More than 25 years ago, retired music executive Joe Smith accomplished a Herculean feat—he got more than 200 celebrated singers, musicians and industry icons to talk about their lives, music, experiences and contemporaries. The Library of Congress announced today that Smith has donated this treasure trove of unedited sound recordings to the nation’s library.
The list of noted artists and executives is a veritable who’s who in the music industry. They include Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Elton John, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Sting, Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, James Taylor, Dick Clark, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, B. B. King, Quincy Jones, David Geffen, Mickey Hart, Harry Belafonte and many others. All types of popular music are represented—from rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, rhythm & blues and pop to big-band, heavy metal, folk and country-western.
While president of Capitol Records/EMI, Smith recorded 238 hours of interviews over two years, excerpts of which he compiled and presented in his groundbreaking book, “Off the Record,” published by Warner Books in 1988. These candid and unabridged interviews have been digitized by the Library and initially will be accessible in its Capitol Hill reading room. Some of the recordings also will be streamed on the Library’s website (www.loc.gov) later this year.
The Joe Smith Collection is an invaluable addition to the Library’s comprehensive collection of recorded sound,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “These frank and poignant oral histories of many of the nation’s musical icons give us unique insights into them as artists, entertainers and human beings. The world knows these great musicians through their songs, but Joe Smith has provided us an intimate window into their lives through their own words.
”Smith’s career in music started in the 1950s at the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Following his graduation from Yale, Smith worked as a sportscaster and later as a disc jockey at WMEX and WBZ in Boston. He transitioned into record promotions when he moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and rose to legendary status in the industry as president of three major labels—Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol/EMI. Smith signed such notable artists as the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.
His relationship with the industry’s creative community over four decades enabled him to compile a history of popular music by presenting the artists’ stories in their own voices. One critic wrote that “Joe Smith has done what no historian, musician, pop critic or rock writer has been able to do. He’s compiled a history of popular music, ranging from the big bands of the ‘20s to the chart-toppers of today … a paper jukebox that’s chock-full of pop.”
A couple of decades following the success of his book, Smith (now 84) envisioned sharing his original unabridged interviews with scholars, researchers and the American public. “In recent years, it dawned on me that, if anything, the significance of recollections from Jerry Lee Lewis, Mick Jagger, Smokey Robinson, Ahmet Ertegun, Herb Alpert, Ruth Brown and all the other notables I was fortunate enough to interview, are truly part of the fabric of our cultural history,” said Smith. “I wanted to share this treasure trove with any and all who might be interested. The Library of Congress is, clearly, the venue most appropriate and best equipped to do just that now and into the future. I hope that generations to come will benefit from hearing the voices of these brilliant artists and industry luminaries recounting their personal histories. I'm just thrilled that the Library of Congress has agreed to preserve and safeguard these audio artifacts.”
As an insider, Smith connected with the artists on a personal level, leading to some interesting revelations.
• Bo Diddley talking about his own death
• Mickey Hart’s revealing story about his father
• Steven Tyler’s problems with drug addiction
• Peter Frampton’s short-lived popularity
• Bob Dylan’s surprising assessment of the turbulent ‘60s
• David Bowie’s description of Mick Jagger as conservative
• Paul McCartney’s frank admission of professional superiority
• Les Paul’s creation of an electric guitar in 1929
• Motown’s restrictive work environment
• Herb Jeffries’ and Dave Brubeck’s recollections of working in a racially segregated society
The recordings in the Joe Smith Collection will be housed in the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va., a state-of-the-art facility that was made possible through the generosity of David Woodley Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute, with benefaction from the U.S. Congress. The Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division’s collections include nearly 3 million sound recordings.
Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. The Library seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its website at www.loc.gov.