R.I.P. Joe Smith

Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Joe Smith

It’s hard to find the words to sum up how important Joe Smith – who has left us at the age of 91 – is to Rhino, but that’s only because the legacy he leaves behind as the former head of Warner Brothers (from the ‘60s into the ‘70s) and Elektra (from the ‘70s into the ‘80s) and Capitol (from the ‘80s into the ‘90s) is so tremendous that it’s arguably said better with music than words.

Still, we’ll give it a shot.

First, though, we’ll offer up the opening lines of David Browne’s look back at Smith’s time with the Grateful Dead, since it gives you a very clear idea of why Smith was so revered around these parts:

“Music industry legend Joe Smith was, to say the least, a hands-on guy. He wrote the Grateful Dead a letter complaining about their work ethic. He sent the Eagles a rhyming dictionary so the extremely particular band could finally finish The Long Run. He also had to cope with Van Morrison’s temper, James Taylor’s intense shyness and all manner of artist tantrums.”

As you can see from those few names alone, Smith knew his music and knew his musicians, which made him invaluable at whatever label he might’ve been calling home at any point during his career. In addition, he was also someone who had a way with a zinger, a trait which led him to serve as a toastmaster, as was highlighted in a 1988 L.A. Times piece:

“Over the years, Smith’s biting humor has cut through the pomposity that characterizes most formal awards banquets. Among his classic zingers:

•    Introducing Dick Asher, the president of PolyGram Records: ‘Before he got to PolyGram, he thought Bon Jovi was a red Italian wine.’

•    Introducing Clive Davis, the egotistical president of Arista Records: ‘Let me read from Clive’s own personally drawn resume: ‘Clive was born in a manger in Bethlehem. . . .’’

•    Scanning the dais of executives at a banquet in New York, he told the audience: ‘All of you would be safer in Central Park tonight than you are in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel.’

“So who emceed Smith’s banquet? Who could possibly top Smith at his own game? The master of the insult, Don Rickles. As it turned out, Rickles went pretty easy on Smith, a friend for more than 20 years. Most of his material seemed to be straight out of his racy Las Vegas act, but the comedian did poke fun at Smith’s obsession with the Lakers. Smith has pricey seats for every Lakers home game, which prompted Rickles to say, “The Lakers won the basketball championship, and it only cost Joe $7,450,000 to be on TV and go, ‘Yeah Lakers.’ ”

[From a Rhino perspective, it’s probably also worth mentioning that Smith produced an album for Rickles that’s in our catalog: DON RICKLES SPEAKS!]

We’ve put together a play list to commemorate Smiths’ career in music, and while it only contains 30 songs, please look at the artists contained therein. There’s no question just how much impact Joe Smith had on music. No one’s LP, cassette, CD, or digital collection would be the same without him.

Rest in peace, Joe, and thanks for the music.