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Legendary Label Executive Joe Smith Dies at 91; Bonnie Raitt and Garth Brooks Remember His Legacy

on December 2, 2019 No comments
by Melinda Newman

Photo by Taylor Hill /Getty Images – Honoree Joe Smith attends the 2nd annual Billboard Power 100 Cocktail Reception at Emerson Theater on Jan. 23, 2014 in Hollywood, Calif.

Smith, who signed the Grateful Dead, oversaw Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol-EMI

Joe Smith, a legendary record executive who signed the Grateful Dead and helmed three labels, including as president and CEO of Capitol-EMI Music, has died. He was 91. His son confirmed his death to Billboard.  

Smith, who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015, worked closely with a number of artists, including Bonnie Raitt, whom he signed while president at Warner Bros. Records in the ‘70s and then brought to Capitol and was part of her comeback  in the late ‘80s, including her multiple Grammy winner 1989’s Nick of Time.

Jackson Browne, Joe Smith and Bonnie Raitt attend the ceremony honoring Joe Smith with a Star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame on Aug. 27, 2015 in Hollywood, Calif. © David Buchan /Variety/Shutterstock

“So sorry to mark the passing of my friend and record company mentor, Joe Smith. For signing me to Warner Brothers Records in 1971 and then to Capitol Records in 1989, I owe both my start and later career breakthrough to Joe. Aside from being one of the most beloved and respected executives in the music business, his support of the more non-mainstream artists like Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, The Meters, Little Feat and myself, was what drew me to Warners in the first place. In a business that became more preoccupied with short term profits and commercial viability, what set Joe apart is that he believed in supporting artists for the long haul, allowing us to stretch and grow at our own pace and direction. Giving me that second chance for Nick of Time has made all the difference in my life and career. He was a dear friend and one of the least phony, most warm hearted and loyal people any of us in this business will be blessed to know.
My sincere condolences to Donnie and all his beautiful family.”
Bonnie Raitt

Among the other artists with whom he worked are Jackson Browne, Frank Sinatra, Garth Brooks, Eagles, Rod Stewart, The Cars and Bob Seger.

“Joe Smith was in the record business for one reason: to bring a sense of business to the art and bring a sense of the artist to the business. Good man,” Brooks told Billboard upon learning of Smith’s death. Smith and Brooks famously renegotiated Brooks’ Capitol Records Nashville contract one-on-one in 1992 alone in Smith’s Los Angeles office as the superstar’s career exploded.

Smith grew up in Chelsea, Mass. and attended Yale University. He worked as a DJ at several radio stations, including stints at WMEX and WILD Boston, for which the Valentines recorded an impossibly catchy doo-wop theme song, “You Gotta Rock with Joe Smith.” For Smith’s 85th birthday, his longtime friend Bob Merlis has LA a capella group The Mighty Echoes surprise him with a live rendition.


His first label job in the early ’60s was as a promo man for Warner Bros. It was in that capacity that he saw the Grateful Dead in the mid-’60s in San Francisco. I “saw the Grateful Dead one night at an unforgettable evening at the Avalon,” he said in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview. “I’d never seen anything like that, never seen a light show, people sitting around on the floor.” (He added in the interview that he repeatedly turned down the band’s then managers’ entreaties to drop acid with them.). Smith became president of the label in 1972, working with acts as diverse as Van Morrison, Carl Reiner, Black Sabbath, James Taylor and the Allman Bros. Band, as well as sister label Reprise Records artists like Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

He reveled in a time when music men ran the labels and putting artistry first in the era before corporations snapped up the major labels and quarterly profits because a leading factor in decision making. As he told Billboard in 2014 when he received the Clive Davis Visionary Award at the 2014 Billboard Power 100 event. “At Warner Bros., we made more money than the movie or the television people, so we had a lot of clout, so we could go out and take shots. My partner Mo Ostin and our [Warner Communications] associates Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen and Jac Holzman, we followed our instinct. We talked to our people…and we didn’t have to go to corporate. Our bosses in New York said, ‘Hey, come to us if you have any problems, but meanwhile run the company.’ That doesn’t happen anymore.”

He moved to Elektra/Asylum as chairman in 1975 and for the next eight years aided the careers of The Eagles, Browne, Queen, Linda Ronstadt and Motley Crue. He left Elektra/Asylum  and in 1983 became president and CEO of Warner Cable’s Home Sport Entertainment before becoming president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (now known as The Recording Academy). 

