That’s What I Like About Joe South

 

 

 

 

Image result for joe south posterJoe South was having it pretty good in 1970. His debut LP “Introspect” had failed to make an impression but one track, “Games People Play” (you know it), eventually found an audience on both sides of the Atlantic & Joe was about to receive a couple of Grammy awards including Song of the Year. “Games…” was covered by artists right across the musical spectrum. Freddy Weller had a #2 Country hit, The Staple Singers & Lee Dorsey souled it up while Petula Clark took it to the middle of the road. Everybody did a good job too, it’s difficult to mess up a song with such smart, straight-forward, lyrical social commentary & a tune that has you la-la-la-ing along after just one hearing.

 

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Joe had first come to my attention with the sprightly Pop hits he made with singer Billy Joe Royal. “Down in the Boondocks” (whatever a boondock was), “Hush”, later a hit for Deep Purple, & others were fine mid-60’s American Pop, memorable enough to keep Billy Joe in work for many years. Joe’s reputation spread & he found himself in Nashville to provide bass on Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” sessions then in New York adding guitar to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”. Time spent in the studio with such big hitters surely influenced & inspired his own music. Both “Introspect” & a slightly shuffled collection named after the hit feature considerate, candid, cosmopolitan lyrics matched to a skillful mix of Folk, Country, Gospel, a touch of Psychedelia (You cannot, in my opinion, ever have too much electric sitar) & always those radio-friendly choruses. “Introspect” is a fine example of Joe South’s mature songwriting & his Country Soul ambition, there’s much more to it than “Singing glory hallelujah & they’re tryin’ to sock it to ya”

 

 

 

 

Image result for joe south walk a mile in my shoes“Before you abuse, criticize and accuse then Walk a Mile in My Shoes”, another great song, another Top 20 Pop hit. Later in 1970 Elvis included it alongside other contemporary songs on his “On Stage” LP, In 1974 Bryan Ferry off of Roxy Music selected “Walk A Mile…” for his second solo collection of cover versions “Another Time, Another Place”. Built to last, in 2006 Coldcut transformed the song into a House anthem. Of course I prefer Otis Clay’s Deep Soul version from the following year. The LP “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home” was more of the same from Joe, though not all the songs, written over a shorter period than “Introspect” were of the same high standard. Similarly the two LP’s released in 1971 were of variable quality. “So the Seeds Are Growing” is a little over-produced with more covers of other people’s songs. His contemporaries on the swampy Southern music scene like Tony Joe White & Leon Russell showed their roots a little more obviously than Joe who always retained his Pop sensibility but when Joe South did it right & he often did, his varied influences came together in a very distinctive way & his guitar flourishes were always original & delightful.

 

 

 

 

Image result for joe south so the seeds are growing"Joe may have been enjoying less success with his own records but in 1971 Lynn Anderson had a super-smash crossover hit with his “Rose Garden”. It earned him further Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year & Joe South had another much-covered standard in his portfolio. In 1972, depressed by the suicide of his younger brother Tommy, drummer for Joe’s group the Believers, disillusioned with the star-making machinery, often surly on stage & increasingly drug dependant South poured it all out into the confessional, stripped down “A Look Inside”. As succinct & honest about his own situation as his earlier worldly-wise songs had been, tougher than the rest, a slice of Southern Gothic & it’s the best record of his career. The radio wasn’t playing songs about coming down alone or giving all your money to drug dealers, Country singers were certainly not covering them & it was all but ignored.

 

Despite a comeback LP in 1975 little was heard about Joe South as he struggled with his personal problems. He seemed well when, in 1994, he shared a London stage at an American songwriters concert with contemporaries including Allen Toussaint & Dan Penn. Solo, with just an acoustic guitar, a short set only allowed time for his greatest hits. A full house appreciated his contribution to an evening of enduring, classic songs & there was, before Joe’s death in 2012, increasing recognition of the quality of his work.

 

 

 

Let’s finish this with one of my favourite Joe South tracks. “Yo Yo” was first recorded by Billy Joe Royal in 1966 then, two years later, Joe produced a Soul floor-filler with R B Hudman, When, in 1971, the Osmonds went to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals it was one of the two songs they recorded & “Yo Yo” was a Top 3 hit for the group. Joe’s own version, from his 1971 eponymous LP, is an energetic, rocking, Southern Pop Soul toe-tapper & I can listen to stuff like this all day.

 

 

Random Notes (January 2017)

For much of the time I am perfectly happy listening to music I know so intimately that a molecular transference has occurred & made it part of me. Lately, if I want to hear something previously unknown, there has been much satisfaction to be found in crate digging for Soul & Funk gems from the early 1970s. Whether it’s getting beyond the singles of ex-Temptation Eddie Kendricks & discovering the delights of his 7 solo LPs for Motown or grooving to the gritty Blues-Soul on the 4 records Little Milton made for Stax after leaving Chess, there’s much great music that passed me by at the time.

