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THE HAPPY WARRIOR OF THE RECORD BUSINESS

I was not cool enough to know Joe Smith in his glory days in the ’60s and ’70s, when he and Mo Ostin made Warner Bros. the coolest and most successful American record company. From a distance, I was in awe of what Michael Des Barres recently referred to as Joe’s “severe nonchalance.” He was a happy warrior with a unique ability to internalize the most cynical side of the record business (Joe’s roast-like remarks at a dinner honoring Morris Levy are a classic), with an openness to cutting-edge creativity. He usually wore a suit and tie and never grew his hair long to pander to hippies, but there was nobody cooler. Joe was the the one who went to Haight-Ashbury in 1967 and signed The Grateful Dead to Warner, even though he cheerfully declined to take acid with them.

By the time Joe became Chairman of Elektra Records in the early ’80s, I was far enough along in the business to get meetings with him, and he was still willing to balance a fiercely pragmatic business sense with cutting-edge risk-taking. Against all odds, I got him to sign jazz/fusion innovator Jan Hammer, and Joe never complained about losing money on the deal.

My fondest memory of him is when Ron Stone and I pitched Joe on Bonnie Raitt after Warner dropped her in 1987. Her sales had declined to one-tenth of what they’d been years earlier; she was about to turn 40, and 14 record-company presidents had already passed. Joe had just become Chairman of Capitol Records. He was literally our last chance, and he made it easy. “Sure. Let’s do it. I always liked her.” Done. No demos, no audition, no awkward meeting with the artist, no checking with business affairs, no lecture about making a “commercial” record. If ever there was a signing “from the gut,” this was it. And Joe created a climate with his A&R department that let Bonnie use Don Was as a producer, a decision which today sounds like a no-brainer—but at the time Don had never produced an entire album.

A couple of years later, we were celebrating at Capitol’s Grammy party after Bonnie’s Nick Of Time had won four awards, including Album of the Year. “She has no idea what just happened to her,” Joe said with an exuberant grin on his face. “For the rest of her life, there are going to be pictures of Bonnie Raitt next to the word ‘Grammy.’”

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