Joe Smith, a record industry stalwart who worked with an array of artists like the Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, the Eagles, the Cars and more, has died, Billboard reports. Smith’s son confirmed his death, although a cause was not given. He was 91.
Smith oversaw three labels during his career, first working his way up from the promotions department to president of Warner Bros. in 1972. Three years later, he was at Elektra/Asylum then, after a brief stint as president of the Recording Academy, he took over as president and CEO of Capitol-EMI in 1987. Smith worked with some of the most notable artists of the second half of the 20th century, and famously used his connections and expertise to craft the exhaustive 1988 book, Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music (he later donated the 238 hours of interviews he conducted to the Library of Congress).
Smith grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, served in the military, graduated from Yale and began his career as a Boston DJ before starting at Warner Bros. in the early Sixties. At the time, as Smith recalled to Variety in 2015, Warner Bros. was still stuck in the previous decade, but it was Smith and his colleagues who helped overhaul the label. He first saw success with the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, but Smith’s most crucial signing was the Grateful Dead. “[W]e were changing from the Petula Clark-Frank Sinatra company to what was happening in music,” Smith said.
During his tenure overseeing Warner and its sister label, Reprise, Smith worked with era-defining acts like Van Morrison, Black Sabbath, James Taylor, the Allman Brothers Band, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Neil Young. When he jumped to Elektra/Asylum, replacing an outgoing David Geffen, his hot streak continued as he oversaw an eclectic roster that included Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Queen, the Cars, Carly Simon, Mötley Crüe, Hank Williams, Jr. and X.
After leaving Elektra/Asylum, Smith entered semi-retirement, holding jobs at the Recording Academy and Warner Cable, before ultimately returning to take over Capitol/EMI, which was floundering at the outset of the CD era. There, he turned the label around by resigning his old Warner client, Bonnie Raitt, and helping her complete her comeback with 1989’s Grammy-winning Nick of Time. Smith also worked with Garth Brooks, personally sitting with the artist to renegotiate his Capitol Records Nashville contract in 1992 just as the country star’s career was getting underway.
Smith officially retired from the music business in 1993, and in an interview with the Los Angeles Times at the time, he lamented the continued corporatization of the music industry. “Fifteen years ago we might have blithely gone ahead and done what we thought was right musically,” he said. “Today there are bound to be some business considerations applied, and to an extent that hurts music because you don’t know what you’re missing.”
To that end, Smith also spoke about what drew him to the business in the first place saying, “I’m in awe of the creative process. I can’t do it. 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 the room to make a mistake, or make a bad record, and do something else — I think I like that.”