Imagine a history of popular music so comprehensive that it includes interviews with nearly every important living music personality of the past 50 years, from Benny Goodman to Bruce Springsteen.
To make the book even more definitive, add interviews with record company executives, producers and songwriters; include chapters on major trends, from the big-band sound to the San Francisco era; and broaden the focus beyond pop and rock to include R&B;, jazz and country.
An ambitious project--and it’s being tackled not by an experienced writer but by veteran music-industry executive Joe Smith.
Smith, president of Warner Bros. Records and then chairman of Elektra Records until he left the business three years ago, has compiled a master list of 300 music heavyweights he hopes to interview--from Sinatra to Little Richard, from Miles Davis to Roy Acuff. He’s already completed 30 interviews with such key players as Herb Alpert, Lou Adler, Richard Perry and David Geffen.
Relaxing in the backyard of his Beverly Hills home, Smith spoke enthusiastically about the book, which will be accompanied by a multipart TV show and videocassette, a syndicated radio special and a six-record album package.
“There have been many books about the music business,” Smith noted, “but for the most part they’ve been individual biographies. There hasn’t been a comprehensive oral history presenting the views of the people who made it happen.
“All of these books on Elvis are fine, but wouldn’t it be terrific to have Elvis’ point of view on some of this? There’s a Basie biography out there, but I would have liked to get him in context with everybody else. I wanted Basie talking about Ellington and Hampton and Coleman Hawkins.”
The recent deaths of big band leaders Count Basie and Harry James, top arrangers Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins and veteran manager Albert Grossman spurred Smith to finally start work on the book, after mulling over the project for several years.
“Nelson Riddle had promised to speak with me,” Smith said. “We were all set to do it. The loss of those people--while obviously it’s tragic anyhow from a human factor--is compounded because all the stories go with them. No one knows how it was in the studio with Frank Sinatra during those Capitol days like Nelson did. We’re a business that’s growing and getting old and other people are just going to pass away.”
Smith hopes that the historical thrust of the book will afford him access to some of music’s more reclusive figures.
“I’m not looking for scandal,” he said, “I’m not looking for great controversy here. I think things will come out and that there will be interesting stories, but I’m not looking to do the National Enquirer. And I’m not trying to preempt anybody’s biography. I’m just looking to find out what the music meant to everybody and how it got made.”
Smith said he decided on a 50-year overview to make the project all-inclusive. “I’ve decided to start it in the late ‘30s with Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert, which I felt was a major breakthrough. There had obviously been records before that, but that was the first time there was an entire genre of music--big-band music.
“And I’d like to take it right up to today. The current people are more difficult to get to: You’ve got to go through phalanxes of managers and publicists. It’s going to be tougher to talk to Madonna than to Patti Page.”
Smith, who was a disc jockey in Boston before becoming a record company executive, doesn’t expect to make money on the book. “With the expenses I’m incurring, I don’t see how I’ll make a dime,” he said.
“For me this is truly a labor of love. I’m not just doing it to be altruistic, but I think somebody ought to do it, and nobody else is going to; certainly nobody who’s as wired in to it as I’ve been over the years. I guess a writer could come along and say it, but I’ve lived it.
“And I think I can jump through those time frames as well as anyone. I can jump from talking about big bands with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Helen O’Connell to talking about what San Francisco was like with Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia and Bill Graham.”
Smith has gained the reputation for being unusually candid and forthright with the media. Yet he is surprisingly coy when asked to reveal his age. “Do you have to put that in?” he winced. “It’s like I tell my wife: ‘Don’t tell people how old I am. I’m in a young man’s business.’ ”
The book--scheduled to be published by Warner Books late next year--provides Smith with the new challenge he was seeking when he left the top spot at Elektra three years ago. He labored in Warner Communications’ sports division until mid-1984 and has since been dabbling in the film business.
“I felt that I was repeating myself and marking time in the record business,” Smith said. “I just felt it was time to move on. Some of my fellow executives told me they envied what I was doing, only they didn’t have the real desire to do something else.
“I’m fortunate in that I’m curious about a lot of things. Now I’m really pumped up about the book, and ready to go at it with a lot of energy.”