Chelsea native Joe Smith celebrated his 88th birthday this week but there is a professional milestone to be celebrated as well.
Smith has received one of those incredible honors that only go to the well accomplished and the famous: a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce unveiled Smith’s star at a special ceremony attended by singers Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.
During a legendary career that spanned four decades as a music executive, Smith led three major record companies: Warner Brothers, Elektra/Asylum, and Capitol.
Interestingly, Smith’s “star” was enshrined in front of the Capitol Records Building on North Vine Street.
Smith was humbled by the recognition that he enjoyed with friends and family, but he jested, “It’s a kick. I make my family go everyday and look at the star and report back to me.” Following the ceremony, Smith hosted a gathering at a country club.
Smith was president of the Chelsea High School Class of 1945. He has fond memories of his days in the city. “Chelsea was a great city and it still is,” said Smith. “I remember Choc Glazer and Nate Finklestein and a lot of other classmates. We were all pals.”
Following his service in the United States Army, Smith received his degree in Political Science and English from Yale University.
“I finished Yale and I decided I wanted to be a disc jockey. I was a DJ in Pittsburgh and Virginia and then I came back and I was a DJ in Boston for seven years. I was the first guy who played real rock and roll on Boston radio, WMEX-AM. I was on WHDH and WBZ Radio, too.”
He did local promotions for a record distributor before being hired by Warner Brothers Records to be the national promotions person.
“I got the offer to move out to the West Coast and my wife loved that because she was from the West Coast. So we moved out here with our two young children and I’ve been in California for a long time and I’ve made a lot of friends, made a lot of money, and had a really good career.”
Smith worked with and guided the careers of some of the greatest entertainers in the music industry. “From the Grateful Dead to Frank Sinatra and everything in between,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with Frank over the years. I went on the road and traveled overseas with him. You had to do a little hand holding with Frank because you never knew when he would blow up. He was the most interesting man I had ever met or worked with and he had this incredible talent.”
Smith recalled one trip with Sinatra for a show in Sao Paolo, Brazil. “There were 30,000 people there and Frank walks up on stage and he was in charge right away. The word for Frank was ‘swagger.’’’
Smith also had regular interactions with such enormous acts as the Beatles, Neil Young, Tony Bennett, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt, and Fleetwood Mac.
“One of my best friends was Tony Bennett,” said Smith. “He’s a true legend. I enjoyed spending time with him. He’s still going strong.”
He fondly recalls being the emcee at a dinner in New York City where the Beatles’ John Lennon was a guest. “He’s the one who turned me on to Jimi Hendrix. We were at a club in London one night and it was about two in the morning and John said to me, ‘Hey, Yank, you want to hear a great guitar player,’ and we took limousines to a small club and there was Jimi.”
Smith later signed Lennon to a solo record contract.
In addition to his talents as a record executive, Smith was highly regarded for his skills as a master of ceremonies, emceeing many dinners and galas in Hollywood.
He has also appeared in three movies, one with Paul Simon. “All together, I was on screen for about 11 minutes.”
As a celebrity himself, Smith has often found himself in the company of other giants in media and politics, including former California governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and television host and producer Dick Clark.
Looking back at his illustrious career, Smith said it was Chelsea that gave him the foundation to aspire for greatness.
“Chelsea was a tight-knit city back then,” said Smith. “We had so many people in so little space that you were all in to each other and you had a very close bond with your friends. I moved away from Chelsea and used to come back to visit my mother and dad when they were still alive.
“I’d hang out in Bellingham Square and Tony’s used to be a place to eat. I’ve gone to every Chelsea class reunion. I still keep in touch with people. I love Chelsea but California is the best place to live. I’ve been living here for almost 60 years now.”