He returned to label life in 1987, at Capitol-EMI, rising to president &CEO before  his retirement in 1993. Following his departure from Capitol-EMI, he worked with World Cup Soccer, including securing The Three Tenors for World Cup USA in 1994.  He was also well known as an artists’ advocate in the halls of Congress.

In 2012, the Library of Congress acquired more than 200 hours of interviews conducted by Smith for his 1985 book, Off the Record: An Oral History of Pop Music, a collection of interviews with more than 200 artists, producers and executives, including Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Dick Clark, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, B.B. King and Quincy Jones. 

A gifted raconteur, Smith became known as a toastmaster extraordinaire, hosting industry events for more than 40 years. As he modestly told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, if he had to toast himself, he’d laud his ability to encourage talent. “I’m very proud of that, because I’m in awe of the creative process…I can’t write and sing and perform, but I’ve been involved with music all my adult life and to know that I maybe have pushed somebody in the right direction, or gave ’em room to make a mistake, or make a bad record, and do something else– I think I like that.” 

Smith is survived by Donnie, his wife of 62 years, as well as his son and daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.

Source: © Copyright Billboard
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Bonnie Raitt Remembers B.B. King: ‘He Was a God’

Singer-songwriter remembers her long friendship with the blues legend

on May 16, 2015 No comments

By David Browne | May 16, 2015

Blues guitarist B.B. King passed away Thursday at the age of 89. Here, Bonnie Raitt pays tribute to her friend, collaborator and inspiration.

B.B. was a god from the first time we all heard him. You listen to those early recordings with that cry in his voice, even as a young man. I still have the 45 of “Rock Me Baby” that I wore out playing when I was a teenager. I used to sit there and play it and move the needle back to the beginning and play it over and over. It’s so sexy and the groove is hellacious. A lot of people have covered that song, but that’s my favorite version. Every great blues guitarist has his own style. But with B.B., it was about his vibrato, his phrasing and the licks he chose — and his restraint. It was all about what he played and what he didn’t play. He was sweet and eloquent in his playing, but when he turned it on, he could be fierce.

© David Corio/Redferns/Getty

© David Corio/Redferns/Getty

B.B. King’s 5 Greatest Live Performances

My manager worked with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and B.B. was Buddy’s hero, so I got to go backstage and see B.B. when he was in and out of blues festivals. He was always very complimentary about my playing. He was always so gentle and humble and appreciative and he got a big kick out of the fact that all us young white kids got him. We became friends and later he would confide in me about his personal life and how he loved the ladies. To watch him backstage flirting with beautiful women was a delight. He loved his fans, but he enjoyed the company of kind and appreciative women. I always wished he’d had a steadfast and steady partner, but he was on the road so much. He could have retired years ago and cut his schedule back, but he told me he stayed on the road to be able to support his band and crew. He had a big band. I always wondered how he could afford it. He just worked all the time.

He was pretty happy, but I always wondered if he was a lonely guy. But I never asked him about that — I didn’t want to invade his space. He must have had some kind of pain in his life, but talk about overcoming whatever hardships he had.

When we recorded “Baby I Love You” [for the 1997 King duets album Deuces Wild], he had just played Dallas the night before and drove all night to get to the studio. He must have had two hours of sleep. But he was still such a champ. He was completely professional and said, “Whatever key you’d like.” He was so classy and so bold at the same time. He was an old-school Southern gentleman, but his playing was razor-sharp. I learned so much about dynamics from him.

Source: © Copyright Rolling Stone

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Kenny Edwards, Prominent Figure in West Coast Country-Rock, Dies in California

Linda Ronstadt remembers Kenny Edwards: ‘A beacon to me’

on August 20, 2010 No comments

Photo by Gabriel Judet-Weinshel

Kenny Edwards Dies in California

Kenny Edwards, a musician and singer who worked extensively with Linda Ronstadt, died Wednesday (Aug. 18) in Santa Barbara, Calif., following a battle with cancer and a blood disorder. He was 64.
Edwards became a prominent member of the West Coast country-rock community as a founding member of the Stone Poneys, the band that introduced Ronstadt to a national audience with their 1967 hit, “Different Drum.” After the group disbanded, Edwards later played a key role in her solo success on albums such as Heart Like a Wheel, Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams and Living in the U.S.A..

