Joe Smith always walked around with a little bit of Chelsea in his stride. His smarts came from the streets and the classroom – he was the president of the Chelsea High School Class of 1945. Smith went on to Yale, served in the military, and drove out to Los Angeles where he became a seminal figure in the music industry. He eventually led three major record labels, and along the way signed dozens of artists ranging from Frank Sinatra, Allan Sherman, Jimi Hendrix, and James Taylor to the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Garth Brooks and the Eagles.
Smith died earlier this week at the age of 91.
Several years ago, I heard Smith was donating hundreds of hours of taped interviews he had conducted with most of the top music luminaries of the 20th century to the Library of Congress. He had included excerpts of those interviews in his book “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.” He invited me to visit him in his Beverly Hills home where he would discuss his career.
“The cassette tapes were sitting in my garage for over 20 years, and I wanted to do something with them,” he told me during an interview I did for the Boston Globe in 2012. Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead drummer, had heard about the tapes and suggested Smith donate them to the national library. The tapes, now digitized and online, include full interviews with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Buddy Rich, Little Richard, Jerry Garcia, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger and more than 200 other artists.
“Dylan, Streisand, Paul McCartney,” he told me, thumbing through a row of CDs that the collection had been transferred to. “I got them all to talk. Well, that’s pretty good.”
During our interview in his living room, he seemed eager to hear any news about his hometown. “How’s Bellingham Square?” he wanted to know. While he had spent years rubbing elbows with the world’s greatest musicians, Chelsea was never far from his thoughts: “Chelsea is a part of me, it will always be.”
He also wanted to know if you could still find good Chinese food in Boston’s Chinatown. “I used to have Sammy Davis Jr. over here for dinners, and we’d fly in a chef from Chinatown because he loved Boston’s Chinese food,” he said.
Smith told me that most of the common sense he used to sign artists and navigate the competitive music industry had come from the streets of Chelsea. The son of a bookie, Smith was a Chelsea newsboy as a child, and hawked the Boston Globe on downtown corners. As a top disc jockey in Boston in the 1950s, he even had his own theme song, “We’re Gonna Rock With Joe Smith.”
Our conversation went on for three hours, and Smith patiently discussed his improbable rise from a Chelsea schoolboy to one of the top figures of the music industry. For decades, he’d return for his old high school reunions until nearly all of his childhood friends had passed. As record sales dropped, and music became available for free he decided to retire. “I quit in 1993 because the industry had changed,” he said. By then he had led Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol-EMI.
Smith said that because of different management styles – which focused on carefully crafting superstars – stars such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and the Grateful Dead would not be signed today because they didn’t fit the corporate mold.
“First of all, the corporate would want a business plan. They’d hear the Grateful Dead and they’d say, ‘What’s this about? How many do you expect to sell, what kind of profit can we make on this?’” he said. “This is a different business altogether and different kinds of artists make it, and there are still great artists, obviously, but nowhere near the numbers, nowhere near the creative world that was out there during that period.”