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“The Dead insisted I’d never understand their music until I dropped some acid with them.”
TOASTMASTER GENERAL
An Exclusive HITS Interview with Legendary Record Man Joe Smith by Roy Trakin
Joe Smith is probably best-known these days for his frequent appearances on telecasts of Lakers home games from Staples Center, sitting in his accustomed seat behind the basket, with the likes of Irving Azoff, Dyan Cannon, Bobby Kotick and Glenn Frey. A season ticket holder since arriving in L.A. some 52 years ago from Boston, where he was a local hotshot disc jockey, Smith’s record business career includes stops as President at three separate labels—Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol/EMI—as well as stints at the Recording Academy and manning a fledgling Warner-launched sports network. Smith worked with such notable artists as the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Garth Brooks, among many others. He eventually compiled a series of interviews and oral histories with artists ranging from Bob Dylan, Artie Shaw, Barbra Streisand and Bo Diddley to Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Mick Jagger, James Taylor and Ella Fitzgerald into Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music, originally published in 1988. The 84-year-old Smith recently donated the original recordings to the Library of Congress for digitization, so that they can be shared with everyone. Regarded as a raconteur of the highest order, Smith was known as the toastmaster general of the record industry throughout his career, a man with a rich sense of humor about others, but mainly himself. Joe certainly met his match in HITS’ own frequent roastee, the dishonorable Roy “Oy Veikin” Trakin.

How do you feel about the merger of your old label Capitol with UMG?
I could care less now [laughs]. The previous owners sucked all the life out of it. I remember when Thorn EMI first bought Virgin from Richard Branson, it was because [EMI head] Colin Southgate wanted a knighthood. He spent $10 million more than he should’ve and then dumped it on my lap. When Guy Hands first bought EMI, he called me: “People tell me this company actually made some money when you were there. I wonder if you would help me out.” Why would I want to help him out? “Why did you buy it in the first place? Did you think the record industry was a growth business? People are dropping like flies. How could you invest billions of dollars in a record company at this point?”

As a longtime Lakers fan, were you in favor of giving up Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard?
Definitely, You could see Bynum’s attitude from where we sit right behind the basket. He’s on the bench, totally distant from what’s going on. Laughing, joking when the team is getting clobbered. I couldn’t stand that. I’ve had season tickets for 52 years. We first bought them at the Sports Arena when they came to town from Minneapolis in 1960. I remember they played a pair of playoff games at the Shrine Auditorium and another home game at Loyola Marymount. I originally bought the tickets so I could see the Celtics, because I came from Boston and knew a lot of the players.

How could you go from being a Celtics fan to a Laker backer? That’s heresy.
I knew them all from when I was a disc jockey in Boston: Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell. When I lived in Encino, we used to have cookouts at my house whenever they came to town. I always used to root for them until some lady hit me in the head with an umbrella at one of the games. In 1969, when Russ retired, I realized I had invested a lot of money in the Lakers, so I better start rooting for them. What a change. We are the longest continuous Laker season ticket holders. I told Jerry Buss, if I hadn’t kept renewing, I could’ve bought the team. I love the game of basketball. We’ve had some exciting things happen here, through West and Chamberlain, Kareem and Magic, the Shaq and Kobe eras. I once flew back from London with Mo Ostin to see a game, and Mo fell asleep during it.

Do you miss the day-to-day of working in the music business?
No, not really. It’s been 18 years since I retired. There is no business anymore. Why would I want to be in it?

You had the good years.
Those were golden times. I watched it go from when our biggest acts were Peter, Paul and Mary and Allen Sherman. I think my most significant signing at Warner Bros. was the Grateful Dead. Because Warners was a pop music label, the home of Frank Sinatra and Pet Clark… We were not even close to getting into the craziness that was just starting in San Francisco. I could’ve made deals with more groups… Janis Joplin, Country Joe, but my boss at the time, Mike Maitland, said, “Let’s see how we do with the Dead.” And I said, “It’ll be too late.” The only rock group that signed before us was the Jefferson Airplane to RCA.

