Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Joe Smith Spreads Out

Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Joe Smith Spreads Out

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.


The hot label that Joe Smith took over in 1975 from David Geffen -- Elektra-Asylum Records -- had become sizzling mainly because of 1970s acts from The Eagles to Joni Mitchell to Jackson Browne to Linda Ronstadt to Carly Simon. Geffen-style artists, mostly his personal signings.

Soft rock, by singer-songwriters, often residents up in Laurel Canyon.

Those acts had made David Geffen’s short-term leadership of Elektra-Asylum mighty and plentiful, filled with Grammys and Revenues, but all concentrated on what felt like California pop.

Joe Smith believed Elektra-Asylum could be more.

Moving into the top chair at Elektra, Joe Smith quickly spread out his ears out to untapped markets for Elektra. Markets like Country music. Garage rock. Black audiences.

And jazz. Few of Elektra’s Geffen-era artists quickly embraced these “new” markets. Joni Mitchell would turn to jazz with her 1979 album, Mingus. But that was rare.

Joe Smith wanted new voices in these, for Elektra, new realms. He signed openly, sometimes wastefully, but intentionally broadening Elektra into areas yet unheard by the label.


Eddie Rabbitt in 1976

To reach out to new markets, Joe Smith first turned to his Sinatra/Reprise “country music” titan from the Warner days, Jimmy Bowen. Bowen, known for producing pop-country hits with Dean Martin, Nancy Sinatra, and that gang, had since moved to Nashville. Getting Smith’s phone call, Bowen quickly had someone in mind.

Eddie Rabbitt was hardly a Nashville veteran. He’d come from New Jersey, but was deep into songs. He described himself as “a walking encyclopedia of country music.” Moving to Nashville in the mid-Sixties, Rabbitt worked wherever: as a soda jerk, a truck driver, a fruit picker. When he did get a music business job (with Hill & Range Publishing) his salary had been $37.50 a week. Before taxes.

He’d had a couple of song-writing hits in the late-60s-early-70s (1969 Elvis’ “Kentucky Rain” was one). Then in 1975, Bowen signed him to the Elektra. Hits followed.

Early ‘70s hits: “You Get to Me,” “Forgive and Forget,” “I Should Have Married You, and “Pure Love.”

In 1976, his Elektra album Rocky Mountain Music came out, producing Rabbitt’s (and Elektra’s) first #1 Country hit, “Drinkin’ My Baby (Off My Mind).” And away he and his label went. Rabbitt got compared to others: “a young Elvis Presley.”

Hey, Bartender
pop the top on another can
Give me ten dimes
for this dollar in my hand
Turn the knob on the jukebox way up loud
I might drive out the whole damn crowd
But I'm drinking my baby off my mind

His recording techniques were not Nashville-normal. He used light R&B tempos. He used echo, and would sing his own background vocals. People put him into a pile named “Rockabilly.”

He stuck with Elektra for years, concentrating on his albums, making sure, as he put it, his albums had “ten potential singles. No fillers. No junk.”

1978: “Every Which Way But Loose.” 1980: “Drivin’ My Life Away” and “I Love a Rainy Night,” which became #1 on three Billboard charts, including the oh-so-not-Nashville chart, the Billboard Hot 100.

Watch Eddie perform "I Love a Rainy Night":

So Step One: Elektra’s now also a country label.

What else?

Television in 1977

Contrasting against the California daze and ease, New York bands often hung out underground, and in weird settings. One such band, named Television, had assembled back in 1973. The famous-to-be names included Tom Verlaine on lead guitar; drummer Billy Ficca; Fred Smith on bass, and second guitarist Richard Lloyd.

It took what seemed like ages until Television made a record deal and, even for Elektra, this deal required bravery. Television worked hard to make it special, rehearsing six or seven days a week, for hours each day. They made their album without a producer, only engineer Andy Johns. Elektra made no attempt to control the recording costs.

