Joe Smith, a legendary record executive who signed the Grateful Dead and helmed three labels, including as president and CEO of Capitol-EMI Music, has died. He was 91. His son confirmed his death to Billboard.
Smith, who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015, worked closely with a number of artists, including Bonnie Raitt, whom he signed while president at Warner Bros. Records in the ‘70s and then brought to Capitol and was part of her comeback in the late ‘80s, including her multiple Grammy winner 1989’s Nick of Time.
“So sorry to mark the passing of my friend and record company mentor, Joe Smith. For signing me to Warner Bros. Records in 1971 and then to Capitol Records in 1989, I own both my start and later career breakthrough to Joe,” Raitt tells Billboard. “Aside from being one of the most beloved and respected executives in the music business, his support of the more non-mainstream artists like Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, The Meters, Little Feat and myself, was what drew me to Warners in the first place. In a business that become more preoccupied with short term profits and commercial viability, whish set Joe apart is that he believed in supporting artists for the long haul, allowing us to stretch and grow at our own pace and direction. Giving me that second chance for Nick of Time has made all the difference in my life and career. He was a dear friend and one of the least phony, most warmhearted and loyal people any of us in the business will be blessed to know. My sincere condolences to [Smith’s wife] Donnie and all his beautiful family.”
“Joe Smith was in the record business for one reason: to bring a sense of business to the art and bring a sense of the artist to the business. Good man,” Brooks told Billboard upon learning of Smith’s death. Smith and Brooks famously renegotiated Brooks’ Capitol Records Nashville contract one-on-one in 1992 alone in Smith’s Los Angeles office as the superstar’s career exploded.
Smith grew up in Chelsea, Mass. and attended Yale University. He worked as a DJ at several radio stations, including stints at WMEX and WILD Boston, for which the Valentines recorded an impossibly catchy doo-wop theme song, “You Gotta Rock with Joe Smith.” For Smith’s 85th birthday, his longtime friend Bob Merlis has LA a capella group The Mighty Echoes surprise him with a live rendition.
His first label job in the early ’60s was as a promo man for Warner Bros. It was in that capacity that he saw the Grateful Dead in the mid-’60s in San Francisco. I “saw the Grateful Dead one night at an unforgettable evening at the Avalon,” he said in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview. “I’d never seen anything like that, never seen a light show, people sitting around on the floor.” (He added in the interview that he repeatedly turned down the band’s then managers’ entreaties to drop acid with them.). Smith became president of the label in 1972, working with acts as diverse as Van Morrison, Carl Reiner, Black Sabbath, James Taylor and the Allman Bros. Band, as well as sister label Reprise Records artists like Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
He reveled in a time when music men ran the labels and putting artistry first in the era before corporations snapped up the major labels and quarterly profits because a leading factor in decision making. As he told Billboard in 2014 when he received the Clive Davis Visionary Award at the 2014 Billboard Power 100 event. “At Warner Bros., we made more money than the movie or the television people, so we had a lot of clout, so we could go out and take shots. My partner Mo Ostin and our [Warner Communications] associates Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen and Jac Holzman, we followed our instinct. We talked to our people…and we didn’t have to go to corporate. Our bosses in New York said, ‘Hey, come to us if you have any problems, but meanwhile run the company.’ That doesn’t happen anymore.”
He moved to Elektra/Asylum as chairman in 1975 and for the next eight years aided the careers of The Eagles, Browne, Queen, Linda Ronstadt and Motley Crue. He left Elektra/Asylum and in 1983 became president and CEO of Warner Cable’s Home Sport Entertainment before becoming president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (now known as The Recording Academy).
He returned to label life in 1987, at Capitol-EMI, rising to president &CEO before his retirement in 1993. Following his departure from Capitol-EMI, he worked with World Cup Soccer, including securing The Three Tenors for World Cup USA in 1994. He was also well known as an artists’ advocate in the halls of Congress.
In 2012, the Library of Congress acquired more than 200 hours of interviews conducted by Smith for his 1985 book, Off the Record: An Oral History of Pop Music, a collection of interviews with more than 200 artists, producers and executives, including Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Dick Clark, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, B.B. King and Quincy Jones.
A gifted raconteur, Smith became known as a toastmaster extraordinaire, hosting industry events for more than 40 years. As he modestly told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, if he had to toast himself, he’d laud his ability to encourage talent. “I’m very proud of that, because I’m in awe of the creative process…I can’t write and sing and perform, but I’ve been involved with music all my adult life and to know that I maybe have pushed somebody in the right direction, or gave ’em room to make a mistake, or make a bad record, and do something else– I think I like that.”
Smith is survived by Donnie, his wife of 62 years, as well as his son and daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.