Having worked in the music industry since the early 1960s and risen to become president and chief executive of Capitol-EMI, Joe Smith, who has died aged 91, quit the business in 1993. He said he regretted that it was “no fun any more” and was run by people “who are more business-oriented than those of us who were very music-oriented”.
Smith could console himself that he had helped to bring about revolutionary changes during his career. In 1961 he went to Los Angeles to work in promotion for Warner Bros, at a time when its big acts included the comedy dance band Ira Ironstrings and singing celebrities such as Connie Stevens. He described the label at that time as “dumbfoundingly dull”.
Smith lit the fuse on a cultural revolution when he met the Grateful Dead in San Francisco in 1966. Smith recalled that he was “wearing a Bank of America suit with a white shirt and tie” when he found himself in what he compared to “a Fellini scene at the Avalon Ballroom – people painting their bodies and light shows”. Stoutly resisting attempts by the Dead’s managers to dose him with LSD, he realised that this was a band Warner Bros needed to sign, to grasp the zeitgeist. “They were one of the two or three most important signings in all those years,” he said. “It changed the nature and the opinion of the record company … We became hip.”
In 1968 Smith pulled off another coup by signing Van Morrison, whose contract at Bang Records had fallen into the hands of the mobster Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia. Smith bought out the contract by taking $20,000 in cash to an abandoned Manhattan warehouse. He described Morrison as “a hateful little guy”, though considered that “he’s the best rock’n’roll voice out there”.
At Warners, Smith (who was appointed company president in 1972) worked with a powerful roster of influential artists including Alice Cooper, Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Little Feat and (through a subsidiary label, Reprise) Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix and Randy Newman. In 1975 he took over as chairman of Elektra/Asylum (part of the Warner Communications group). Smith now shepherded Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, the Cars and Mötley Crüe, and enjoyed massive success with the Eagles.
This was not without its problems. The Eagles’ chief songwriters, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, were fiercely protective of their work and were backed up by their formidable manager Irving Azoff. He had leverage since, even before their pinnacle with Hotel California (1977), the Eagles accounted for 57% of the record label’s gross takings. “Every time the Eagles put out a record, Irving renegotiated their royalties,” Smith recounted. “Holding back a record might represent $35m, $40m lost in billing.”
Nonetheless Smith pulled off a major coup by releasing Eagles – Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), which sold a million copies in its first week and went on to sell more than 40m worldwide. In 2018 it was declared the biggest-selling album of all time in the US, even though Henley grumbled that it was merely a “forced and hideous marriage of art and commerce”.
In 1980, Smith triumphed again by persuading the Eagles to release a live album. Frey said the group would only agree if he could answer a baseball trivia question about the Baltimore Orioles. Spurred by the promise of a colossal payday, Smith gave the right answer, and Eagles Live went on to sell 8m copies.
Smith was born in Boston and grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His father, Phil, was an insurance salesman. His mother, Lil, played the piano and introduced her son to music. He graduated from high school in 1945 and served with US forces occupying Okinawa, Japan. After taking an English degree at Yale, he became a DJ in Boston, playing R&B and rock’n’roll records.
In 1983 Smith left Elektra/Asylum to become president of Home Sports Entertainment, a regional TV network operated by Warner Cable. In 1986 he became president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which organises the Grammy awards, and, despite having declared that he had left the music industry for ever, in 1987 he took the post of vice-chairman and CEO of Capitol-EMI.
He revitalised the ailing Capitol label by signing Bonnie Raitt, whom he had signed to Warner Bros in the 1970s; she scored multimillion sales and multiple Grammy awards with the albums Nick of Time (1989), Luck of the Draw (1991) and Longing in Their Hearts (1994). Smith also enjoyed huge success with the country music star Garth Brooks, Tina Turner, MC Hammer and Queen.
After retiring from Capitol-EMI, Smith enjoyed a further showbusiness fling as executive producer for the 1994 football World Cup in the US, arranging for the Three Tenors to perform at Dodger stadium in Los Angeles. In 1988 he published a book, Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music, a collection of more than 200 interviews with musicians. In 2015 he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He is survived by his wife, Donnie (Dione Greenstein), son, Jeff, and daughter, Julie.
• Joseph Benjamin Smith, record company executive, born 26 January 1928; died 2 December 2019