When Columbia Records' legendary A&R executive John Hammond was hospitalized in the 1980s, Capitol Records' then-president Joe Smith visited and their conversation turned to the jazz artists they both loved. Smith asked if the recently departed Count Basie had ever been recorded discussing his work and music, and Hammond responded by asking his visitor to undertake a new mission: chronicling the creative life of musicians. Smith took the directive to heart, creating the book "Off the Record," which was published in 1988. Now, nearly 25 years later, Smith's unedited interviews with more than 200 artists for the book have been donated to the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress digitized all 238 hours of tapes that Smith recorded during the years he worked on the oral history, making the unabridged interviews accessible in its Capitol Hill reading room starting June 19. Later this year, some recordings will be streamed on loc.gov, and the newly named Joe Smith Collection - which would take 10 days to hear in its entirety - will be housed at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va. (Last year, Smith donated his papers to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which includes most of the research and correspondence used in compiling his book, but not the actual interview tapes.)
Smith, who ran Warner Bros. Records in the '60s and '70s before taking over at Elektra/Asylum, recorded candid conversations with an astounding array of stars, including Ray Charles, George Harrison, Paul Simon, Artie Shaw, Little Richard and Quincy Jones. (Unfortunately, Prince and Phil Spector turned Smith down.) All the interviews were greatly condensed for the book by editor Mitchell Fink, making this donation the first chance fans will get to hear much of the material, such as Barbra Streisand talking about her mother, Bob Dylan assessing the '60s and Les Paul describing his electric guitar designs.
Handing over the tapes, many of them unheard by Smith in their entirety, revived colorful memories about obtaining the artists' cooperation. "On one trip I got Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Robert Plant," says Smith, 84. "Barbra did it at [New York's] Essex House in a bathrobe. I went to Ella Fitzgerald's house in Beverly Hills and she needed help getting her stereo hooked up. So there I am, sprawled out on the floor, before taping her interview." James Brown was out on bail and wanted to talk mostly about God, and insisted that Smith sign two of his own artists to label deals before consenting to the interview.
Smith went to a studio to interview the Everly Brothers, and found Phil and Don in the middle of a fistfight. A slumbering Sting had to be dragged out of bed at a San Francisco hotel room. James Taylor, who Smith had signed, was shy and reserved even in front of the executive who had long championed his music. Another Smith signing, Van Morrison, insisted on being addressed as "Mr. Brown" in an empty London hotel lobby, where no one was around to recognize or accost him.
Smith says the Grateful Dead was his most significant signing while at Warner Bros. And years after he refused to ever accept a drink from any of the band members - "they were always trying to dose me," he says, referring to LSD - it was drummer Mickey Hart who suggested that Smith align with the Library of Congress.
In composing the book, Smith says his role model was Chicago author/broadcaster Studs Terkel, who wrote the 1974 occupational classic of nonfiction, "Working," that captured common Americans describing their careers in their own words.
"I was from the business, and I assured them I had no interest in embarrassing them," Smith recalls telling artists in order to get them to discuss their work. "In the end, I think I became a pretty good interviewer."••••