Joe Smith is one of Chelsea’s greatest success stories.
He grew up on Bellingham Street, served as president of the Class of 1945 at Chelsea High School – and became one of the most respected executives in the history of the music industry.
Smith presided over three giant record labels, Warner Brothers, Elektra/Asylum, and Capitol Records, during his remarkable career.
And now the 84-year-old resident of Beverly Hills, California is sharing his illustrious connection to music legends through a donation to the Library of Congress of a series of tape-recorded interviews that he conducted in 1986 to 1988 for his book, “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.”
The New York Daily News called Smith’s work, “one of the most compelling entertainment books ever written.”
Smith’s foresight to save the historic interviews for posterity and the generous donation to the Library of Congress led to appearances on NBC-TV, CBS-TV, and CNN. Smith has also been featured in the pages of the Los Angeles and the New York Times.
“In the book I had to cut the interview down to two pages but everybody talked to me for over an hour,” said Smith.
Smith’s interview subjects can be summed up in one word: superstars. The list of legends includes Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, and Billy Joel.
“Bob Dylan was an important interview and McCartney was good, too,” said Smith. “But they all had some kind of interesting story to tell. Dylan said he didn’t think the 1960s were that important and he wasn’t a nostalgic person and he didn’t look back. I said to him, ‘you were the king of the sixties and he said, ‘Nah.’’
About McCartney, a music genius from the Beatles who still commands stages, Smith said, “Paul told the story of when they recording “Sgt. Pepper” for the first time, they tried some dope and they smoked some cigarettes and it was a very interesting experience.”
Smith donated 200 tapes of the interviews to the Library of Congress.
“They’ll be putting the tapes online by the end of this year so you’ll be able to listen to all of them,” said Smith. “It’s kind of a kick for me at this stage of my life and career that these things should happen him.
Smith was running Capitol Records at the time of his interviews. “So in my spare time I went out and talked to David Bowie and everybody else,” related Smith.
Smith was inspired to undertake the book project after visiting record producer John Hammond in the hospital.
“I went to see him and we talked about Count Basie who had just died that week and I wondered if anyone got him on tape talking about his life,” said Smith.
Hammond suggested that no one was in a more prominent position or held greater stature in the industry than Smith to talk to the all-time greats.
“So I went out on the road and started the interviews with big band guys Artie Shaw and Woody Herman and then on to rock and roll people like Bo Didley and Roy Orbison. I not only talked to artists but producers and managers and promoters.”
Smith tried to get an interview with Frank Sinatra, one of the biggest stars of the 20th century. Smith and Sinatra enjoyed a cordial and professional relationship for 15 years. Smith also recorded daughter Nancy Sinatra’s mega-hit, “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”
“I’m running Frank Sinatra’s record company and he won’t do an interview with me because he has been assassinated by Kitty Kelly in a book and he didn’t want to do any more interviews for a book,” said Smith. “It’s strange because two years later Frank and I were together and he asked me if I wanted him to do that interview. I said to him, ‘I’d love to talk to you, Frank, but the book’s been out for two years.”
Music memorabilia collectors no doubt would have waged a major-league bidding battle for Smith’s historic tape collection. Some have even suggested the price could have reached millions of dollars.
But Smith chose to donate them free of charge to the Library of Congress that is located in Washington, D.C.
“The Library of Congress is a great institution,” said Smith. “I recommend that people take a visit. It’s an amazing place.”
Smith has received numerous awards for his philanthropic endeavors and is an inducted in to many music halls of fame.
He has fond memories of his days in Chelsea.
“I was class president in 1945, went to school with Choc Glazer and Nate Finklestein,” recalled Smith with vigor. “We had such a good time as students at Chelsea High. It was a wonderful city and it still is. As president I went to the class reunions. Chelsea played a big part in all of our lives. There’s a great unity among Chelsea people.”
He attended Prattville School and Shurtleff School, where was president of the ninth grade. After graduating from Chelsea High School, Smith served in the United States Army during World War II. He attended Yale University and graduated in 1950. At Yale, he roomed with William Buckley and was friends with former President George Bush.
Smith worked for the Yale college radio station and became a disk jockey for a country music station in Petersburg, Virginia. He was a disk jockey for ten years before he moved to California and started a job at Warner Brothers.
He eventually became the president of Warner Brothers, chairman of Electra/Asylum, and president of Capitol Records.
“The biggest record sales I had was with Garth Brooks,” said Smith. “I signed Garth Brooks and he sold more records than anybody. I also had the Eagles’ Greatest Hits Album which was up there with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album as the two biggest of all time.”
He and his wife, Donnie, reside in Beverly Hills. “I’ve been living here for 50 years and I like it,” said Smith, who added that he hopes to get back to Chelsea one day soon.