Their first album, named Marquee Moon, was called good names, like “forward thinking,” epic and eloquent. Most special was the communication between Verlaine and Lloyd’s two guitars, playing rhythm and melody back and forth, like a jigsaw puzzle.

The lyrics Television sung were like French poetry, pastoral and not obvious.

Life in the hive puckered up my night

The kiss of death, the embrace of life

There I stand 'neath the Marquee Moon

I ain't waiting

I remember how the darkness doubled

I recall, lightning struck itself

I was listening, listening to the rain

I was hearing, hearing something else

Not exactly Elvis material, and for Television, that was the point.

The album came out big in England. Two singles hit the UK Top 30: "Marquee Moon" and "Prove It."

In America, the album was critically appreciated, but sold poorly. Elektra’s publicity department urged Television to keep touring the UK, but the band already was set to open for Peter Gabriel on a so-so U.S. tour, and Gabriel attracted a less elite-eared crowd. They often found Television “unnerving. In the U.S., the album sold fewer than 80,000 copies.

Hear the title track:

Television’s career lasted two albums. The second album found no bigger an audience. For a career, it was over, and Television disbanded in 1978.

But for Elektra, these pre-punk pioneers became, in rock history, important. Critics had fallen deep-in-love with Television. One BBC critic said of it “there’s been nothing like it before or since.” Entertainment Weekly ranked their album as “the masterpiece of the 1970s New York punk rock scene.”

Within Elektra 1977, Joe Smith and NY VP Mel Posner had moved Elektra’s scope higher and wider. Even if Television didn’t work.

Keep reaching out.

The Cars in 1978

The Cars were a new-wave group centered in Boston. They’d sent a mix tape to a local Boston DJ, Maxanne Sartori, who played that song, “Just What I Needed,” heavily on her station, WBCN. Other DJs caught on, even if the record wasn’t for sale.

Yet. Elektra’s George Daly, in town in his A&R role, caught the group at a Harvard U. After catching a performance by The Cars there, Daly offered a deal with Elektra/Asylum written on a paper napkin. An album deal.

That first album, named easily enough The Cars, went onto the charts for 139 weeks. In the U.S., it sold over six million copies.

Albums followed, one a year, with hit singles like “Shake It Up” and “Drive.” But their most remembered LP was their second one, Candy-O. It made its splash in 1979, and rose to #3 on the Billboard album chart. The hottest single in it was “Let’s Go.”

Experience The Cars performing “Candy-O” here:

But the hottest part of all was the album cover. It was painted by artist Alberto Vargas, known for years of Vargas Pin-Up Girls in Playboy and Esquire. Vargas was now 83 years old, but he could still paint hotly. Candy-O showed a girl sprawled across the hood of a Ferrari.

Candy-O caught both ears and eyes for Elektra. It was “bubblegum art-rock.” And the Cars stuck with Joe Smith and Elektra through 1984. Through their six-year career there, The Cars were out early with all kinds of musical trends: punk minimalism, art rock’s mix of synthesizer-plus-guitar textures, even the revival of 1950s rockabilly and power pop.

Signing, even on paper napkins, was paying off.

The Pointer Sisters in 1978

Joe Smith knew how to be a big label that distributes smaller labels, as he’d done at WBR. When Elektra’s door opened to producer Richard Perry’s Planet label, both Perry (also a WBR vet) and Smith found Elektra suddenly in R&B now. Elektra’s Planet deal starred three of The Pointer Sisters, Ruth, Anita, and June.

Rather than having this Pointer Sisters deal move Elektra deep into R&B, it was Smith’s thought that the Sisters’ black audience might be expanded via the sound of West Coast soft rock. A new market -- “West Coast R&B” -- would be a specialty for The Pointer Sisters now.

Their first album, in 1978, Energy, had an “improved” version of Bruce Springsteen’s hit “Fire.” The Pointers’ single quickly proved Elektra’s A&R move very right, as “Fire” made it to #2 on the U.S. singles charts.

View The Pointer Sisters’ “official” video of “Fire”:

The next year, the Pointers’ album Priority had in it another Springsteen re-do: “The Fever.” And others.

