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Institutionalizing America's Music

January 12, 1986|STEVE POND

WASHINGTON — Let's say you're looking for a gift for the music lover who already has all the new albums by Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson and Miles Davis.

You could buy the best collection of American popular songs and singers ever assembled--just don't expect to find it at Tower Records.

You could spring for the most comprehensive, well-documented country music anthology available--though you'd have to order it by mail.

Or you could pick up the definitive jazz collection--but only if you bought a magazine subscription first.

Those three collections--"American Popular Song," "Classic Country Music" and "Classic Jazz"--are a few of the albums put out by the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, a small operation based at the Smithsonian Press here.

With only three full-time staffers and a mail-order operation aimed at Smithsonian "associates"--the people who contribute money to the Smithsonian Institution and subscribe to Smithsonian magazine--they are one of the quietest record companies in the country. But when it comes to assembling comprehensive, detailed collections of recordings, they are unquestionably one of the best.

"We don't want to be RCA," says Felix Lowe, director of the Smithsonian Press, as he sits in a conference room at the organization's headquarters. "Instead of putting out lots of records and having tons of people working for us, we just want to do a small number of really good things. We can't be all things to all people, so we take a very measured approach here."

That measured approach results in a gem every couple of years, and a series of anthologies for fans of every genre:

Pop songs: In late 1984, Smithsonian released "American Popular Song," a mammoth collection of 62 singers, nearly 100 songwriters and 110 classic songs. Songwriters represented on the $48, seven-record set include Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and George and Ira Gershwin. Among the singers are Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Ella Fitzgerald. Accompanied by a lavishly illustrated, 152-page book, "American Popular Song" was a three-year task for Smithsonian executive producer J. R. Taylor and staffers James R. Morris and Dwight Blocker Bowers.

Country: Three years ago, "The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music" was released. The eight-record, $55 set is an endlessly entertaining survey of country music from 1922 to 1975, from Eck Robertson's "Sallie Gooden" ("the first documented commercial recording by a Southern white folk performer") to Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."

Jazz: The Smithsonian's "Big Band Jazz" LP--a collection of 80 big-band recordings from 1924-55--won two Grammy Awards last year, one for best historical recording and one for best liner notes. It followed by more than a decade "The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz," which covers almost 50 years of jazz recordings, was once called "easily the best historical anthology ever assembled" and is also the collection that effectively launched the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings in 1973. (That record is now in the process of being updated.)

The Smithsonian has done its share of smaller projects too. It releases musical theater records that concentrate on shows like Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" and the Gershwins' "Funny Face"--shows from the days before "Oklahoma!" launched the practice of making official original-cast LPs. Its jazz collections include the complete Louis Armstrong/Earl Hines 1928 sessions, a couple of Jelly Roll Morton compilations, extensive Duke Ellington packages and many others. And though it was temporarily put on hold two years ago when Smithsonian Recordings was put under the aegis of the Smithsonian Press, it has its own performance groups that record mostly classical music.

But the Smithsonian is best known for the anthologies and its unique ability to draw material from almost the entire scope of popular recordings. "American Popular Song," for example, contains selections originally released on 16 different labels. A more aggressive label would never be able to secure clearances from so many of its competitors, but the Smithsonian has an advantage because its records are sold by mail-order only--or, in the case of "Classic Jazz," restricted to associates.

Are record labels ever uncooperative? "In a word, yes," Felix Lowe says. "But we've become very good at getting down on our hands and knees and saying please , so we've gotten the rights to almost everything we've ever wanted."

Organizations like Time-Life also release compilations collected from many labels, but "Classic Jazz," says the Smithsonian's Taylor, was the first extensively cross-licensed collection ever released. It also started a revolution within the Smithsonian, simply because it sold.

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