The way Bonnie Raitt wound up on Warner Bros. Records is a fitting example of the Wild West days of the music business that Joe Smith presided over.
Capitol Records flew Raitt to Los Angeles from the East Coast to play the Troubadour, ostensibly an audition for the label. Smith, then president of Warner Bros. Records, had heard about Raitt from friends and colleagues in his hometown of Boston, where Raitt had a made a name for herself in the folk clubs.
“We had Tony Joe White on the bill as the opening act,” Smith recalls. “I went to the show and saw Bonnie and asked her, ‘Can we do some business?’ ”
Raitt made it clear she was there on Capitol’s dime and had morning meetings at the Tower, but was willing to meet with him after 2 p.m. Before they parted, she mentioned her appreciation of Warner Bros., noting Ry Cooder and Randy Newman were her two favorite artists.
“The phone calls went out to Cooder and Randy,” Smith says. “ ‘Get your ass in here at 2 o’clock. I want you in here when she arrives.’ That’s what happened, and we had a great run.
“We did things like that — bang-bang. We didn’t need to clear things through executive sessions in New York. If I had a gut feeling I would go with it. Mo Ostin and I never had a disagreement in our years together.”
Smith, 87, will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Aug. 27, in recognition of his four decades in the music business, heading Warner Bros. in the 1960s and ’70s, Elektra in the ’70s and ’80s and Capitol in the late 1980s and ’90s. The Grateful Dead was his first signing at Warners; his successful run at Elektra included the signing of the Cars and Television; his final stop included the resurgence of Raitt’s career and the launch of Garth Brooks.
“I’m so fortunate to have gotten out of (the music business) when I got out of it because there’s no fun anymore,” says Smith, whose Warners run included the signing of Van Morrison, Black Sabbath, America, Alice Cooper and the Doobie Brothers. “We were there during a great time, and (then) it hit a wall.”
A native of Chelsea, Mass., Smith first fell in love with music as a youngster listening to the jazz of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Stan Getz. After a stint in the military and years at Yale, Smith got into radio as a disc jockey, working small East Coast cities before returning home.
“When I came to Boston, it was wide open — nobody was playing real rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “I developed a reputation there, but eventually I tired of talking to 15-year-old girls.”
Married with children, Smith moved to the West Coast to work in promotion for Warner Bros. in 1961, which led to the label presidency and sliding over in 1975 to the sister label Elektra to replace David Geffen, who left to enter the film business. Smith left Elektra in 1983.
“The best time was building Warner Bros.,” says Smith, whose first success at the label was with Peter, Paul & Mary. “It was dumbfoundingly dull when we got there. The big acts were Ira Ironstrings and all the people who were on the TV shows like Connie Stevens. I was A&R and promotion, and we bought Reprise and Mo (Ostin) came aboard and the two of us had this magic run.
“The Grateful Dead was probably the most important signing because we were changing from the Petula Clark-Frank Sinatra company to what was happening in music.”
Smith has largely stayed away from the music business since booking talent for concerts surrounding the FIFA World Cup in the U.S. in 1994.
“I loved what I was doing, then it was time to hang it up,” he says. “The record business fell apart when you could get music for nothing.”