 

Image result for pinegrove cardinalAt the turn of the year I was checking for a “best of the year” list on one of the few message boards I trust (hey, it’s the Internet, be careful) & I heard something that just knocked me over. I bought the CD within hours &, a month later. have had no reason to regret my impulse purchase. Here’s just 80 seconds of Pinegrove, a song that’s not on their record “Cardinal”, an indie-pop blast that has certainly helped to lighten the mood in the weird times of January 2017.

 

 

 

Pinegrove are from Montclair, New Jersey, out near Paterson, the setting for Jim Jarmusch’s latest film. In 2015 they signed for Run for Cover records, tying up the loose ends of Bandcamp tracks & self-released cassettes on “Everything So Far”. “Cardinal” opens with “Old Friends” & closes with “New Friends”. They have made plenty of the latter with this assured collection. Evan Stephens Hall’s songs combine emotional lyrics with dynamic melodies, changes that are subtle while still having a real belt to them. The all-to-brief “Angelina” brings Teenage Fanclub to mind & that is never a bad thing.

 

 

Congratulations to the good people at Audiofeed who recorded 8 tracks with Pinegrove which are even better than the record. “Aphasia” is just a triumph, the whole band pulling together to make a good song even stronger & getting the sound it deserves. Both of the LPs are on the Y-tube, you can, as I did pay what you like for “Cardinal” at their website. Now over at Pinegrove’s Bandcamp there is the same deal for “Elsewhere”, 8 tracks recorded live on their last tour. Pinegrove are visiting the UK in late February/March. They are not playing too near my house but I will seriously try to go those extra 70 miles to catch my favourite new band.

 

Meanwhile the #1 in my heart for 2016, Whitney, continue to make an impression on the mainstream. I caught their “Golden Days” being used in an infomercial for one of those machines that you shout at & it plays music or turns off your lights. I don’t know what these things are called nor do I care. They monitor every move you & your family make in the name of progress & it’s a no thanks from me. The band also got to play that song again on their US TV prime time debut for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”. Here’s how that went…

 

 

There is, I guess, a touch of alt-country about both of these groups though they are hardly hanging out in the barn or whittling on the porch. It’s emotional Indie Rock that relies on melody & intelligence rather than a run along the effects pedals for impact. I’m hearing a freshness & an energy that I no longer hear in more established artists. I’m ready to put Wilco, Son Volt & Ryan Adams (though not Jason Isbell) on the back burner & look forward to Pinegrove’s & Whitney’s future music. I know…Just kick my ass, okay.

 

Well, that’s enough brand new modern music thank you very much. My album of the month was released in 1968. Joe South had success as a producer/writer for Billy Jo Royal before recording his own debut LP “Introspect”. The second single from the record, “Games People Play”, (you know it…”people try to sock it to ya, singing glory hallelujah”..great electric sitar) became a world wide hit. Capitol Records, wanting to reach this new audience, withdrew “Introspect” & quickly released an LP with the same title as the hit. Only 3 songs were retained, Joe’s versions of his better known songs included. It’s a good record but what the heck do record companies know ?

 

 

Image result for joe south“Introspect” is a Southern Country Soul classic, a little heavy on the strings but enough imaginative production flourishes to still surprise. Joe’s strong voice is matched to lyrics containing a strong element of social commentary (Joe had played on Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”). “Mirror of Your Mind” & the 7 minute closer “Gabriel” step into Psych-Country Pop, not the most populated genre & South is really good at it. Even “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden”, a syrupy country hit for Lynn Anderson in 1970 & a song I was never too fond of, sounds tougher & better. I was lucky enough to catch Joe playing an acoustic set of his hits, he was a fine songwriter. “Introspect” (again the full works on the Y-tube) could be the template for when Elvis went to record in Memphis. I prefer the one that got there first.

 

A Night To Remember

There have been concerts I attended when, as I have been leaving the venue, I have thought, “Well,that is some of the best music I have ever seen”. The Grateful Dead one enchanting night at Alexandra Palace, R.E.M.  on two consecutive nights of the “Green ” tour, Taj Mahal on more than one occasion. It’s a long list. The night I saw Joe South is the one that returns to my mind most regularly. It was not only Joe’s contribution that evening which made it so memorable. Writing about Joe has brought it fresh to my mind again.

The concert was billed as an “Southern Songwriter’s Circle”. These gigs , where the artists share the stage, are more commonplace today. This was the first of it’s kind in London and they hadn’t really got the format down. It kinda helped make the night unique. There were five artists on the bill which is too many. Now there are usually three. The deal was that a compere would ask questions of the participants who would share their secrets about song-writing. The M.C. was Charlie Gillett a respected label boss/D.J./facilitator on the British scene. Charlie was one of the good guys, his book about early rock & roll, “The Sound of the City” is one of the finest books on music I have read…I have read more than a few. This was not your night Charlie. The first time he tried to initiate a conversation he was shouted down by the audience. “Play the music !” was the rallying call. Gillett was not heard from again and we got the night we wanted…more music.

