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. Smith died Monday at the age of 91, leaving a legacy of not only forging legendary record deals, but dealing with legendary egos.
Smith worked his way up from promo man to president of Warner Brothers Records before becoming chairman of Elektra/Asylum in 1975 and, later, president of Capitol-EMI in 1987. Some of his most colorful adventures were with the Grateful Dead, with whom he had a like-hate relationship — from the time he signed them to Warner Brothers in 1967 (when he was a vice president before his 1972 promotion to head) until they left the label in 1972.
In 2012, I interviewed Smith about his time with the band for my Dead biography, So Many Roads. Here’s the longer, unedited version of that conversation.
As an A&R man at Warner Brothers — which was known more for mainstream pop than rock in 1967 — what made you interested in the Dead?
Our record company [signed] Frank Sinatra and acts like that. We hadn’t broken through into that new world, which wasn’t broken through by anyone in any major way. We had to shift our focus, sign noisy bands and things like that.
San Francisco appeared to be very hot. The Airplane had been the only band that busted through. I zeroed in on the Grateful Dead, for what reason I don’t know. I’d heard some demos and things like that. I knew what a spell they could cast up there and that’s what we wanted to get involved with more than the music — the whole Grateful Dead thing.
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So we went up to San Francisco. [Influential local DJ] Tom Donahue was an amazing character, very charismatic. He was going to arrange something. I’d never talked to the band or their lawyer.
My wife and I were having dinner at Ernie’s restaurant and Tom called and we went over to the Avalon Ballroom and it was a scene. No one my age had ever seen anything like that. People with painted bodies lying on the floor and smoking. And the light shows. And the band doing one of their 40-minute drone sets. It was kind of startling.
Someone asked my wife to dance and I said, “Oh, no no no.” I sat her down with a security guy and went over to the table with the guys.
They were so suspicious of anybody in the business world and I was wearing a Bank of America suit with a white shirt and tie. I’d just been to a good restaurant. My wife was in pearls. We were out of place, but I could communicate with these guys. I’d dealt with gangsters and crazy people up in Boston [where Smith first worked in the music business], so nothing could throw me.
I said, “Look, I can’t say we’ve been breaking through with this music. It’s a major change in what’s happening in music and it would be a major change at Warners. We’ll have a marketing person and all that.”
And they bought it. So the adventure began!
Legend has it that their contract included unlimited studio time.
Creative control was the hallmark of Warner Brothers. They knew Mo [Ostin] and I would not get involved in things like picking a single. So creative freedom was not a problem. And unlimited studio time wasn’t a problem for their first album [1967’s Grateful Dead].
But the name “Grateful Dead” terrified a lot of people in the office. They said, “Whoa! Sounds like a spooky outfit.”
Did you socialize with the Dead?
I used to go up to their house in Haight-Ashbury. Owsley and all these women nursing children. That was a long way from my consciousness. I went to Yale, for Christ’s sake.
Was the band’s drug use a concern to you?
No. It was the culture of San Francisco. I was in the Army and went to college. I said, “Now, this is the way it is — accept it.” I didn’t want to get involved with it.
It was a funny relationship. They always said I would never understand their music until I dropped some acid. And I said, “No! I will not eat or breathe around you!”
They were playing a club in New York on one of those 80-below-zero nights. After I went to dinner I went to the show and it was freezing and they were on a break, and Pigpen said, “Let me get you some coffee.”
I said, “No, I’ll get my own coffee.”
They once asked me, “Why don’t you invite us to your house?”
I said, “I don’t want you on my street!”
We weren’t best friends but we established a relationship. Garcia was a sensible, gentle guy. Bobby Weir, too. But I was dealing with lunatics, you have to understand. They drifted in and out of reality depending on the amount of acid they dropped at the time.
It was, “We don’t want ads.” They wanted us to go up to [Golden Gate Park] and give out apples to the crowd. That was going to be the promotion.
What do you recall of the problematic making of their second album, Anthem of the Sun?
They made the first album. I wasn’t thrilled with it. I said, “Whatever’s going on there isn’t coming out on the record, so we’ll do another one.”
They wanted Dave Hassinger to produce because he had worked with the Stones. [The experience] was terrible. They were so undisciplined.
You’re in the studio and the clock’s running. If you want to do this at home, go home and fuck around. But don’t do this at a recording session with all the equipment and engineers. Hassinger called me. I was in touch with him all the way. He was unhappy.
They said, “We’ll go to L.A. on a smoggy day and record 30 minutes of desert air and that will be the rhythm track.”
What?! They’re all looking at me and I’m said, “The union won’t let that happen.”
During those sessions, you wrote a notorious letter to the band in which you chastised them and particularly singled out Phil Lesh: “It’s apparent that nobody in your organization has enough influence over Phil Lesh to evoke anything resembling normal behavior.”
He was so negative about everything. When I went to meet with the band, he tells me he was very sensitive. I had 60 artists to deal with. I had Frank Sinatra. I couldn’t waste all that time with Phil Lesh!
I wrote a letter saying “You guys are not welcome in my studio and you’ve burned all your bridges in New York. So what’s the story? This is not a game. Why are you screwing around?”
