Joe Smith with Richard Perry
photo: Sandy Gibson
The Joe Smith Collection at the Library of Congress
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. In 2012 Smith donated this treasure trove of unedited sound recordings to the nation’s library.
The Joe Smith Collection contains over 225 recordings of noted artists and executives and is a veritable who’s who in the music industry. They include Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, 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 are accessible in the Recorded Sound Research Center.
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
According to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, "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."
The Recorded Sound Research Center is located in the Library’s Madison Building, Room LM113, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C. Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.