WASHINGTON – A retired music executive will donate more than 200 audio interviews with popular singers including Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney and others to the Library of Congress, officials announced Monday.
The gift includes interviews that Joe Smith recorded over two years while president of Capitol Records/EMI. He compiled the candid oral histories for his book, “Off the Record,” published in 1988. The collection includes interviews with dozens of big names, including Barbra Streisand, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner and others.
Now the recordings have been digitized by the world’s largest library and will be available to researchers at its reading room on Capitol Hill. Some will be streamed on the library’s website later this year to provide wider access.
Librarian of Congress James Billington said Smith is providing an intimate look into the lives of some of the great musicians.
“These frank and poignant oral histories of many of the nation’s musical icons give us unique insights into them as artists, entertainers and human beings,” Billington said in announcing the gift.
The 84-year-old Smith said he wanted to preserve part of the nation’s cultural history. The 238 hours of interviews stretch from the Big Band era with Artie Shaw and Woody Herman to U2’s Bono.
“I was an insider,” Smith said in an interview. “I could get to Mick Jagger when somebody from the press could not, and I could get to Barbra Streisand when most people could not get to her.”
His interview with Glenn Frey of The Eagles came at a time when the band was ready to break up, but Smith was trying to convince Frey and Don Henley to make a live album. Eventually, the musicians agreed to do the album if Smith could answer one question.
“What’s the question?” Smith recalled in his book.
“In 1971 the Baltimore Orioles had four 20-game winners. If you can name them, we’ll do the album,” Frey and Henley said.
Smith wrote that “God must have opened a recess in the bank of my mind,” and he was able to name the four leading pitchers: Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson.
“OK, we’ll do the album, and we’ll see you tomorrow,” Frey and Henley said.
Smith said they were ready to walk if he hadn’t recalled some baseball facts.
“I had to fight my way through some egos,” he said, to get some “intimate stories with all these people who don’t normally talk to reporters.”
The Joe Smith Collection of recordings will be housed at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in a bunker in Culpeper, Va. The library holds nearly 3 million sound recordings. Copies of the interviews also will be sent to the Yale School of Music, California Institute of the Arts and to Berkeley College.
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