Joe Smith is one of the unlikeliest success stories in Rock and Roll. In fact, when Smith was starting out as a disc jockey in Boston, Rock and Roll was in its infancy and most people in Boston called what Smith played “Rhythm and Blues.” And it wasn’t often played on radio.
Nobody would have dreamed that, over the next five decades, Smith, who grew up in one of the smallest and least prepossessing places in America, would be donating over 200 interviews with the most important popular musicians of the 20th century to the Library of Congress.
“I was probably the first to play the music,” said Smith last week, as he recalled his start in radio. “Nobody was playing it when I started. First of all, I liked the music and I got the kids to help me do my programming. The kids controlled what I played on the radio.”
In those days, local disc jockeys moonlighted as hosts for “record hops,” and Smith was no exception. What was exceptional was the way that Smith tried to convince his boss that there was an audience for the music. In those days, teenagers made hits by word of mouth.
“There were black kids that came to the record hops and they would ask me to play certain records,” said Smith. “I used to play the same records on the air. I remember asking the black kids to circulate around at the record hops so there would look like there were more of them, to convince my boss that the audience was there.”
Smith became the most popular disc jockey among the kids who knew a little about what was going on, the street smart kids who first heard “Hound Dog” the way Big Mama Thornton sang it in 1952 and not the Elvis Presley cover that came about three years later. When Smith started playing Rock and Roll, other disc jockeys were playing singers like Frankie Laine and Jerry Vale. One of the most popular television shows was “Your Hit Parade,” which featured mediocre covers of hits by Perry Como and Patti Page. The only places teenagers could hear the music was on jukeboxes in local bars and variety stores that were, at least in part, patronized by black people.
In Roxbury, there was a variety store called Moe’s where respectable kids of both races didn’t go to. He sold cigarettes three for a nickel – “loosies” in the vernacular of the times – and had a jukebox that reflected the racial make-up of the neighborhood. About half the records were Rhythm and Blues and the rest reflected “Your Hit Parade.” It was the “R&B” that ate the most nickels, and there were versions of Moe’s Variety evolving in urban areas across the country.
“I had a friend who owned a record store, Johnny Belmont, who was my consigliore of music,” said Smith.
It wasn’t long before the artists Smith was playing came to know about Smith. It was his gift for making friends that was the basis for a successful career in the recording industry, as an executive who knew what the kids were listening to. His theme song was composed and performed by the Valentines, one of the seminal doo-wop groups of the early 1950s.
But you would not have guessed that if you met Joe Smith when he was at Yale. In fact, you wouldn’t have guessed that a kid from Chelsea, Mass., would go to Yale.
“That was my father’s idea,” said Smith. “When I was around 10, he gave me a Yale football helmet and told me I was going to Yale. I was the first kid from Chelsea to go to Yale. I may have been the only kid from Chelsea to go there.”
Chelsea, at a little more than a mile and a half square, is the smallest city in Massachusetts and essentially a blue-collar town. It was at Yale that Smith decided he liked working in radio and, after graduating in 1950, he went looking for a job.
“After I got out of Yale, I went to a radio station in Virginia where I played Country and Western music as ‘Cousin Joe,’” before coming back to the Boston area.
Smith always liked jazz and approached it with the same evangelist zeal he brought to Rock and Roll. He hosted a Sunday afternoon show that featured jazz, usually some of the lesser-known artists who came to town to play at George Wein’s Storyville or the Hi-Hat in the South End.
“That was a labor of love,” Smith recalled. “I got to be friends with people like Stan Getz and Woody Herman and Lenny Bruce. Lenny used to spend the first four hours or so scoring some of the drugs he used. He was a respected performer but he was persecuted by authorities.”
Needless to say, there were many people who were saddened when Downbeat magazine informed its readers that Smith was leaving Boston to become a record executive. But musicians everywhere had reason to rejoice, because they had an ally in the industry with a great ear for talent and an even more important rapport with musicians. He was more than ready to find and record million-selling bands for Warner Brothers Records, along with lesser-known bands that had solid followings, like the Grateful Dead and others. Along the way, his role as a supportive executive to creative people led to lasting friendships among artists and managers in the business. He decided to record interviews with the artists he knew after visiting one of his mentors, the legendary John Hammond, the record producer who brought the likes of Benny Goodman, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin to Columbia Records, and championed nearly forgotten Blues artists like Robert Johnson to much larger audiences than they ever had in their lives. When Hammond’s health was fading, he told Smith that it was up to him to record interviews with all of the important musicians he knew before they were all gone.
Smith had worked for the Columbia, Capitol and Blue Note labels, as well as with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, Electra and Asylum. He had worked with most of the biggest names in the business. His recorded interviews were surprisingly candid and his subjects opened up to him in ways they would not with a journalist.
“The reason they opened up was because I was one of them,” he said. “I could ask them questions and get answers that a journalist never could.”
Smith did about 220 interviews and published a book of them in 1988 as “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music,” by Joe Smith and Mitchell Fink. Smith said some of the interviews really surprised him.
“Bob Dylan, for instance,” said Smith. “Here is this icon of the 1960s, a guy who pretty much defined that decade and he told me that he didn’t think that the ’60s were that special or mattered that much.”
Smith said he was surprised that Paul McCartney told him he first smoked pot while they were recording “Sgt. Pepper” and that drugs, mostly marijuana, played a large part in it.
Smith said he is also very grateful that he had a chance to record the artists before they were gone. Here you can listen to Woody Herman, Ray Charles, and Artie Shaw and Bo Diddley. You can also hear living legends, like Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Little Richard, Quincy Jones and Paul Simon.
Smith admits that he had some favorites among the famous people he spoke with, people who seemed to like him and trust him enough to relax and be natural. It is those moments that will intrigue historians in the future, the glimpse behind the public masks that so many legends wear.
“I must admit that I really liked interviewing Ella Fitzgerald,” said Smith. “She did live near me and we were always friendly. When I went to interview her, I was on my hands and knees within a couple of minutes. She was hooking up a stereo and I was finding plugs under the table.”
These days, Smith has been taking things easier. He has been retired for some time and the business has left him in what is often understated as “comfortable” in Beverly Hills. He spends a lot of time indulging his passion for the L.A. Lakers and you can usually see him courtside at the Staples Center, looking an awful lot younger than he really is.
“I am a big Lakers fan and I was just at the funeral of Jerry Buss,” said Smith, “and Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul Jabar and Magic Johnson were all trying to guess my age. They were stunned when I told them I was 85.”
Must be something in the music.
“Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music” is available through Amazon.com. You can find some of the interviews Smith contributed to the Library of Congress at http://lccn.loc.gov.