Oral History of Popular Music: John and Yoko, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger and More
In 1988, John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono gave a candid interview to record-label president Joe Smith about the Beatles’ split: "For John, it was a divorce. I think he was feeling very good about it, as if a big weight was off him." Ono was among more than 200 celebrated performers, producers and industry leaders whose words Smith captured on audiotape more than 25 years ago in an effort to document the oral history of popular music.
In June 2012, Smith donated the collection of recordings to the Library of Congress—a tremendous assembly of primary-source oral histories covering perhaps the most important 50 years of popular music, nationally and internationally. The library has made a series of these revealing, unedited recordings available for listening free to the public, The Joe Smith Collection at the Library of Congress, in the Library of Congress website. The first group of recordings posted on the site will consist of 25 interviews. These include interviews with Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Bo Diddley and Linda Rondstadt. More recordings in the Smith collection will be added to the site over time.
Also coming soon is Smith’s own reflective interview, in which he shares rare and intimate details about his decades-long career. He candidly talks about the famous people in his life, including a titillating accusation against him and his business partner, Frank Sinatra.
All types of popular music are represented in the collection—from rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, rhythm & blues and pop to big-band, heavy metal, folk and country-western. The list of noted artists and executives is a veritable who’s who in the music industry. Among them are Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Little Richard, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Elton John, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Sting, Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, James Taylor, Dick Clark, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, B. B. King, Quincy Jones, David Geffen, Mickey Hart, Harry Belafonte and many others.
Smith’s 40-year career in the industry gave him unique entrée and for about a two-year period, he interviewed the biggest names in music. In 1988, he published excerpts from his interviews in the groundbreaking book "Off the Record" (Warner Books).
"One of the great things about the interviews is how relaxed many of them are," said Matt Barton, the Library’s recorded sound curator. "They’re not on camera and they’re talking to someone who’s very much a colleague and a peer, if not a musical artist. The tone is very different and the camera isn’t on them."
Visitors to the Library’s website will get a rare glimpse of music’s biggest stars in unguarded moments. Smith records them joking, eating, drinking and candidly discussing their lives, careers and contemporaries. While chain-smoking, Ono talks about the breakup of The Beatles; Mick Jagger consumes toast and tea while discussing the Stones’ outlaw reputation; Paul McCartney also speaks frankly about The Beatles’ walk on the wild side; and Tony Bennett talks about the legacy of two music greats over dinner.
- B.B. King on the blues:
"I feel it’s dying as we’ve known it. But there will continuously be blues as long as there are people on the planet, because people gonna continuously have problems."
- Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ outlaw image:
"I think there was a lot of time wasted with this band with all that image stuff. And eventually, of course, I think it contributed to Brian (Jones) cracking up completely and to a certain extent Keith (Richards) becoming a junkie."
- Mick Jagger on The Beatles’ early influence:
"Both Keith and Brian were very much influenced by The Beatles – everyone was at that point. I must say I don’t think I was as much as they were. One envied their success, but I never really liked their music as much."
- Yoko Ono on the breakup of The Beatles:
"Paul was the only one trying to hold The Beatles together. But, then again, the other three felt that Paul was trying to hold The Beatles together as HIS band. They were getting to be like Paul’s band, which they didn’t like….There was an incredible period of unpleasantness for John, so he was in fact delighted that he was out of it."
- Yoko Ono on the possibility of a Beatles reunion:
"John’s feeling was that there was such a myth about The Beatles, and if they did get back together again it wouldn’t have been the same."
- Tony Bennett on Bing Crosby:
"He actually had us all hypnotized for many years. No one could get past him. It must have been frustrating for the singers of the day. … He was like 15 Beatles."
- Tony Bennett on Louis Armstrong:
"He invented jazz. He invented the whole art of popular music. He actually invented it. … He was the fountainhead. There isn’t any note or anything in popular music that’s ever been done that Louis Armstrong didn’t do before anybody else. He did everything."
- Bo Diddley on Elvis:
"Elvis Presley copied me and Jackie Wilson – he combined the two acts together. At the time, he had a good thing going. I thank God that he did. I take my hat off to him. The name of the game is make money, and that’s what he did. He was a lucky man. I haven’t seen anybody else come behind him and do that same thing except Michael Jackson and Prince. I still don’t think they’ve stepped in Elvis’s shoes."
- Paul McCartney on drugs:
"That was one hell of a period – completely different, like another lifetime. We were like different people by then because of the drugs thing. … We’d just become introduced to it. Sgt. Pepper owes a lot to drugs, to pot. That was us getting into that. It was rather innocent compared to what you talk about these days. It was very innocent. It was never seriously heavy stuff. Things got heavy later with one or two of us. Then, it was quite mild. It was like a drink. It was nothing. It was never lethal. It was never that crazy. We were never sort of out on the floor like you’d hear about Stones sessions where you couldn’t wake the guitarist up. … Possibilities started to come in like mad. So that was a very rich period."
- Ray Charles
"The public supported me even when I was nobody, and they still do it today. They supported me even through all the trials and tribulations and sufferings I went through, hassles I had. They still stuck by me. That’s why I believe in giving the public the best I got every night. All I got. So when you see me on stage, man, that’s what you see – is everything I got….I never go out there and half do it."
- David Bowie
"I’m more of a sucker. I’m more of a fan. If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose and he plays a guitar upside down, I’ll go look at it. I love to see people being dangerous."
- Linda Ronstadt
"Music is just dreaming in sound."
The recordings in the Joe Smith Collection are housed in the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va., a state-of-the-art facility. The Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division’s collections include nearly 3 million sound recording.
Visit your local library for more information on this topic.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the first day of their Bed-In for Peace in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel.
Date: 25 March 1969