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A Trove Of Chats With Music Icons, Now Online

Joe Smith poses with Rod Stewart, circa 1974. The former record executive conducted informal interviews with dozens of musicians in the mid-1980s. (Jeff Smith)

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."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In the mid-1980s, a record executive and former deejay named Joe Smith saw that a lot of the big band greats were disappearing - Count Basie, Harry James. So, he decided to try to start recording interviews with outstanding musical artists while they were in their prime. And from 1985 to 1987, Joe Smith sat down with many of the signature popular musical 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 and on - more than 230 hours' worth of conversations. Those interviews eventually appeared in a book, and the cassettes on which they were recorded sat moldering in boxes in Mr. Smith's garage - until now. This week, the U.S. Library of Congress began making those interviews available online. And Joe Smith joins us now from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOE SMITH: Pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: So, Studs Terkel kind of put this in your mind?

SMITH: Yeah. He wrote books that appeal to me. What it was, was the subject he was interviewing were just talking. It wasn't broken-up Q&A. And that's what I tried to do with these people. I'd come in, we'd have some small talk, I had a microphone on the table, tape recorder and then we'd just start talking. You know, why did you do this? How come this happened? How did you feel? Questions like that.

SIMON: I understand you had Benny Goodman all set up and...

SMITH: That was an interesting story. I couldn't reach him, and there's a place in New York called Murray Sturgeon. It's a little smoked fish place. And they asked me there what do you do? And I said I'm writing a book but I can't get started. I'm trying to get Benny Goodman. And the owner said, well, he comes in here twice a week. And so I said set me up. We were set up for a Thursday. Wednesday Mr. Goodman unconscionably died. And that ended that interview.

SIMON: Let's hear some of this extraordinary audio. We have a clip of you speaking with Bo Diddley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BO DIDDLEY: They don't pay any attention to us. We are the originators of all this stuff. And nobody pays us attention. One of us dies. I'm worried about when my booty kick off. Will anybody know it? Will anybody notice it? That's something to think about. Will anybody notice when Bo Diddley cease to exist? Will anybody know a good dude has gone to rest?

SIMON: That's very moving. What put him in that mood?

SMITH: I don't know. We started to talk and he complained about record companies. He never got paid the correct amount of money and he was sounding off. And I said but let's talk about you. What do you feel like? And that's when he got when I'm going to cease to exist?

SIMON: We should explain a bit about your career as a music executive. First, you were a deejay in Boston in the '50s, I gather.

SMITH: Right. That's so.

SIMON: And then you went on as an executive to sign people that included the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, James Taylor and Jimi Hendrix. Another moment we want to play now. This is the great Ray Charles talking about the equally great Artie Shaw. Now, Artie Shaw, one of the signature jazz musicians of history, he had just stopped playing music in the middle of his career. But here's Ray Charles on Artie Shaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

RAY CHARLES: I love him so much, man.

SMITH: He is so smart. He is so interesting.

CHARLES: You would never know - I'm serious. I mean, you'll never know - I almost cried, literally, tears when I think of what a loss it was that he stopped playing. I know you think I'm kind of putting you on but I'm deadly serious. I would not say that if I didn't mean it. I'm too old. I'll be 57 years old this year. And what I'm saying is ever since I was a kid, he was the guy that, I mean, I loved so much, which caused me to start playing saxophone or clarinet. Well, actually, I started playing clarinet 'cause I wanted to play like Artie Shaw. But Artie Shaw, to me, had so much feeling in his notes. Over a note, you could feel his heart. I have to tell you, man, it's like a person dying. At least if he was dead, you could say, well, if you're dead you can't do.

SMITH: Interesting P.S. on that, Scott. I got the two of them together for lunch. I called Artie and I said you know who Ray Charles is? And Artie was a very testy guy. He says, of course, I know who Ray Charles is. I said, you know, he's thinks you the living end. And he says, well, I enjoy his music too. I said would you meet with him? And he said, well, yeah, set it up. And Artie also made sure I sent a car for him and had the right kind of wine in the car. And so I pull them together at the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles for a lunch that was like a fan club thing. They were admiring each other. It was a real kick for them.

