Yakety Yak: Joe Smith Spreads the Pop Word


When it comes to music industry rewards, no one’s enjoyed more than Capitol Records Chairman Joe Smith.

He’s won every Man of the Year Award imaginable. If he pawned his gold records he could balance the national budget. His Lakers season tickets are first row--front and center. So with Smith’s first book due out early next month, guess what he’s really thrilled about?

“I’m going to have three billboards on the Sunset Strip,” he boasted, pacing his top-floor office at the Capitol Tower. “Warner Books (his publisher) is buying one, the record company owns two other ones--and they’re all going to plug the book. Not bad, huh?”


For someone who began his career as a deejay and local promotion man, Smith has reason to be proud. His book, “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music,” is an indispensable guide to a half-century of pop music. Compiled over the past five years, it offers Smith’s interviews with more than 200 pop figures, ranging from big-band-era luminaries like Artie Shaw and Ella Fitzgerald to rock pioneers like Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis to current stars like Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Bono Hewson and Sting.

“I’d always admired Studs Terkel, so I got the idea to do an oral history of the music business,” said Smith, whose office is littered with photos of him with his basketball heroes. “I didn’t feel I had enough of a reputation to write a book myself. But I did want to do something with this wealth of anecdotes (obtained in the interviews). The idea wasn’t to have people plug their new record, but to have them talk about their successes and failures.”

Sounds like a dream project. “Are you kidding?” Smith said in mock outrage. “It was murder. Rock stars are impossible--difficult to get to, they don’t keep appointments. I’d been accustomed to artists coming to see me, asking me for something. Now I was the buyer, not the seller. I had to go to them--and convince them I wasn’t writing for some scandal sheet.”

It’s amazing how many notables Smith corralled for the book. But it’s more intriguing to hear him talk about the big fish that got away.

Eric Clapton was always in the wrong country. Benny Goodman died two weeks before his scheduled interview. Phil Spector turned him down. So did Prince.

Notoriously press-shy Van Morrison talked, but only after registering in a London hotel under an assumed name so he could meet with Smith in private.

James Brown also cooperated, but only after trying to cajole Smith into signing a couple of Brown’s artists.

Warner Bros. Records Chairman Mo Ostin, a long-time Smith crony, persuaded Smith to discard his interview, saying he felt too “self-conscious” for it to be used.

Other holdouts included:

Bruce Springsteen: “It was like the SALT talks. He’d do it, then he wouldn’t. Just when it looked promising again, his marriage fell apart, so it never happened.”

Aretha Franklin: “That was a big disappointment. Her brother said she’d do it. But then her sister died and she went into a big depression, so it was off again.”

Frank Sinatra: “I have to admit I’m a little upset about that one. After all, I’d been responsible for making him a lot of money and establishing his record company (Reprise Records) years ago. I didn’t think it was so much to ask for him to spend an hour with me, talking about music. But his people said he doesn’t get involved in book projects. I know he doesn’t owe me anything, but sure--that one hurt.”

No matter. The book (edited by Her-Ex columnist Mitchell Fink) is loaded with revealing pop star musings. Billy Joel confides that he dreams all his songs (“I dream in music and shapes and paintings and sculptures”); Sting says he has to be himself (“If being in rock music forces me to pretend I’m an idiot or wear tight trousers or buy a wig, then I have to get another job”), while David Lee Roth recounts that when his dentist asked him why he got up so early in the morning, he answered: “Fear and revenge.”

The more musicians he spoke with, the more Smith noticed a common theme. “They almost never enjoyed the success when it was happening,” he said. “They were too busy working to savor the special moments. A lot of musicians went crazy from the fear of trying to match their previous success. I think it comes from the tremendous insecurity musicians have about the creative process. They’re very vulnerable, often unbalanced people--and they have no ideas why the public accepts some songs and not others.

“But they were very open talking to me. And that’s what made the book so much fun, because I got to talk to these great musicians about what we both love the most--the music.”