1980: Special Things, And its single, “He’s So Shy” went to #3 pop.

1981: Black & White, with its single “Slow Hand.” #2!

1982: Break Out, with “Jump” and “Neutron Dance.”

The Planet-Elektra deal ended in 1982, and the Pointer Sisters left Planet. They were off to RCA. But their four-year, always-charting series of albums proved again that Elektra had a new, broadened scope in the record business: West-Coast R&B.

What else? Acts from other labels, but on Elektra for America only.

Queen in New Orleans in 1978

During the first years of Joe Smith’s tenure atop Elektra-Asylum, some earlier-signed acts started making hits as well.

Queen, signed in 1973, was in from England’s EMI Records. Elektra had picked up Queen’s North American rights, and those proved bigger and better.

Leader of Queen was Freddie Mercury, who often upstaged even himself. Queen’s Mercury was about glitter. Freddie would show up on stage in costumes, be they women’s gowns or storm troopers’ uniforms.

And often appear on stage topless. Like Country and R&B, now Topless and Nudity might be considered new Elektra categories.

In 1976, Freddie Mercury devised one of Queen’s major hits: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (or, as it got to be called, “Bo-Rap”). It was mock opera, with over 180 vocal overdubs by a wailing chorus singing pidgin Verdi about “Beelzebub,” “Galileo Figaro magnifico,” “Mama mia,” and “Scaramouche.” The single ran six minutes and went Top Ten.

Queen sold over a million of its album, A Night at the Opera, in four months. In England, they called it “the most expensive album ever recorded.” In Elektra-land, the album went to #4 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Experience “Bo-Rap” live here:

Queen became a major act now in America, with two Top Ten albums in 1976. The second one: A Day at the Races, with its single “Somebody to Love.”

Two years of touring before amazed crowds, and in 1978, Queen came out with an album called Jazz, with its own single, “Bicycle Race/Fat-Bottom Girls.” The LP’s inner spread photo was an ass-focused rear view of 60 nude women on bikes, taken at a “race” that Queen had staged in London.

Nudes-on-Bikes became Queen’s new motif. At a concert in Madison Square Garden, the crowd cheered half-nude women wheeling across the stage during the band’s performance. Sorry: No video available of this, but if you’re into music…

Watch Queen play “Fat Bottomed Girls” here:

Party All Night

As it did each August, WEA labels convene from city to city across America, to introduce their Fall albums to local distributors. Elektra, included.

This felt like an Elektra year. Party time.

When it came to New Orleans, Elektra, to celebrate, put on the most ribald rock party ever held. One night, it felt Elektra had rented much of New Orleans. Elektra’s party’s theme: “Really Fun Women.” The one-night party ran up a bill --- $200,000.

To get their hot group down to New Orleans, Queen flew leased a private plane. With a bedroom in it. With a shower. With a glass door on it.

That evening in the French Quarter, Elektra, led by Queen, boogied through a humid night. Sweat melted shirts and blouses; almost anything above the belt became free to rub.

It went all night. Elektra had hired hermaphrodite strippers to romp. Topless waitresses bore trays of condoms, K-Y Jelly, and herpes antidotes. Rock roared through the Quarter’s narrow streets as locals watched a Mardi Gras Parade from hell. Hired escape artists did their tricks. Freelance dwarfs, some hired, some not, tugged on people’s pants, cussing up at them. Crowds flocked to see one woman who was smoking cigarettes from an orifice that precluded any possible concerns about lung cancer.

The Next Day

The next morning, time for the convention to open. Elektra felt ready, having got hot by partnering up with fresh acts like Television, Eddie Rabbitt, the Pointer Sisters, The Cars, and other new acts with fresh attitudes.

Time for next year’s releases, as soon as the convention wakes up.

On Joe Smith’s 1979 coming outs lists for this morning’s meeting: Hank Williams Jr., Grover Washington, and a group simply called X.

-- Stay Tuned