The passing of Joe South last week brought to mind a concert I attended in 1994 when I was fortunate to see Joe perform. I had first become aware of Joe as the writer/producer of a number of American hits for Billy Joe Royal in 1965/66. These were not hits in the U.K. but “Down In the Boondocks” and “Hush” registered as songs of interest and fine examples of US pop. These years were the florescence of the “pirate” radio stations (made illegal in 1967). Round the clock music radio meant that you got to hear everything released around this time. “Boondocks”, a story song about a poor boy’s love for a rich girl, had a touch of “Dark End of the Street” about it. Ry Cooder has always had an ear for a good story song . His version is smoothly produced, as well played and performed as expected from Cooder and his band. While researching this (Ha !) I encountered this version by Martin Gore from Depeche Mode. Never one of my favourite groups, this electro-Spector take on the tune shows it’s strength as a pop song pure and simple.
The next I heard of Joe South was on the sleeve notes of “Blonde On Blonde”. After lengthy but unfruitful recording in New York Bob Dylan had moved to Columbia studios in Nashville. The best session musicians were hired and Joe was part of this exalted company. The classic album was finished in Nashville and Al Kooper, who played on all the sessions, has specifically praised Joe’s bass-line contribution on “Visions of Johanna”. Two years later, in 1968, Deep Purple, not yet the metal kings, covered one of the Billy Joe Royal songs “Hush”. It was a big hit in the USA. Joe South was turning up in unexpected places and that made him of interest and someone to keep an eye on.
So Joe’s worldwide hit of 1969, “Games People Play” did not come out of nowhere. From the sitar effect of the guitar, through the strong and simple structure reinforced with strings, to the rhyming of “Glory Hallelujah” with “Sock it to ya”, this is a hit record. A Grammy for “Song of the Year” recognised it’s success. He followed it with songs with a similar country feel and a touch of social commentary and humour. (In 1958 his first single had been the startlingly titled “The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor”).
It was these songs (and the Royal hits) which Joe South played when I saw him as part of an outstanding concert. Sitting centre stage with just his own acoustic guitar for backing, these were songs the audience may not have known as his but knew from the many cover versions. He played “Rose Garden”, a big country hit for Lynn Anderson. I knew the song but did not know it was written by Joe South. It was a great pleasure to see and hear Joe that night.
Joe’s songs always had a touch of country and soul about them. He worked in Nashville and in Muscle Shoals. I was listening to the great, late, producer/musician Jim Dickinson speak about recording with Aretha Franklin. He talked about the song “Chain Of Fools” which opens with a short tremolo guitar lick. I only learned then that this was played by South. Another surprise and a delightful one. The man got around on some great songs. I hope there are more to be found even though there will be no more music from Joe.
This last song is an example of the endurance of his songs and the appeal of his lyrics. “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Bryan Ferry and, in this more modern update, by Coldcut. These versions, along with Joe South’s original are big favourites in our house. It’s a timeless sentiment…”before you abuse, criticize and accuse. Walk a mile in my shoes”. Well said Joe.