by Tim Newcomb
If you want an inside scoop on some of the biggest names in the music business over the last half century, you’ll need someone with inside access. Joe Smith, 84, former president of Capitol Records/EMI, had plenty of interaction with music’s superstars—and now he sharing it with everyone in the nation.
The now-retired executive will donate more than 200 audio interviews with famed musicians—including U2’s Bono, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand—that were compiled as part of his 1988 book, Off the Record.
“I was an insider,” Smith said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I could get to Mick Jagger when somebody from the press could not, and I could get to Barbra Streisand when most people could not get to her.”
The digitized audio files will go to the Library of Congress, part of nearly 3 million sound recordings in the library, located at the Packard Campus for Audio visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va., with duplicates also heading to the Yale School of Music, California Institute of the Arts and Berkeley College. Researchers can lend their ear to the interviews at the library’s reading room on Capitol Hill and portions may even be streamed on the library’s website later this year.
James Billington, Librarian of Congress, says the gift provides an “intimate look into the lives of some of the great musicians.”
“The Joe Smith Collection is an invaluable addition to the Library’s comprehensive collection of recorded sound,” Billington says in a statement. “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.”
Smith’s career started in the 1950s, following graduation from Yale, and he worked as a sportscaster and disc jockey in Boston until he moved into record promotions in Los Angeles. His oral histories run the gamut from the big bands of the ’20s right up to current musicians.
“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 in a statement. “I wanted to share this treasure trove with any and all who might be interested.”
On the recordings, Smith was able to get Steven Tyler to discuss drug addiction, Bob Dylan to describe the ’60s, McCartney to admit his professional superiority and a host of other stories for notable names. He recounts one where he convinced The Eagles to create a live album after he was able to answer one question: Who were the Baltimore Orioles’ four 20-game winners in 1971? He answered Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson and got his record. And now we all get to listen in.
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