Chelsea Native Joe Smith, Legendary Music Executive

Special to the Record

Joe Smith, the legendary music executive who headed three major labels over the course of a career that started at the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era, has died.  Family members including Donnie Smith, his wife of 62 years, were at this side when he passed away on the morning of December 2.  For decades he was the industry’s “go-to guy” for scores of record business-supported charity events at which he served as emcee and “roastmaster.” Thanks to his quick wit and gregarious nature, his remarks were often the highlight of hundreds of industry functions.

A native of Chelsea MA, Smith was elected President of the Chelsea High School Class of 1945 before serving in Asia with the US Army Infantry.  Thereafter, taking advantage of the GI bill, he received a BA from Yale University. Following his graduation from Yale in 1950 he pursued a career in broadcasting and transitioned from sports caster to disc jockey, spending thousands of hours on the air at WMEX and WVDA in Boston, maintaining personal relationships with rock and roll stars whose records turned into hits.

His theme song, performed by The Valentines, was “We’re Gonna Rock With Joe Smith.”

He moved to Los Angeles in 1961 where he joined Warner Bros. Records as National Promotion Manager. He became the company’s President in 1972 and worked with a stellar roster of artists including Peter, Paul & Mary, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Alan Sherman, The Grateful Dead, Don Rickles, Van Morrison, Alice Cooper, Bonnie Raitt, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Petula Clark, The Doobie Brothers and Little Feat.  

At Warner Bros., he produced The 2013 Year Old Man, the 1973 sequel to The 2000 Year Old Man  album by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. 

He moved over to Elektra/Asylum Records in 1975 as Chairman. The roster of artists there included Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Queen, The Cars, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Grover Washington Jr., Mötley Crüe, X, and Hank Williams Jr.

In 1983, he was named President and CEO of Home Sports Entertainment, a division of Warner Cable. Following this, he became the first full-time President of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

During this time, he appeared in motion pictures FM and One Trick Pony.  He came back to the music industry on a full-time basis in 1987 as President and CEO of Capitol-EMl Music. During his tenure there, the company registered record profits from such artists as Garth Brooks, Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, MC Hammer, Bob Seger, David Bowie, Poison, and others.  While at Captiol, he oversaw the revitalization of the Blue Note label. Joe Smith’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located in front of the Capitol Records Tower on Vine Street; both Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne spoke at his induction ceremony.

Keenly aware of the music industry’s role in 20th century American culture, he sought to document the recollections of many of its key creative players in “Off The Record.” Smith’s book is based on interviews conducted with more than 230 artists, producers, managers and executives including Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, David Bowie, Stan Getz, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison and Dick Clark, Those audio interviews were donated to the American people in 2012 and now comprise The Joe Smith Collection at the Library of Congress.

Upon his retirement from Capitol-EMI at the end of 1993, Smith assumed Executive Producer responsibilities to the World Cup Soccer tournament, where he was hired as executive producer of entertainment for World Cup USA in 1994, the first time the world’s soccer championship was held in the United States. The tournament was crowned with a Dodger Stadium appearance by The Three Tenors that Smith facilitated.

Joe Smith is survived by his son Jeff Smith, daughter-in-law Amy Jo Smith and grandchild Lila Smith as well as daughter Julie Kellner, son-in-law Jamie Kellner and grandchild Christopher Kellner.

Joe Smith was inducted into both the Doo Wop and  Philadelphia Music Halls of Fame and received the Boston Music Lifetime Achievement Award.  He was recipient of Billboard’s Clive Davis Visionary Award and has been honored by the City of Hope and B’nai Brith and was granted an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.

He served as Vice President of the Country Music Association, President of the Record Industry for Community Relations and as a board member of the Recording Industry Association of America as well as the Black Music Association. He has served as an officer or director of the City of Hope, Cedars-Sinai Hospital, TJ Martell Foundation, Variety Club and the Neil Bogart Memorial Lab. He served as a Trustee of the California Institute of the Arts, Yale School of Music, the Basketball Hall of Fame, Magic Johnson Foundation, Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the Museum of Science and Industry.

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