernCalifornia-cool working environment and a deep commitment to long-term artist development. One top exec at chief rival CBS Records refused to mention Warners by name, referring to them instead as “those fuckin’ rabbits.”
My internal butterflies grew in wingspan and airspeed after my boss explained that a summons from a record company titan means either that he’s pissed that one of his records has lost its bullet on the charts, or, best-case, he wants some glowing editorial coverage.
To my great relief, Joe wasn’t mad or demanding. Instead, he was curious about my plans for the magazine. The truth was that since I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of the job, my strategy began and ended with the desperate hope that each issue would hit the streets with all the pages in the right places.
But Joe listened intently to my blathering, and ended our meeting with this advice: “Your magazine has potential. But you’ll never make it unless you promote yourself.”
Off The Record (edited by Mitchell Fink, my predecessor at Record World) is a good read, but listening for hours to these relaxed, candid exchanges is a once-in-a-lifetime gold mine.
Most astonishing is the way these icons express the sheer wonder they felt when they first hit it big. If you think the greatest stars were born with self-confidence, check out Ruth Brown (“How did I get here?”), Ellie Greenwich (writing while riding the elevators of the Brill Building) or Peter Frampton (recording with his rock & roll heroes when he was 14) and Little Richard (“I didn’t even know I had hit until I heard my record (“Tutti Frutti”) on the radio”).
Speaking of Little Richard, Bob Dylan tells Smith that he was inspired by Little Richard (along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis “and those guys”) before he knew anything about folk music. Joe says, “I met Dylan when nobody knew him, and Albert Grossman (who managed Warner act Peter, Paul and Mary) schlepped him to the Hollywood Bowl.”
I caught up with Joe recently and asked him how he got so many superstars to participate and to speak so unguardedly. He said, “The fact that I had been a very visible part of the record business for so many years gave me a certain amount of currency with most artists and their representatives. I stressed that this wouldn’t be a tabloid piece — they understood that my only agenda was to get down their words for posterity.”
In addition to his passion and fine ear for both music and conversation, Smith was the most hilarious MC ever to grace the dais of an otherwise soporific charity dinner. His sharp one-liners knocked his self-important peers down a peg and created the feeling, if only briefly, that the industry was a fractious family tossing affectionate insults around the dinner table as opposed to a ruthless fight to the death.
Smith said one major-label president was “to the record business what surfers are to Kansas,” and ended a B’nai B’rith dinner honoring the infamous, mob-connected Roulette chief Morris Levy by noting, “I just got word my wife and children have been released, so goodnight everybody.”
At age 84, Joe has lost none of his comic timing. When I reminded him of the good deed he’d done for me so long ago, he paused for a beat and said, “Yeah, I sure am a great guy, aren’t I?”
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