The Dead thought you were a square at the time.
The Dead insisted I’d never understand their music until I dropped some acid with them. I wouldn’t drink or eat anything when I was near them. They dosed a lot of people. One Thanksgiving at the Fillmore in San Francisco, one of their many managers spiked the punch and 45 people went to the hospital.

What made you want to sign the Dead?
My good friend Tom Donohue, a major disc jockey in San Francisco, turned me on to them. He and Bobby Mitchell had gone there from Philly, and wanted me to join them as the nighttime guy. He hipped me to what was going on up there. My wife and I were having dinner at Ernie’s, this expensive restaurant in San Francisco, me in my Bank of America suit and she in a black dress with pearls, and Donohue called from the Avalon Ballroom to tell me the band wanted to see me. We go there all dressed up and it’s like a Fellini movie, with the smell of pot wafting in the air, and that’s when I first met those guys. We made a deal about five days later. They wanted to work with Dave Hassinger, an engineer at RCA Studios on Sunset who had worked with the Stones, so I got him for that first album. It was the beginning of a crazy, eight-year relationship. I begged them to do tracks that were less than 15 minutes long. When they finally brought me Workingman’s Dead, they said, “This one’s for you.”

The Dead signing shifted the perception of Warner Bros. Records to that of a hip record company.
Warners had a connection with Pye Records in England, who had the Kinks and Sandie Shaw. We weren’t well-connected in that area. When I signed Black Sabbath, Lenny Waronker wanted to know what I was doing. He was all about Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman. I’d never heard of Black Sabbath when I saw kids waiting on line to see them at the Whisky. I went to London and signed them. They were the most consistent sellers we had; I never got any returns. The cumulative IQ of all of them didn’t reach three figures.

How did you come to sign Tiny Tim?
Mo and I, a bunch of other people, we were all bombed one night in New York when we first saw him. We signed him and then wondered, “What are we going to do with him?” I hired Richard Perry to record him, and he was thrilled to do it. That was a marriage made in heaven. I remember sending Jeff Wald on the road with him, and Tiny used to buy electric razors everywhere and ordered everything on the room service menu. He would take five showers a day. I called Jeff and said, “I see a bill for one more electric razor and I’m sending a straight razor to kill you.” When Tiny Tim got married on the Johnny Carson show, it got their biggest ratings ever. We could get away with that at Warner Bros. The vibe was so good with Stan Cornyn doing his funny ads… Joni Mitchell is 90% virgin… Win a date with a Fug… Get some sand from Laurel Canyon…a one-cent sale of Van Dyke ParksSong Cycle.

After Warner Bros., you were hired at Elektra by Jac Holzman.
He wanted to retire. He hated dealing with the lawyers. Elektra owned David Geffen’s Asylum at the time. David became the head of the combined labels, but he wanted to get into the movie business, so he was driving Steve Ross crazy. Ross told him he couldn’t do it unless he got either Mo or Joe to take it over. Neither of us wanted to leave Warner Bros. But Geffen is like Sinatra. If you don’t take that first call, you know you’re going to get 25 more. I was living in Beverly Hills, which was closer to Elektra than Mo was. That’s how I got the job—I could get there faster. I tried to get the label into black music by signing the late Dick Griffey’s SOLAR label, and acts like Patrice Rushen. When I wanted out of there, Warner put me in the cable TV world to start a sports network, Home Sports Entertainment. We bought the Pittsburgh Pirates, but things were starting to crash at Warners because of Atari. We sold the network to Fox Sports, so I returned to California to become President of the Recording Academy. They were paying me $300,000 and I didn’t even have to be in the office! But then I got a call from Bhaskar Menon, who had been trying to recruit me for years, offering me the head of Capitol Records. This was the early ’80s. And my ego got in the way. I could be head of the Tower. I took that job, only to find there were all these WASPs running the label, who were wondering why we weren’t putting out more Nat King Cole and King Sisters records. But we got lucky. We had MC Hammer and I signed Bonnie Raitt, whom I’d worked with at Warner Bros. And she won seven Grammys with that album [Nick of Time, 1989].

