Warner Bros., Elektra, Capitol Label Chief Was 91 – Variety
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,” 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 years at Yale, Smith got into radio as a disc jockey, working small East Coast cities before returning home.
Smith moved to the West Coast to work in promotion for Warner Bros. in 1961, which led to the label presidency and sliding over in 1975 to the sister label Elektra/Asylum to replace David Geffen, who left to enter the film business.
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.
“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 recalls. “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.”
For his book in the 1980s, Smith got almost every interview he wanted — 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,” said Smith. “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 largely retired from the music business in the late 1990s.
“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.”
More to come…