“Joe Smith was his real name.” Those were the first words spoken by the late music industry mogul’s son, Jeff Smith, getting a laugh out of the crowd gathered at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills for a memorial officially billed as “Joe Smith: Celebration of Life” and unofficially as “No Ordinary Joe.”
Organized by his wife, Donnie, and Irving Azoff, along with his emcee-ing son, the hour-and-a-half-long ceremony honored a quintessential record man who started out as a Boston disc jockey and went on to take the helm of Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol/EMI Records before passing away in December at the age of 91.
Luminaries were out in force to honor the “Toastmaster General,” dubbed for his abilities as a raconteur, industry cheerleader and deft purveyor of insults, not unlike his good friend Don Rickles. Former Warner Bros. Records chairman Mo Ostin made a rare appearance to salute his ex-colleague at the Burbank-based “Mo and Joe Show,” recalling his game-changing signings of the Grateful Dead, James Taylor and Black Sabbath, which turned the label from a Top 40 pop company with stars like Trini Lopez and Connie Stevens to one of the leaders of the then-nascent counterculture rock movement.
Musical performances in between the eulogies started with a Dave Koz solo saxophone rendition of “God Bless America,” followed by doo-wop group the Mighty Echoes doing an a cappella rendition of his Boston radio theme song. The group America sang “Horse With No Name,” a hit during Smith’s early ’70s WB reign. Most movingly, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne (pictured above with Smith at his Hollywood Walk of Fame star ceremony in 2015) joined forces for a spirited take on the latter’s politically charged 1989 song “World in Motion,” which Browne said also seemed apt on Super Tuesday primary day. He noted that it was one of two songs that he and Raitt most love to perform together, but she preferred to sing the more hopeful of the two at the memorial.
The speakers represented the range of Smith’s interests. There were a pair of pals from his weekly World Organization of Wine gatherings, as Joe and his son both became avid collectors. Mel Brooks showed up to pay homage to his longtime friend and reminisced about Joe introducing him to up-scale bottles. “It sure beat the s— out of Manischewitz,” he joked, later recalling how son Jeff selling a few of his cases to China helped him “build a house around my wine cellar.” Irving Azoff noted he was just pleased to know there was a record company executive as vertically challenged as he was. “He used to call Shelli and I “a short bundle of hate,’” Azoff recalled.
Filmed tributes from Clive Davis, Garth Brooks and James Taylor were followed by a clip of the Eagles performing “The Best of My Love” during a concert in Dallas on February 29, with Don Henley eulogizing Smith.
Joe Smith’s love of the Lakers was also recounted, with Phil Jackson roaming the grounds. A video clip played of his legendary remarks about Morris Levy at the infamous UJA dinner honoring the notorious record business goniff. After roasting him mercilessly, Smith quipped, referencing his underworld ties, “I just got word from two of his ‘best friends’ on the west coast that my wife and two children have been released!,” to a roaring ovation that even tickled the feared Moishe.
His wife of 62 years, Donnie, gave the afternoon’s last speech, regaling her husband’s sharp wit and devotion to his family, including son Jeff and daughter Julie Kellner, wife of former TBS CEO Jamie Kellner.
The room was packed with industry legends and acts, including Laker greats Jackson and Jerry West; current and former Warner Records executives Tom Corson, Seymour Stein, Jeff Ayeroff and Jeff Gold; former Capitol honchos Hale Milgrim and Phil Quartararo; legendary producers Lou Adler and Peter Asher; Clarence Avant; music biz attorneys Don Passman and Jay Cooper; former A&M head and current race-horse owner Jerry Moss; producer Richard Perry; veteran publicist Larry Solters; ex-agent Tom Ross; songwriter Joel Diamond; one-time A&R star Tom Zutaut; a resplendent MC Hammer, who was one of Smith’s artists during his Capitol days; “Laugh-In” producer George Schlatter, and former Westwood One chief Norm Pattiz, among many others.
There was a feel of fin de siècle in the air, along with the ongoing primary and the ever-heightening Coronavirus scare, that Joe Smith’s passing marked the end of an era in the music business, one populated by colorful entrepreneurs who lived for the musicians and the music, rather than the latest quarterly financial report.
Ostin summed up the spirit of Joe Smith best when the two would go up against Warner Communications suits over budgets and, in particular, the use of the corporate jet. Ostin recalled Smith coming up with a solution to both the jet problem and their battles with the Warner toppers after a particularly thorny meeting: “Let’s just fly it into the company headquarters,” Smith said, in Ostin’s recollection. “We can kill two birds with one stone that way.”
After the memorial, Jeff Smith talked about one of the photos that appeared on screen — one of Smith with Alice Cooper — and what it represented about the old-school and new rock worlds his father floated between.
“Joe was about the hippest guy any of our civilian friends — Donnie’s square friends and their husbands who we spent time with in Encino — knew,” Jeff Smith pointed out. “But at the same time, Joe was about the most buttoned-down guy that people like the Grateful Dead or Alice Cooper dealt with. The idea that the Carroll & Co.-suited Joe had anything at all to discuss with Alice (or insert name of long haired, drug using musical icon from 1960s-’70s here) is captured in this pic.”