Joe Smith, Former Label Head at Warner Bros., Elektra and Capitol, Dies at 91Variety — Chris Willman
Joe Smith, whose four decades in the music business included heading Warner Bros. in the 1960s and ’70s, Elektra in the ’70s and ’80s and Capitol in the late 1980s and ’90s, has died at 91, multiple sources have confirmed.
“I’m so fortunate to have gotten out of (the music business) when I got out of it because there’s no fun anymore,” Smith, whose Warners run included the signing of Van Morrison, Black Sabbath, America, Alice Cooper and the Doobie Brothers, told Variety when he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame four years ago. “We were there during a great time, and (then) it hit a wall.”
Besides leading three of the more historically important labels in the business across different eras, Smith is also remembered for his 1988 book “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music,” which included interviews with a slate of legendary artists few others would have enjoyed access to — including Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel. Smith was the head of Capitol Records when he conducted the interviews.
A native of Chelsea, Mass., Smith first fell in love with music as a youngster listening to the jazz of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Stan Getz. After a stint in the military and a degree from Yale, Smith got into radio as a disc jockey, and as a DJ in Boston in 1960 was called to testify in the congressional payola hearings before moving to the west coast the following year to work in promotion for Warner Bros.
Smith because the president of Warner Bros. in 1972. During his time at “the bunny,” he worked with artists including Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Deep Purple, Petula Clark, the Allman Brothers Band, Jethro Tull, George Benson, Al Jarreau and Seals & Crofts. On the Reprise side, he was involved with the careers of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell.
In 1975 he slid over to become chairman of the sister company at Warner Communications, Elektra/Asylum, replacing David Geffen, who left to enter the film business. Artists he worked with there included Mitchell (again), the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Queen, the Cars, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Motley Crue, Hank Williams Jr. and X.
Smith announcing he was quitting Elektra, and in fact, retiring from the business altogether in 1983. But exactly four years later, he jumped back in, announcing that he was returning as vice chairman and chief executive of the then deeply troubled Capitol-EMI, right at the dawn of the CD era. “We’re not going to have lawyers listening to records or marketing people deciding who will be signed to a record contract,” he told the Los Angeles Times at the time.
Smith did indeed preside over the revitalization of the downcast Capitol labels. Still, he maintained, the ’60s represented his peak as an executive as well as a music fan.
“The best time was building Warner Bros.,” said Smith, whose first success at the label was with Peter, Paul & Mary. “It was dumbfoundingly dull when we got there. The big acts were Ira Ironstrings and all the people who were on the TV shows like Connie Stevens. I was A&R and promotion, and we bought Reprise and Mo (Ostin) came aboard and the two of us had this magic run.
“The Grateful Dead was probably the most important signing because we were changing from the Petula Clark-Frank Sinatra company to what was happening in music,” he told Variety.
In the end, “The biggest record sales I had were with Garth Brooks,” Smith told the Chelsea Record, his hometown paper. “I signed Garth Brooks (at Capitol) and he sold more records than anybody. I also had the Eagles’ ‘Greatest Hits’ album (at Elektra/Asylum), which was up there with Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album as the two biggest of all time.”
Smith recalled for Variety the halcyon days at Warner Bros., by then by far the most highly esteemed label in the business, at least among rockers and singer/songwriters, and one where prestige artists were used as bait to get other prestige artists.
He recalled how he signed Bonnie Raitt. Capitol flew Raitt to Los Angeles from the East Coast to play the Troubadour, ostensibly an audition for the label. Smith, then president of Warners, had heard about Raitt from friends and colleagues in his hometown of Boston, where Raitt had a made a name for herself in the folk clubs.
“We had Tony Joe White on the bill as the opening act,” Smith recalled to Variety. “I went to the show and saw Bonnie and asked her, ‘Can we do some business?’” Raitt made it clear she was there on Capitol’s dime and had morning meetings at the Tower, but was willing to meet with him after 2 p.m. Before they parted, she mentioned her appreciation of Warner Bros., noting Ry Cooder and Randy Newman were her two favorite artists. “The phone calls went out to Cooder and Randy,” Smith says. “‘Get your ass in here at 2 o’clock. I want you in here when she arrives.’ That’s what happened, and we had a great run.”
Later, he called Raitt “the most satisfying success story because I signed her twice. I signed her at Warner back in the ‘70s and gave her a shot again at Capitol . . . and saw her win seven Grammys,” he pointed out to the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
Of his personal tastes, Smith told the paper, “It’s mostly jazz and R&B.; I’ve developed a classical interest since I’ve been here (at Capitol-EMI), because we got these 2,000 albums on Angel. But there’s no question with jazz. I’ll go to one of the record stores and buy 20 jazz albums at a time. I can never get enough Stan Getz, whom I became friendly with just before he died.”
For his book in the 1980s, Smith got an interview with almost every legend he wanted, from the early jazz era to the MTV superstars of the day — except, ironically, with a legend who was signed to Capitol, Frank Sinatra.
“I’m running Frank Sinatra’s record company and he won’t do an interview with me because he has been assassinated by Kitty Kelly in a book and he didn’t want to do any more interviews for a book,” Smith revealed to his hometown paper. “It’s strange because two years later Frank and I were together and he asked me if I wanted him to do that interview. I said to him, ‘I’d love to talk to you, Frank, but the book’s been out for two years.”
Smith regretted that the dozens of interviews he did with legends for “Off the Record” were condensed to bite-sized pieces for the book. He donated the tapes of all his interviews to the Library of Congress.
Smith retired from Capitol-EMI Music — where, besides reconnecting with Raitt, he also developed acts like MC Hammer — in March 1993, when he was 65.
“The nature of this business began to change a number of years ago, when it became very big money and major corporations moved in,” he told the Los Angeles Times upon his Capitol retirement. “And to the extent that it’s become a bigger business, it’s become necessary to put people in charge who are more business-oriented than those of us who were very music-oriented. We’re very much like other businesses now. … Fifteen years ago we might have blithely gone ahead and done what we thought was right musically. Today there are bound to be some business considerations applied, and to an extent that hurts music because you don’t know what you’re missing.”
After retiring from Capitol-EMI, Smith had a few further forays into the entertainment business, like serving as executive producer on a World Cup Soccer tournament that included an appearance by the Three Tenors at Dodger Stadium. He settled down with his wife, Donnie Smith, in Beverly Hills.
His film appearances included cameos in “Jamboree,” “FM” and “One Trick Pony.” He once estimated that his total time on the big screen amounted to 11 minutes. Most recently, he was featured in the 2017 documentary “Long Strange Trip” about the history of the Grateful Dead.
Talking with Variety upon his getting his Walk of Fame honor in 2015, Smith talked about drifting apart from the music business. “I loved what I was doing, then it was time to hang it up,” he said. “The record business fell apart when you could get music for nothing.”