As a guitarist, bassist and vocalist, he also contributed to recordings by Don Henley, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt (vocals on album “The Glow” 1979), J.D. Souther and many others.
His country-related credits include projects with Vince Gill, Kathy Mattea, David Lee Murphy and John Cowan. Edwards produced and performed on Karla Bonoff’s self-titled debut album released in 1977. He and Bonoff were also members of Bryndle, a group that also included singer-songwriters Wendy Waldman and Andrew Gold.

Source: © Copyright CMT

Linda Ronstadt remembers Kenny Edwards: ‘A beacon to me’

August 20, 2010

Linda Ronstadt spoke with me Thursday, generously sharing many memories of guitarist-singer-songwriter-producer Kenny Edwards, who died Wednesday at age 64. Edwards was a founder of the Stone Poneys, the band with whom Ronstadt first surfaced nationally when they scored a hit single with their version of Monkee Michael Nesmith’s song “Different Drum.” They met during an especially fertile time in the history of L.A. pop music, particularly in and around Santa Monica circa the early to mid-1960s. He became a key member of her band through her commercial peak in the 1970s and into the 1980s, until she made her shift to singing music of the pre-rock era. He also worked alongside musicians including Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Ringo Starr, Karla Bonoff, Wendy Waldman and numerous others.

I met Kenny when I was about to turn 18 and he was 17. I had just come from Tucson, and I was immediately drawn to him because we both had very eclectic tastes. He was incredibly sophisticated. He knew how to play the sitar, he had seen Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan and knew about people like Inez Foxx and the Staple Singers, and he could play all of it.

I knew him as a blues guitar player; we had both gone to see a show by the band Ry Cooder was in, the Rising Sons. Kenny introduced me to a lot of stuff. He was always beautifully dressed, kind of like a cross between working class and a college professor — tweed jackets — it was a very interesting look…. He was also really smart. He always read good stuff. I remember he was reading Thomas Mann when he was 17.

When the Stone Poneys were going, we’d get together and he’d cook Indian food. He loved to cook — he’d cook for days. He would also go to Pink’s — he always knew where to get the best burger in town — or he’d go down for a night at the Apple Pan. He was the male version of [Leonard Cohen’s] “Suzanne”: “He shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers.”

We had a little house on Hart [Avenue in Santa Monica], and in one block, the Doors lived across the street, Pete Seeger’s dad lived in another house and the whole Seeger family thing was going there, [actor] Ron Perlman lived in another. There was a soul food restaurant in the neighborhood and you could walk to the Nuart [Theatre].  I got exposed to a cultural world I never knew about. It was a hippie crash pad, but it cost $60 a month, which was split about 15 ways. I could make $30 last for a month.

When the Stone Poneys started, Kenny had never sung, we [Tucson transplants Ronstadt and Bobby Kimmel] drafted him and kind of forced him to sing harmony. Later, when he started singing harmony with Andrew [Gold on her early ‘70s solo records], that became an important part of my sound. Having those strong male voices behind me gave me a chance to sing the high leads.

He had excellent creative ideas, and didn’t always get the credit that others did. When we recorded “You’re No Good,” Andrew gets the obvious credits, but Kenny supplied the skeleton, the basic framework of that low guitar and bass part that gave it a completely different sound. That gave Peter [Asher] and Andrew something to build on.

Kenny’s voice was like a laser beam. He was really strong. He was always a good singer, but back then it was always kind of a festival-seating approach. He’d move around to place a note wherever it would fit. His later stuff became so refined. His singing got so accurate and precise. He didn’t really have an arc in his career, he just kept getting better and better.

He was always a beacon to me, and his opinion always counted a lot for me. The great thing about watching what he’d been doing in recent years is how much he enjoyed it. He dreamed good dreams and he lived them out.

— Randy Lewis

Source: © Copyright Pop & Hiss – The L.A. Times music blog

Kenny Edwards dies at 64; guitarist-singer played key role in Linda Ronstadt’s emergence

By Randy Lewis

Kenny Edwards, a founding member of the Stone Poneys country-rock band that launched Linda Ronstadt’s career and a valued supporting guitarist and singer for Stevie Nicks, Don Henley and numerous others, died Wednesday after battling cancer and a blood disorder in recent years. He was 64.

