Joe Smith, who signed Grateful Dead, remembered as a rarity: ‘A well-loved executive’

Shock-rock star Alice Cooper with record executive Joe Smith in the 1970s.
(Photograph from the Joe Smith family)

Of all the descriptions of veteran record executive Joe Smith — some heartfelt, some laugh-out-loud funny — served up Tuesday at a memorial celebration of his life, perhaps the most revealing of his legacy in the music business was one that would have sounded unremarkable in many other settings.

“He was a well-loved executive,” said Eagles co-founder Don Henley, in a message taped last week in Dallas on a tour that precluded him from attending. To underscore just how remarkable that comment really was, Henley quickly elaborated: “You don’t hear those two things together very much — ‘a well-loved executive’ — in the record industry.”

The memorial, staged three months after Smith’s death in December at 91, gave proof to Henley’s assertion, drawing a who’s who of musicians, music executives, managers, music writers, publicists and rank-and-file record label personnel who filled the 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Among the musicians on hand whose careers owed much to Smith’s guidance during his decades heading labels including Warner Bros. Records, Elektra/Asylum and Capitol were Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, who teamed up to sing Browne’s “World in Motion.”

Industry heavy hitters who spoke about their relationships with Smith included comedian Mel Brooks, former Warner Bros. Records chairman Mo Ostin and super manager Irving Azoff, as well as Smith’s wife of 62 years, Donnie, and their son, Jeff, who served as emcee.

Comedian Mel Brooks with record executive Joe Smith, who produced Brooks and Carl Reiner's comedy album "The 2000-Year-Old Man."
(Photograph from the Joe Smith family)

Brooks expressed gratitude to Smith for producing his comedy album collaboration with longtime friend and fellow comic writer Carl Reiner, “2000 and ThirteenThe 2013-Year-Old Man,” the 1973 sequel to 1960’s “2000 Years With Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks” album, one example of Smith’s lifelong affinity for not just music but comedy and novelty records. (He and Ostin signed Richard Pryor and Steve Martin to their label, among others.)

Jeff Smith said he had promised his father to keep any memorial service “short and funny,” a remark Brooks and Azoff both took to heart, physically and in the content of anecdotes they shared.

Azoff, who said he and Eagles founding member Glenn Frey had nicknamed Smith “The Toastmaster General” for all the charity events he emceed, gave a freewheeling recounting of various confrontations and collaborations with Smith, who in turn often referred to Azoff sarcastically as “Mr. Warmth.”

When the Eagles were putting the finishing touches on their landmark “Hotel California” album for the Warner-distributed Asylum label, he recalled that Smith became impatient as they spent weeks refining and further refining the songs.

“He sent Glenn and Don a rhyming dictionary,” Azoff recalled. “I sent him an invoice for $5 million.”

Fellow record mogul Clive Davis, in his video clip, praised Smith as a fierce but collegial competitor, saying the Davis and Smith families vacationed together and their children “became extended family.” A group photo of four of the most important figures in music business history captured that spirit, showing Smith and Ostin with Davis and Motown Records co-founder Berry Gordy, all smiles.

Joe Smith, left, with Warner Bros. Records chairman Mo Ostin, Columbia-Arista-J Records head Clive Davis and Motown Records co-founder Berry Gordy Jr.
(Photograph from the Joe Smith family)

America co-founders Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell fronted a quartet Tuesday that played “A Horse With No Name,” that group’s out-of-the-gate hit for Warner Bros. in 1972, also while Smith was running the label with Ostin. Several speakers reflected fondly on their symbiotic partnership at Warners, commonly known as “The Mo and Joe Show.”

Ostin, 92, noted how two artist signings in the 1960s dramatically changed the course of Warner Bros. Records, which until then had been largely concentrated on pop music, movie soundtracks and comedy recordings.

“The first was the Grateful Dead, which Joe signed, and the second was Jimi Hendrix, who I signed,” he said. “Suddenly Warner Bros. became a significant player and not just the label of Connie Stevens and Trini Lopez. We developed an artist roster that changed the music, and the music business.”

Indeed, under Ostin and Smith, Warner Bros. and its Reprise affiliate became home in the late ’60s and early ’70s to a host of critically and commercially successful rock and folk artists including James Taylor, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Randy Newman and numerous others.

Raitt pointed out that Smith signed her twice: first in 1971 for Warner Bros., and again in 1989 after he’d taken over at Capitol Records, following a brief stint of a few months as the first paid president of the Recording Academy.

Smith’s relationships with a vast array of music industry heavyweights was telegraphed before the formal ceremony began, through a slide show of photos showing him with Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Garth Brooks, Grateful Dead, Maurice White, Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper, Harry Nilsson and Liberace among others.

In addition, Tuesday’s audience included rapper MC Hammer, A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss, Ode Records founder Lou Adler, producers Richard Perry and Jeff Ayeroff, record executive Clarence Avant, Lakers former star player turned coach turned general manager Jerry West, Sire Records founder Seymour Stein and entertainment lawyer-to-the-stars Donald Passman.

A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss, left, Joe Smith, Eagles manager Irving Azoff and Warner Bros. Records chairman Mo Ostin at a Lakers game at the Forum in Inglewood.
(Photograph from the Joe Smith family)

James Taylor’s video clip saluting Smith may have most succinctly captured the spirit that ran through all the testimonials.

“Joe was as good a record company head as one could hope to find,” he said. “It was a different era. Joe loved the music — and that made all the difference.”