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Pop music revealed

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Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012 8:35 am | Updated: 1:23 pm, Thu Nov 29, 2012.

An unparalleled audio collection of interviews with music icons just went live on the World Wide Web thanks in part to the expertise of the sound technicians on Mount Pony.

This summer, record label president Joe Smith donated his collection of more than 200 recordings of the likes of Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, B.B. King and Paul McCartney to the Library of Congress. The collection represents a tremendous assembly of primary source oral histories covering what could be the most important 50 years of popular music.

“That was one hell of a period – completely different, like another lifetime,” McCartney told Smith in one of the interviews, recalling The Beatles’ drug years. “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.”

And consider this quote from the Smith archive from Tony Bennett about 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.”

Wednesday, the Library of Congress shared a portion of the musical wealth of recorded sound with the entire world, posting 25 of Smith’s interviews to its web site at loc.gov/rr/record/joesmith. The entirety of the recordings will be posted in the near future.

The audio staff at the LOC Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper is largely responsible for the project.

Gene DeAnna, head of the recorded sound section, said the Smith collection was received earlier this year at the library’s Mount Pony location, where several local staffers proceeded to inventory, digitize and catalog the collection.

“We provided all the content for the web site,” DeAnna said. “It’s a couple hundred tapes and of course a lot of work in the trenches. It took a while. It was six or seven months of pretty intense work on the part of several staffers here.”

While the Smith collection is by no means the largest the library has received, it is entirely unique, DeAnna said.

“It was completely owned by Joe Smith and he was able to give us all of the rights to put in on the web and make it available to the American people and the world,” he said. “That it is what we want to do with everything, but can’t. Access if often pretty narrow,” DeAnna said of popular recordings only accessible to the public via the main library’s reading room in Washington, D.C.

DeAnna said it was very important to Smith that his recordings be accessible to everyone. 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, according to a news release from the LOC.

In 1988, he published experts from his interviews in the groundbreaking books, “Off the Record.”

A book cannot compare to the impact of recorded sound, DeAnna noted.

“If you listen to these interviews, they are prominent musicians and industry leaders – people at the top of the heap at the time,” he said. “They were incredibly candid and relaxed, not your standard media interviews. They spoke at length about personal things – disappointments and hardships. To hear them in their own voices is more powerful that reading it.”

In deciding which of the 200 interviews to upload to the Internet first, DeAnna said they selected recordings representative of the entire collection as well “some of the gems” including Bo Diddley talking about the King.

“Elvis Presley copied me and Jackie Wilson – he combined the two acts together,” Diddley told Smith. “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’ shoes.”

Smith’s collection represents all types of popular music including interviews with Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, George Harrison, Elton John, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Sting, Tina Turner, Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte among many others.

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