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Joe Smith, Career-Making Record Executive, Is Dead at 91 Print-ready version

by Ben Sisario
New York Times
December 4, 2019

Joe Smith, third from left, in 1972 with members of the Grateful Dead (from left, Keith Godchaux, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia and Ron McKernan, a.k.a. Pigpen). Mr. Smith signed the band to Warner Bros. Records in 1966.Credit...Warner Music Group Archives

He spanned musical eras in presiding, all told, over three major labels, nurturing acts from Peter, Paul and Mary to the Grateful Dead to Queen.

Joe Smith, who presided over three major record companies in a career that stretched from the early days of rock 'n' roll to the CD boom of the 1990s, died on Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 91.

His family announced the death.

Mr. Smith led Warner Bros. and Elektra/Asylum in the 1970s and revitalized the Capitol label in the 1980s. A list of the hundreds of artists he worked with reflects the changing nature of pop over the course of his career, from Petula Clark and Peter, Paul and Mary to the Grateful Dead, Black Sabbath, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Queen, the Cars and Mötley Crüe.

He was associated especially closely with Garth Brooks and with Bonnie Raitt, whom he signed twice - first to Warner Bros., in 1971, and later to Capitol, for the commercial breakthrough that began in 1989 with her album "Nick of Time."

In a statement, Ms. Raitt praised Mr. Smith for his patient support as her career developed - a trait long attributed to Warner Bros. under the leadership of Mr. Smith and Mo Ostin, the label's longtime chairman.

"In a business that became more preoccupied with short-term profits and commercial viability," she said, "what 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."

Within the business, Mr. Smith was known as a sharp-tongued wit. After becoming president of Elektra/Asylum in 1975, he met with employees and was told, without much enthusiasm, about a forthcoming song "by this group Queen that lasts about six minutes." It was called "Bohemian Rhapsody."

As Mr. Smith recounted in "History of the Music Biz: The Mike Sigman Interviews," a 2016 collection published by the industry magazine Hits, he gave the staff an order that would not have been out of place in the movie "Glengarry Glen Ross," about the pressure-cooker world of small-time real estate salesmen.

"I called the Elektra promotion guys and said: 'We've having a contest. First prize is you can keep your job. Second prize, you're gone, because I want this record on the radio,'" Mr. Smith recalled saying, inserting an angry expletive.

During the 1980s, Mr. Smith took on a personal project to document musicians' stories of their own careers. Inspired by the oral histories of Studs Terkel, he conducted more than 200 interviews with artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Paul McCartney and George Michael. Excerpts were collected in a book, "Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music" (1988). In 2012 he donated the tapes of the interviews to the Library of Congress.

Joseph Benjamin Smith was born in Boston on Jan. 26, 1928, to Phil and Lil Smith and raised nearby in Chelsea, Mass. After graduating from high school in 1945, he joined the Army, serving in the occupation forces at Okinawa.

He attended Yale and, after graduating, became a popular D.J. in Boston. In 1960 he testified at the congressional hearings on payola, although he himself was unscathed by that scandal. He joined Warner Bros. in 1961 as its national promotion manager and eventually became the label's general manager and, in 1972, its president.

When he joined Warner Bros., its biggest names were Bob Newhart and the Everly Brothers. But by the mid-1960s the label, along with most other major ones, was racing to capitalize on the success of rock.

In late 1966, Mr. Smith signed the Grateful Dead to a deal that gave the band an unusual degree of control over its music and packaging. The band encouraged Mr. Smith to take LSD to fully understand their music; he declined.

During his tenure at Elektra/Asylum, the label's roster of singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell expanded to include new wave and punk bands like the Cars and X.

In 1983, Mr. Smith left Elektra/Asylum to become president of Home Sports Entertainment, a regional television network operated by Warner Amex Cable Communications, a joint venture between Warner Communications and American Express.

In 1986, he was named president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Grammy Awards, but his tenure was brief; late that year he became vice chairman and chief executive of Capitol-EMI, whose flagship label, Capitol, had been ailing for years.

Under Mr. Smith, the label's fortunes quickly turned around. Ms. Raitt's "Nick of Time" sold more than five million copies and won three Grammy Awards, including album of the year. He also pushed the label to promote a young artist on its Nashville imprint: Garth Brooks.

Mr. Smith's son, Jeff, recalled in an email how his father gave the order: "He asked what the unit's total budget was, then told the fellow that that amount was now the Garth Brooks promotional budget."

A few years later, Mr. Smith and Mr. Brooks met at Capitol's headquarters in Hollywood to renegotiate Mr. Brooks's contract one on one. "No manager, no agent, nobody," Mr. Smith recalled in "75 Years of Capitol Records," a company-authorized book published in 2016.

In 2000, Capitol announced that Mr. Brooks had sold 100 million albums.

In addition to his son, Mr. Smith is survived by his wife, Donnie; his daughter, Julie Kellner; and two grandchildren.

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