Edwards had collapsed earlier this month in Denver while on tour with singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff, a longtime musical partner. He was diagnosed with the blood disorder thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, or TTP, and also had been undergoing chemotherapy for prostate cancer. He was hospitalized in Denver, then air-lifted to a hospital near his home in Santa Barbara, where he died.

“He was always a beacon to me,” Ronstadt said Thursday. “He introduced me to so much stuff, and his opinion always counted a lot to me.”

She credited Edwards with creating the musical framework for her only No. 1 single, “You’re No Good,” in 1974.

“He came up with that guitar and bass idea that gave it a very different sound, and really gave Andrew [Gold] and Peter [Asher] something to build on….When he and Andrew started singing together with me, that became a really important part of my sound. He was always a really good ensemble player.”

Shortly after the Stone Poneys disbanded after their 1967 breakthrough hit “Different Drum,” which established Ronstadt as a rising star from the nascent Southern California country-rock scene, Edwards teamed with singer-songwriter Wendy Waldman, Bonoff and Gold to form the folk-rock band Bryndle. Bonoff issued a statement Thursday thanking Edwards “for being my teacher, my musical partner and my best friend for the last 43 years.”

“There was a certain attitude toward music, a hybridization of styles, that came out of Kenny’s blood,” Waldman said. “He was so significant in the building of Ronstadt’s sound.”

Kenneth Michael Edwards was born Feb. 10, 1946, in Santa Monica, the son of Kenneth Clyde Edwards and Mary Carol Edwards. He grew up in the nearby Mar Vista neighborhood, attended Venice High School, learned to swim in the Pacific Ocean and was a lifelong surfer, but early on music became a passion, sparked by nightly guitar-playing sessions with his father.

Barely out of high school, he formed the Stone Poneys in 1965 with Bobby Kimmel, a Tucson musician who had moved to Los Angeles to explore the burgeoning folk-rock scene that had been spearheaded by the Byrds and would soon yield Buffalo Springfield and later the Eagles, who were Ronstadt’s backing singers and musicians before the group’s own career took off.

Edwards and Kimmel worked for a time at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, which was a hub for musicians as well as fans of folk, country, bluegrass and blues music. “My friend Bobby Kimmel said, ‘I know this great singer from Tucson, why don’t we see if the three of us can hit it off?’ ” Edwards told the Monterey County Weekly last year. “We certainly did.”

With Ronstadt on board, the Stone Poneys recorded “Different Drum,” written by Monkees member Mike Nesmith, and watched it rise to No. 13 on the Billboard national Hot 100 sales chart. They put another song, “Up to My Neck in High Muddy Water,” in the Top 100 before the Stone Poneys called it quits.

Bryndle landed a deal with A&M Records, but the label decided not to release the debut album the quartet recorded. They reunited in 1995 and belatedly issued a new album to serve as Bryndle’s debut, and toured the United States and Japan.

After Bryndle’s first career phase fizzled, Edwards rejoined Ronstadt and suggested she record songs by his former band mate Bonoff, whom Ronstadt subsequently turned to repeatedly over the years. When Bonoff got her own deal as a solo artist, she asked Edwards to produce her 1977 debut album.

Edwards was known during the ’70s primarily as a guitarist and singer, but in 1976 he collaborated with Ronstadt and her father as a songwriter on “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” a ballad from her “Hasten Down the Wind” album that reflected a shared love for the Mexican music that also was part of the cultural stew surrounding him as a youth in Southern California.

Edwards downplayed his abilities as a singer and a songwriter for years until he put out his debut solo album in 2002.

He finished and released a second album, “Resurrection Road,” last November.

“Whatever humility or self-doubt he had, he put it out there,” Waldman said. “I always thought he was a great singer, and a great songwriter. He got better over time, which was really fantastic. But I always thought he was great…. He was my main musical ally and chief songwriting collaborator. I was counting yesterday, and every single record I’ve made since ’91 or ’92, I worked with Kenny on.”

Edwards is survived by his mother.

A multi-artist performance Sunday at Zoey’s Café in Ventura, which had been booked before Edwards died as a benefit show to help pay his medical bills, has been converted into a memorial concert.

Source: © Copyright Los Angeles Times Info: The Musicians’ Olympus But wait, there's more!