Joe Smith, Who Never Forgot a Name, Will Go Down as One of Music’s Most Memorable Figures (Column)

Bob Merlis recalls the mogul and the mensch.

attends Icons of The Music Industry:
Maury Phillips

Variety invited Bob Merlis, one of the legends of music publicity, to share his thoughts about one of his former bosses, Joe Smith, former head of the Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol labels. Smith died this week at age 91. Here’s one sharp-dressed man on another:

Joe Smith has been a constant for virtually the entirety of my professional life. I worked at Warner Bros.’ New York office before moving to Burbank and it was always a great occasion when Joe came to visit us. He knew absolutely everybody’s name, and that includes every secretary and the office boy as well as the big-deal sales and promo executives. My long-suffering assistant, Melenie Caldwell, remembers her first day at Warner Bros. in the home office. Joe was walking past her and realized he hadn’t met her, so he introduced himself and asked her name. He never forgot it, neither did she.

I encountered the public Joe Smith for the first time at the infamous UJA dinner honoring “Moishe,” Roulette’s Morris Levy, as Man of the Year. Some of those in attendance were — how do I put it? — “connected.” In point of fact, Father Gigante, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante’s priest brother, gave the invocation. Yes, a mob-affiliated priest offered prayers at the United Jewish Appeal dinner. It only confirmed to my younger self that the music business was like no other.

As with so many industry functions, Joe was the emcee and pulled no punches.  He commented, “I will tell you, with this group of cutthroats on this dais, every one of you would be safer tonight in Central Park than in this ballroom.” He riffed on each and every music business legend there. Some were cited as pioneers in double-entry bookkeeping, and he suggested that one executive was “to the record business what surfing was to Kansas.” He was absolutely merciless, taking a cue, perhaps, from his good buddy Don Rickles. After a dinner of sliced steak and performances by Harry James and Tito Puente, Joe took the stage again and remarked, “I take this opportunity to extend my own personal best wishes to Moishe, a man I’ve known for many years, admired and enjoyed. And I just got word from two of his ‘best friends’ on the west coast that my wife and two children have been released!”  The place erupted in laughter — including “Moshe,” who was, in fact, amused — and Joe got to live another 46.

I loved Joe’s irreverent shtick, and I knew that I wanted everything to do with him. He was funny, well dressed, knew rock ‘n’ roll and had a mirthful demeanor. To say I identified strongly with him is a serious understatement.

Ultimately, I was asked to move to Burbank to head the Warner Bros. publicity department and, within a very short time of my arrival, it was announced he was going to move over to Elektra to serve as its chairman. While everybody was happy for Joe, I was kind of bummed out: I had moved 2500 miles on a bait and switch! I had been looking forward to hanging out with Joe but that hope was thwarted by his move up the corporate ladder. As it happened, I did manage to keep in touch with him and, in fact, saw him at a Lakers game on the very last day of my three-decade tenure at Warner Bros.

Not that long afterwards, he sought me out and invited me to lunch at his beloved Hillcrest Country Club. There the carvery included roast beef, turkey and — to my delight — hand-carved roast tongue. I expressed great enthusiasm and he commented, “Don’t you know that Jews have the best food?”

When it came time for him to donate to the Library of Congress the audio archives from which his book “Off The Record” was sourced, he asked me to help spread the good word in terms of press visibility. I was, officially, back in the Joe Smith business in a big way. Researching his broadcasting roots, I came upon his 1950s radio theme song, “We’re Gonna Rock With Joe Smith” by the Valentines. This gave me the brainstorm to get the Mighty Echoes, my friends and a massively talented a cappella vocal group, to perform at his 85th birthday. Toward the end of the dinner, they came out of the woodwork and surprised and delighted him with a note-perfect rendition of “We’re Gonna Rock With Joe Smith.”

In connection with the donation of “The Joe Smith Collection,” I arranged for some interviews that took place at his home in Beverly Hills. I let him know that one of the journalists with whom he would be speaking was, like Joe, who was known for his renowned wine cellar,  something of an oenophile. For the interview, Joe uncorked something delicious and an hour or so was well spent. The next day, Joe’s son Jeff, whose business is wine, asked me if I remembered what his dad had been pouring the day before. I was essentially clueless, so he ran down a list, and when he named a winery that rang a bell with me from the previous day, he let me know that the journalist, his dad and I had each sipped $500 worth of wine. I felt it was absolutely worth the money, as I’m sure the fortunate journalist did.

As much as he enjoyed the attention of the national media spotlight, Joe seemed to be more interested in coverage in the Chelsea Record, his hometown newspaper. When I finally delivered a cover story on Chelsea’s prodigal son, he couldn’t have been happier — and there was no wine involved, so Jeff was probably relieved, too.

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Five years ago, Joe was tapped to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and I coordinated press coverage with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. It was a hot August afternoon, but Joe was his old self, quipping with friends and strangers alike. Former staffers who had worked at one (or more) of the labels he headed — Warner Bros., Elektra and Capitol — were there to bear witness, and it can only be described as a love fest. Jackson Browne, who had been an Elektra artist when Joe ran the company, was effusive, as was Bonnie Raitt whom he had signed twice: to Warner Bros. in 1970 and, later, to Capitol where she had what can only be described a career rebirth. She was especially effusive about Joe, commenting, “I would never have lasted in this business if it hadn’t been for the enthusiasm, class and taste of Joe Smith. He made me feel welcome, he took another chance on me and I’ll never forget it.”

Now that I think of it, the same goes for me. Thanks, Joe.