SIMON: Oh, gosh. To have been in the bread basket at that table and just to have overhead him. Yeah, I've got to tell you listening to some clips from these interviews, they're unlike anything I've heard. Is there a secret to that? Was it just because it was you? Was it a certain time in their lives?

SMITH: Well, a lot of it was because, immodestly, it was me. I knew them, they knew who I was. If they didn't know me, like Mick Jagger, got him to say that they hadn't made a good record for 10 years; Paul McCartney, who said that since Lennon died he hadn't written a good song. Now, understand, these interviews were done 20 years ago, 30 years ago. But we got them to be very candid.

SIMON: Yeah. Anyone turned you down that you remember?

SMITH: Frank Sinatra, and very oddly I was running his record company. But he had just been assassinated in a book by a lady named Kitty Kelley, and he didn't want to do any interviews. And so I got stonewalled. And then two years later at a record session, Sinatra said you still want to do that interview? I said the book's been out for two years, Frank. I don't think it's going to make any difference right now.

SIMON: Let me - another, really a very nice moment, David Bowie talking about how he almost ended up in advertising. He was in art school with Peter Frampton's father.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

DAVID BOWIE: And some of us went straight into street jobs because either we didn't really believe in ourselves as painters or artists. And I was one of those. I went into a visual side of an advertising agency. And I was doing paste-up jobs and small designs for raincoats and things like that. Isn't it awful? Absolutely awful.

SMITH: Oh, they should have kept it (unintelligible)...

BOWIE: Well, if all this goes down the tubes...

SMITH: You can always go...

BOWIE: ...go and get on Madison Avenue eventually. I think those days are over.

SIMON: When you finished doing the interviews over those two years, did you find you came away from it with any kind of conclusions about what qualities a lot of these artists shared?

SMITH: I felt if there was one emotion that went through the old ones and the new ones, it was insecurity. The next record - is that going to be a hit? Are they going to continue to be stars and be idolized? Because everybody has the moment when their records were on the charts, the moment when the crowds were at the concerts, and then the moment passes. But they remain big and important, but they're not the moment anymore. And that bothers them.

SIMON: Let's end on your having tea and a chat with George Harrison. In this first clip, he talks about his life in the post-Beatles era.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

SMITH: How hard is it to be George Harrison? How difficult is it to...

GEORGE HARRISON: It's getting easier all the time. It was very difficult once we got into the heavy period of the Beatles in the early '60s and through the mania. That was very difficult. Then we went through all the drug period, which scrambled our brains up. And then after the Beatles split, and historically we know it was all the legal problems, but I'm glad to say I've come out of the other end of that tunnel and I feel really, really good about it. And I'm a happy person myself. All our problems are going away. So, it's really quite easy now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING")

SIMON: In your conversation with George Harrison, there was a surprising moment when he talks about his favorite version of one of their best-known songs, "Something."

HARRISON: The best version of "Something" is James Brown, and it's a killer, it is. And I even sent him a postcard saying you should put it out as a single. He said he...

SMITH: Has anybody even heard it?

HARRISON: I've got it on my jukebox at home. But, you know, it's brilliance. It's absolutely brilliant.

SIMON: The whole idea of George Harrison of sending a postcard to James Brown...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Something in the way she moves, attracts me like no other lover...

SIMON: Well, Mr. Smith, on behalf of the American people, thank you for the gift of these interviews.

SMITH: I enjoyed this and I thank you very much.

SIMON: That is retired recording executive Joe Smith speaking with us from NPR West. And his conversations with musical greats are now online from the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING")

BROWN: (Singing) I've got to believe in something...

SIMON: And you can hear more of Joe Smith's conversations on our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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