How do you view today’s business?
There isn’t the camaraderie we had anymore. The NARM convention isn’t as much fun as it was, when it was the place to meet with everybody. Nobody buys a table at T.J. Martel anymore. The record business doesn’t really exist anymore. When we started rolling, there were no videogames, nor the Internet. There was no competition, not just for the dollar, but the time also. Kids don’t listen to records. And the corporations took over the business. I warned it would be the death knell when music was just a division of a gigantic company with numbers you have to meet every quarter. I couldn’t sign a Grateful Dead in today’s market. When I was at Capitol and they questioned me on my five-year marketing plan, I laughed. “You thought that was real? I just made that up.”

Who impressed you most as an artist in your years in the business?
I was in awe of Jackson Browne’s dedication. If he had not gotten caught up in drugs, I think he could’ve gone much further. We used to joke about not lighting a match near him. The Eagles. Sinatra was probably the most entrancing kind of guy. Wherever he went, there were crowds of people. He could walk out on a stage before 50,000 people and just take it over right away with his swagger. There was no one quite like him. He could be your worst enemy or your best friend.

What was your relationship like with Steve Ross?
Whatever I have in life materially, Steve Ross gave me. We were his guys—Ahmet, Jerry Wexler, Nesuhi, Mo and I. Whatever his benefits were, we got, too. Our insurance policy was unbelievable. He let us run our business. He was always supportive. His death was the downfall of Warner Music. I ran into Michael Fuchs at a party once, and he was gloating. “We’re finally getting rid of you bandits,” and I answered, “If it wasn’t for us bandits, you wouldn’t have anything to take over.”

What did you think of Ahmet Ertegun?
The best all-around record man. He was in the studio with Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner. What class this guy had. He went from the Pierre demonstrating how to make curry to the gutter with some band up in San Francisco.

Steve Ross reportedly didn’t care for Ahmet.
And vice versa. The artists loved Ahmet, but he spent money like a madman. He was a real practical joker… I remember one NARM when Bob Stigwood rented out a boat, Ahmet hired these guys to paint it pink. He and Earl McGrath would go to Bloomingdale’s at Christmas time, pass themselves off as salesmen and send everyone to the wrong floor.

What was your take on David Geffen?
The three smartest people I’ve met in the entertainment business were Lew Wasserman, David Geffen and Michael Ovitz, who was my neighbor at the beach for 20 years. Ahmet was just below that group, because he could never run a big company like those three could. He’ll tell you, though, he learned everything about the music business from his brother, Nesuhi.

Did you ever take money to play a record when you were a disc jockey?
Sure, back in the day I did. It wasn’t really to play a record. Morris Levy would give me $50 to look favorably on his records. I testified at the payola hearings. I paid taxes on that money. Hy Weiss used to call it the $50 handshake. Dick Clark and Alan Freed testified, too.

What takes up your days?
I used to play golf, but I had a back operation and can’t do it anymore. I’m a big wine collector. The Lakers are a big part of our life when they’re in town. We go to about 35 games a year, a lot of social stuff with friends. Our kids are up in Montecito, so we visit them.

How would you summarize your skills?
I was a great promotion man. I was the outside guy and Mo was the inside guy. We both signed artists, but I would be out there hustling, taking them on the road, visiting radio with James Taylor, Hendrix and Black Sabbath. It was so loose back then. You never felt the chain of command. We stayed out of everyone’s way. That was one of the secrets of our success. When I got to Warner Bros., we had 18 employees with an office in the machine shop on the lot. After we bought Reprise, Mo joined me at Warner Bros. under Mike Maitland. At that time, Mo was being wooed by Jac Holzman and I was talking to RCA when Ahmet told Steve Ross that we were the company, that Maitland was just a salesman. Ted Ashley, the head of Warner Bros., asked if Mo and I wanted to run the label, and that was the end of Maitland. As his wife put it later, the Jews took him out.

And now your original interviews for the book can be heard in the Library of Congress.
You can hear all these great musicians talking freely. It was John Hammond who had the idea for me to do it, when I visited him in the hospital. “If not you, who?” he said. We did 200 interviews, more than 238 hours of tape. These are all the original, unedited recordings. You can hear Stan Getz talk about all the drugs he took and what a bastard he was. Woody Herman, Artie Shaw telling their stories. It turned out to be a fun thing to do. I can’t believe I met all those people over the course of two years.

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