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In the mid-1980s, a record executive and former DJ named Joe Smith saw that a lot of the big-band greats were disappearing: Count Basie, Harry James and others.
So he decided to try to start recording interviews with outstanding musicians while they were in their prime. From 1985 to 1987, Smith sat down with many of the popular music figures of the 20th century, including Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Garcia, Tony Bennett, Bo Diddley, Mick Jagger, Little Richard, Dick Clark, Burt Bacharach, Ruth Brown, David Bowie ... the list goes on and on. It added up to more than 230 hours' worth of conversations. Smith says that Studs Terkel, the great author and oral historian, was a big inspiration to the project.
"He wrote books that appealed to me," Smith tells NPR's Scott Simon. "The subjects he was interviewing were just talking; it wasn't broken up, Q&A. That's what I tried to do with these people. I had a microphone on the table, a tape recorder, and we'd just start talking. 'Why did you do this? How come this happened? How did you feel?' Questions like that."
Those interviews eventually appeared in a book, Off the Record, published in 1988. The cassettes on which they were recorded, though, sat moldering in boxes in Smith's garage — until now. This week, the Library of Congress began making those interviews available online. Smith says that since he had well-established relationships with most of the personalities to whom he spoke, they often were looser in conversation than they might have been with the press.
"Mick Jagger — I got him to say that [The Rolling Stones] hadn't made a good record in 10 years," Smith says. "Paul McCartney said that since Lennon died, he hadn't written a good song. Understand, these interviews were done 20, 30 years ago. But we got them to be very candid."
Smith didn't nail down everyone he wanted to: Frank Sinatra, he says, had recently been smeared in an unauthorized biography and wouldn't grant interviews to anyone until years later. But even the artists he got, he adds, were bound by a common insecurity.
"The next record — is that going to be a hit?" he says. "Are they going to continue to be stars and be idolized? Everybody has the moment where their records are on the charts, the moment where the crowds are at the concerts. And then the moment passes. And they remain big and important, but they're not the moment anymore."