Friday, November 14, 2014

Trumpeting the role of Joe Smith

There are books you purchase simply because the cover art is so delightfully enticing. Howard A. Dewitt's Van Morrison: The Mystic's Music is not one of those books. (Yes, that's the cover on the right, in all its eye-wateringly grotesque glory. Yes, Van Morrison bears a slight likeness to Gene Simmons. Yes, his ensemble could be classified as "neighborhood thrift shop." No, we are not taking the picture down.)

Of course, it's what's inside a book that counts and while on the thin side (114 pages), Van Morrison: The Mystic's Music does offer new angles on Astral Weeks. For example, Dewitt trumpets the role Joe Smith played during the album's genesis. Smith, a legendary record executive who headed up three major labels, manned the position of national promotion director at Warner Bros. in the late 1960s. According to Dewitt, Smith was not only influential in getting Warner Bros. to sign Morrison, but also persuaded the label to permit the Irishman to partake in some "creative experimentation in the recording studio."

There was this from Dewitt:
When Warner Brothers signed Van Morrison it was due to Joe Smith, who eventually became president of Elektra Records. It was Smith who convinced skeptical corporate executives that Van had a unique style tailored for the musical tastes of the late 1960s. One of Smith's strongest arguments was that FM radio stations like San Francisco's KSAN were creating a demand for long-playing albums. The day of heavy 45 record sales was not over, but the increasingly sophisticated rock music purchaser demanded quality albums. The concept or rock opera album was developing and Van Morrison was to become one of the earliest artists to record a classic rock opera. Had it not been for Joe Smith's encouragement and support, Van's first project with Warner Brothers, Astral Weeks, might not have been completed.
And then this:
There was also a business revolution in the recording industry. No longer were most artists forced to negotiate for each 45 record release or album contract. Warner Brothers began to sign a large number of artists to long-term contracts. RCA had only one or two significant rock acts. In 1956 RCA's president was a classical music buff and he believed that Elvis Presley was the only rock singer necessary to the label's success. It was not until 1965 that RCA signed its second rock group, Jefferson Airplane. But Warner Brothers realized that the rock and roll market was extremely lucrative. As a result they signed artists like Van Morrison to long-term contracts. Since many songwriters make a large portion of their income from publishing rights, it was essential to guarantee ASCAP and BMI royalties. Many composers referred to these payments as "old age money." It was Joe Smith who convinced Warner Brothers to guarantee Van Morrison the type of contract which made the label an artist-oriented one. That is, a contract which provided for comfortable living as well as money for creative experimentation in the recording studio.

In a reflective interview, Joe Smith recalled his early meetings with Van Morrison in a small Boston club in 1967. Smith remembered that Van had immigration problems and that he believed that Bang Records was merchandising his records in the wrong market. When Astral Weeks was completed, Smith realized that it would not be an immediate best seller. However, he convinced skeptical Warner Brothers management that the album's sales would be steady for a number of years. The first year Astral Weeks sold only 15,000 copies but 10,000 of those were merchandised in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was five years before Astral Weeks sold more than a 100,000 copies but the album continues to sell well into the 1980s.

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