They sent the letter back with “Fuck You” written on it. How did that make you feel?
I didn’t give a shit. It was the first time I’d ever written a letter like that to anyone. But they annoyed me so much. I’m seeing them sell out arenas. Why can’t I get something on tape that would carry through with that?
Peter, Paul and Mary and Fleetwood Mac were difficult, but they knew they had to take care of business in the end.
[In his memoir Searching for the Sound, Lesh responded: “The right to unlimited studio time and artistic control were written into our contract, however; no matter how many phone calls and nasty letters we received, nothing was going to make us move any faster than was necessary to understand and control how our music was manipulated in the studio.”]
Did you ever consider dropping them?
They ran out of money making the third album, Aoxomoxoa, spending more than $180,00. Their managers at the time visited your office for more cash.
I was seething. Frank would make six albums on what they spent. I said, “You sons of bitches, you’re supposed to be able to control what’s going on up there! Get out of my office!” I chased them down the street. I said, “Don’t come back here!” I was feisty.
I realized they were different, but you got to get on the radio. We had no other methods. We had no MTV or anything else. The only exposure was on radio. The radio wasn’t going to play a 10-minute cut.
I said, “Is it possible for you to play anything under five minutes? It would help if you could hum any melody.”
That’s when they did Workingman’s Dead. I had been on their back. That’s when they came to my office and played it: “Here — what do you think?” They wanted to prove they could do it.
I was so pumped that I jumped up. I said, “Wow, you did it!”
“Uncle John’s Band.” “Casey Jones.” I love that song. One of my favorite songs of any genre is “Ripple.” It’s such a beautiful melody and Garcia’s voice was so right for it. To me there were other bands that were better, but they had charisma and a reputation.
Did you edit out the “goddamn” in “Uncle John’s Band” when it was a single?
I guess we did. People were a lot more sensitive during that period.
You also had to deal with Lenny Hart, Mickey’s dad, when he was managing and then embezzling from them.
He was a con man and a hustler. He had the contract and I had the money. It was around $75,000, I think.
Six months later I’m with the band and they said, “You fucked us good. We got no money!”
When they sued Lenny, I was sitting outside the courtroom and I said, “How could you do that?”
He said, “The Lord has forgiven you. I hope the boys will.”
I said, “The Lord didn’t lose 75 big ones.”
You were also working with them when they were busted in New Orleans in 1970.
I get a call that they were busted and their instruments were taken and they were all going to jail. I called Jim Garrison. He was the DA. I said, “Mr. Garrison, my name is Joe Smith and I’m with Warner Brothers Records and we admire the way you administer the law in your parish. We wish we had that kind of thing in California. We’d like to make a contribution to your re-election campaign fund.”
He said, “That’s wonderful, Mr. Smith. What do you have in mind?”
I said, “$50,000.” His whole campaign probably cost $100,000.
He said, “Thank you very much.”
I said, “And by the way, you’ve got some of my guys in your prison. And their instruments. They mean no harm. They’re not a danger. I promise they won’t come back. Just let them out of there.” It helped him make that decision.
Was that legal?
Of course not! And I love the song [sings a bit of “Truckin’”].
Talk about the infamous band meeting, complete with family and employees, when they announced they wanted to call their 1971 live album Skull Fuck.
I said, “You worked so hard and you’ve been out there and if we call it that, we’ll only sell it in headshops and we won’t get paid for it.”
I called retailers and the district attorney and they said, “arrests,” and all this. I’m there in the meeting and it’s three of us against 500 of them.
I was going to need a throat operation; I had nodes on my vocal cords. I didn’t want to be talking with them for a long time. That’s when I mentioned the retailers. And they agreed to let us call it Grateful Dead.
Another time they were on my case because I was going to Washington to testify about bootlegs. Garcia said, “Why are you getting so excited about that?”
We were at the Palladium in Hollywood and we went outside and saw five bootleg Dead albums. I said, “You’re getting zero!” They went crazy. They’d never seen it like that. The guys had booths.
What did you make of Pigpen?
He was very enigmatic. A quiet guy. Nice young man. Very sincere. We had a couple of talks but I didn’t know him well. I went to his funeral. I mostly dealt with Garcia, Lesh and Weir and later Mickey. We financed something for Mickey with all his percussion people. I said, “You can’t dance to that, Mickey!”
They wound up leaving Warner in 1972.
They were not happy. They’re never happy. All of a sudden [at a meeting] you’d hear a voice from someone sitting there: “There were no records in the store in Albany. My aunt lives there.”
They hated everybody. They hated me a little less. I never thought they loved me. I was the bad guy because I was from the company.
We’d run our course with them. They didn’t want anything to do with us. They didn’t want anything to do with anybody. [The band left to start its own short-lived label, Grateful Dead Records.] I made no effort to hold onto them. If James Taylor had said that, I’d fight like crazy. But the Dead weren’t that important to us, other than they’d helped our image.
To me, they were one of the two or three most important signings in all those years. It changed the nature and the opinion of the record company. We were out in front. We had the Fugs and Joni Mitchell and people like that. We became hip. Whatever the word for “hip” was.