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Joe Smith Dies: Record Executive Who Epitomized An Era As Head of Three Major Labels Was 91

Deadline — Bruce Haring
Joe Smith, a record executive who epitomized L.A. cool while heading up three major labels during some of the most fruitful moments in music business history, has died. He was 91. Smith was the head of Warner Bros. Records in the 1960s and into the 1970s, then moved to Elektra in the later 1970s and 1980s, before joining Capitol Records in the late 1980s and 1990s. He was part of the record business in the pre-multinational corporate era, a moment in time when decisions could be made based on instinct, great ears, and sound judgment.

As much as his talent for finding exciting new music was impressive, Smith was also known as a man about town. He was courtside at the Lakers games, gracing the town’s hottest restaurants, and always at the right places when a major act was showcasing. Throughout it all, he was a beloved figure in a business that saw too few of the good people in key roles.

Smith retired from Capitol-EMI in 1993. At the time, he told the The Los Angeles Times that he felt he was getting out at the right time. “Fifteen years ago we might have blithely gone ahead and done what we thought was right musically. 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…I see companies having meeting after meeting discussing long-range planning and strategy without the same kind of conclaves on where the music is going, where is it coming from and what should we be looking for.”

He added: “There’s no fun anymore.”

Smith also wrote a book, Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music, which featured major artist interviews and was celebrates for its deep appreciation for artistry.

Among the artists Smith was associated with during his long career was Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Jamey Taylor, Rod Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Queen, the Cars, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Motley Crue, Hank Williams Jr. and X.

Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Smith spent time in the military and then earned a degree from Yale, He became a radio DJ in Boston, then moved to the West Coast to work in promotion for Warner Bros. He became its president in 1972.

He joined Elektra/Asylum in 1975, but briefly retired, then returned to become the chairman and CEO of Capitol-EMI.
    rporations moved in,” he told the Los Angeles Times upon his Capitol retirement. “And to the extent that it’s become a bigger business, it’s become necessary to put people in charge who are more business-oriented than those of us who were very music-oriented. We’re very much like other businesses now. … Fifteen years ago we might have blithely gone ahead and done what we thought was right musically. 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.”

Beyond music, Smith appeared in several films, doing cameos in Jamboree, FM and One Trick Pony. He also was a prominent talking head in several music business documentaries.

He got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1975. No details on memorial plans have been announced.

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