One of the greatest music executives of all time. The toastmaster general. A multifaceted renaissance man, raconteur and wine connoisseur. Loving and devoted husband and father.
Those are just a few of the many sentiments echoed by artists, music industry executives, friends and family alike during the Celebration of Joe Smith’s Wonderful Life in Beverly Hills (March 3). Smith, the legendary record label executive who presided over Warner Bros. Records, Elektra/Asylum and Capitol-EMI Music—signing the Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt and others along the way—died Dec. 2, 2019 at the age of 91. Raitt, Jackson Browne, Garth Brooks, Eagles, James Taylor and Mel Brooks were among the luminaries who paid tribute to Smith by word and song during the 90-minute memorial.
“There are some things that go without saying—Joe Smith was a great executive,” said former Warner Bros. chairman/CEO Mo Ostin, the afternoon’s first speaker. Recalling moments in their storied executive partnership that “made my life better and built Warner Bros. into what it became,” Ostin talked about how his signing of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Smith’s signing of the Grateful Dead helped turn the label into a significant industry player “in a flash.”
“Warner Bros. wasn’t just Connie Stevens and Trini Lopez [anymore],” Ostin continued. “We were building with artists that changed music and the business.”
Held inside the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the memorial service was hosted by Smith’s son Jeff Smith. As guests including MC Hammer, Bonnie Raitt, Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein, the Avant family (Clarence Avant, wife Jackie Avant and daughter Nicole Avant) took their seats, they were treated to a slide show celebrating Smith’s well-lived life.
Photos with everyone from Rod Stewart, Richard Pryor, Frank Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt to Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond, Berry Gordy and Clive Davis chronicled his career legacy and love of music/entertainment. Shots with Bill Russell, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Pat Riley, Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson underscored his deep love of basketball—especially the Los Angeles Lakers. And a host of pictures from his childhood to raising his own son and daughter with Donnie, his wife of 62 years, bore witness to his love of family.
Smith was also known for his sharp wit which Irving Azoff, a longtime friend and The Azoff Company chairman/CEO, talked about during his humorous recollections. “He was nicknamed the ‘Toastmaster General,’” Azoff recalled of Smith’s lending his comedic skill as host of various industry events during his nearly 40 years in the music business. “I do believe he invented the roast. I remember he introduced me once as Mr. Warmth.”
Continued Azoff, “But before the Odd Couple was written, there was the Mo & Joe Show. They were the classiest people. And through the years Joe became my close friend and mentor. They don’t make ‘em like Joe anymore.”
While a video titled No Ordinary Joe further detailed the diverse course of Smith’s life, Jeff Smith also shared biographical tidbits about his dad. For instance, Joe Smith was his real name; when he played football while attending Yale on the G.I. bill, his nickname quickly became “Sideline Joe”; the first artist he signed was Petula Clark and her first single was the hit “Downtown”; and his savviness as a “great listener” that resulted in his signing “James Taylor and Black Sabbath within months of each other.” Noted Jeff later, “Julie [his sister] and I hit the lottery when we got Joe Smith as a dad.”
Jazz saxophonist Dave Koz’s heartwarming interpretation of “God Bless America” was the first of several moving musical tributes. The Mighty Echoes, an a cappella doo-wop quartet from L.A., paid homage to Smith’s early career as a popular Boston DJ with a lively take on his radio show theme song, “You Gotta Rock with Joe Smith.” America segued into a pristine performance of its gem “A Horse With No Name” after member Dewey Bunnell recalled Smith and the Warner Bros. team taking the folk rock band under their wing when the group first came to L.A. in 1972. “It’s been wonderful having Joe in our lives,” said Bunnell.
Also extolling Smith’s support, encouragement and understanding of artists, Raitt and Jackson Brown gave a riveting performance of the latter’s “World in Motion.” Explained Browne of the pair’s decision to play this particular song, “This is defiant, full of energy and belief in the future in spite of the present.” Added Raitt, “And on primary day.”
Fellow music industry legend Clive Davis as well as stars Garth Brooks, James Taylor and the Eagles shared memories of Smith via video. Singling out the late executive’s unique laugh, sharp eyes and ears and storytelling ability, Davis said, “We competed mightily. But I never felt the competition was mean-spirited or unfair. Respect ruled the day.” The touring Eagles dedicated “Best of My Love” to Smith during the band’s Feb. 29 concert in Dallas. “Joe Smith was a force in music and a well-loved music executive,” said member Don Henley before the band began playing. “And you don’t frequently hear those two things together.”
Taking the Wallis Annenberg Center stage to raucous applause was another Brooks—producer/director Mel. The two worked together when Smith produced The 2013 Year Old Man, the 1973 sequel to Brooks and Carl Reiner’s ‘60s comedy routine The 2000 Year Old Man. “Joe was terrific; unusually aware and hip,” Brooks recalled. “He knew what was right. And I never missed an invite to dinner because he always brought a bottle of something amazing.”
Smith’s widow Donnie thanked family, friends and colleagues before inviting everyone to join the family at a reception immediately following the memorial because “you have all been part of the fabric of Joe’s life.” Fittingly, guests got the chance to taste one of Smith’s favorite wines: a 31-year-old Bordeaux from Chateau Lynch-Bages, Grand Cru Classé Pauillac.