Those of us who are addicted to the early and middle roots of rock and roll in the fifties and sixties know about Joe South. I doubt there is a popular singer/songwriter who unintentially made so many diverse artists stars with his songs while staying so far in the background as Joe. How many songwriters alive can write hits for artists as diverse as country music star Lynn Anderson, Deep Purple, Kula Shaker, the Osmonds and Bryan Ferry? Sure, he must have had a good publisher who did his or her job pitching the tunes but Joe’s catalog – including B sides - are better or on par with the best of the Nashville, LA and NYC writers of the middle-late '60s and way beyond.
As with most kids in the south in the '60s, radio was the only way to find new music. When Joe South came out with “Games People Play” it appealed to all ages. My parents, country music fans, loved his music and sitar/guitar solos over pop music with just enough twang to make it on the country charts. He was a precursor to Gram Parsons by more than a year to the country-rock arena and Joe, as an artist, refused to submit to the trappings of the music business and had a better game plan than Gram.
My brother and I made our weekend trip to town to spend our allowances and lawn mowing money on the latest records – one single a week except for the ones we bought and would hide away until our parents were not around the house. He bought Joe’s “Don’t It Make You Wanna Go Home?” and I purchased “Time of the Season” by The Zombies. Both good choices. I’m not sure why it took me 40 years to buy a Joe South compilation but I am glad I did – hearing his songs together on one CD is better than great. And they sound amazingly fresh and undated.
Even as a kid I could tell that Joe was quite an eccentric, he rarely appeared on any of the country and pop television shows and I have never heard or heard of a radio interview. He let the songs speak for themselves and he didn’t care who he pissed off with his lyrics. He struck chords putting down of southern racism and advocated treating everyone as equals before any of the “protest” singers.
Joe’s first big break was having a couple of songs recorded by Gene Vincent in 1959. That got him enough attention to get a publishing deal and move to Nashville where he churned out hits for, among many, Billy Joe Royal, (“I Knew You When”) and Lynn Anderson, (I Never Promised you A Rose Garden). His songwriting prowess led to work as an A team session guitarist. Joe played on Aretha’s “Chain of Fools” as well as Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” LP.
He could have stopped there and have a legacy before his 30th birthday but Joe went on a few more years and gathered gold records and Grammys and just about any other award that could be given to a songwriter or an artist. In 1969 he had a huge hit with “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” (covered by Bryan Ferry among others). After that, there were three more singles that did nothing and, creatively, could not touch his earlier material. His first full LP under his own name, Introspect, contained songs that others had covered and hits with but Joe’s versions were the best. The title pretty much sums up Joe’s life and career. At the peek of his success, Joe’s brother and drummer, Tommy, committed suicide and, as the story goes, Joe went into a deep depression. After those three flop singles in 1970, Joe just…stopped, disappeared from the public eye and to his quiet place outside of Nashville. My guess it was outside of Nashville in many ways other than geographical. Nashville is a great place if you want to have your soul ripped out and stomped on.
People in Nashville and beyond don’t talk about Joe anymore. I guess they just gave up on waiting for “The Comeback.” I am sure Joe has enough money from his work forty years ago to do what he wants but I always wonder if he misses the limelight, even just a little bit. Even Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam had to pick up a guitar and write songs after two decades.
A personal aside, in the early 80’s I sat in on a writing class with a friend of mine who was in the music program at Belmont College in Nashville. It was a small class, maybe 15 people, but in the last seat of the first row there was – Joe South. He looked great, just like the Joe from ten years before. He never said a word, he just sat there and absorbed everything from the wannabe writer’s, most of which had no idea who he was. I was torn between speaking to him or leaving him alone. I left him alone and I think I made the right decision.