Well, there are few finer ways of opening a concert than hearing Guy Clark perform “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”, the original “outlaw country” classic. Guy wrote some great songs but “Old No 1” released in 1975 is his finest LP. A good friend of mine, still performing and recording, included this in his set through the mid 70s. It was a song I loved and to hear it played by the writer was most satisfying. Whichever way the concert went this was one to savour. The clip is from a movie, “Heartworn Highways”, a documentary on the Austin, Texas music scene centred around Townes Van Zandt. It captures some fine music.

Guy Clark sat to the left of the stage. Next to him was the youngest of the performers, the least commercially successful of the five. Vic Chesnutt, out of Athens Georgia, had recorded three LPs by this time and was less well known to the audience. In a wheelchair and with limited use of his hands since a teenage car accident there is a natural simplicity and frailty about his work. He was sharing the stage with some heavyweights and he performed some of his lighter and more accessible songs with great charm. Two weeks later a friend and myself went to see Vic in his own show at a dark little club in North London. We were at the front and helped lift his wheelchair on to the small stage. He, with his band, melted and then broke our hardened hearts with his individual take on Southern Gothic. (I ended the night discussing Flannery O’Connor with a well known comic actor). In a bigger auditorium, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, by the river, Vic was happy to be the light relief.

Joe South was at centre stage. I have written about his career and his songs  before. His contribution maintained the high quality of the evening’s entertainment.

The two men to the right of the stage are two of the men I most admire in music .I am not going to attempt to do them full justice in this memoir, They merit, and will get, longer consideration.

Here was Dan Penn, part of the history of soul music through his time at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals and at American Recording in Memphis. Those young white men from the Southern states with a love for R&B, a talent for writing, playing and recording music which went around the world, had helped to shape a sound regarded as predominantly African-American. They must have led such fascinating lives as their songs were transformed into gold records during a time when some of their work colleagues could not eat in the same restaurants because of the colour of their skins.

Tonight Dan played his greatest hits. Dressed in his hillbilly denim dungarees he could be unassuming when he knew that there was not a member of the audience who had not been touched by one or all of these songs. “I’m Your Puppet” and “Do Right Woman were perfect but it was “Dark End of the Street” which absolutely rocked the place. It may have been James Carr, Aretha Franklin, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ry Cooder or Richard and Linda Thompson who put you on to this song. Great voices were attracted to the song and never approached it lightly.

Dan Penn’s performance was conducted in an awed silence. This was how this song had been originally and we were privileged to hear it. When the song finished the audience rose in a standing ovation. It was not for a great performance it was for writing a song of such stature. I had been in the middle of similar appreciations at concerts but never one which contained such an element of gratitude. It was a fine moment.

Finally, on the right of the stage, sat by a piano, was a true legend of American music. I love the music of New Orleans. I find the way there is a complex though logical rhythm but sometimes only a hint of a structured song both fascinating and irresistable. I discovered this idiosyncratic sound through the 60s records of Lee Dorsey. I have moved forward with it and looked backwards to the musicians of the 40s and 50s. The fulcrum and link to all of this music is Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint is more visible these days. Peter  Buckley in “The Rough Guide to Rock” describes this appearance as a “return from exile”. You could not tell. A trim man, dapper in a suit, he must been confident that whatever he chose to play there would be big love for him. I’ve seen a tracklist of his songs from that night. I’m sure that “Fortune Teller”, the Benny Spellman tune was a medley spanning “Mother In Law” (Ernie K Doe) and “Working In A Coal Mine” (Lee Dorsey). I have a memory of a shouted request for “On Your Way Down”, recorded by Little Feat , a band held in high regard in the UK. I remember him playing at least a part of it. If he did not and I’m guilty of a wish-fulfilment  of one of my sweetest dreams then I apologise for misleading anyone.

Allen Toussaint provided my personal highlight of the evening. To see him play was good enough but there was one particular song I was hoping to hear. For many years his “Southern Nights” LP had been one of the most treasured in my collection. I have seen reviews which refer to psychedelia or use the adjective “trippy” but that just ain’t right. The use of the title track as a motif throughout the set is a reverie anchoring the journey through the varied styles and talents of the composer. “Southern Nights” had been my go-to late night feeling good record for a very long time. (Feeling bad ? “No Other” by Gene Clark).

When Allen’s turn came around again he told a story about his Creole grandparents. I knew this was a prelude to him playing “Southern Nights” and , I believe, the word is “frisson”. There were a few empty seats at the back of the hall. I left my place and went to sit by myself…this was a personal thing. I have had few musical experiences which can rival hearing this most beautiful of tunes played in front of me by the man responsible for it’s creation. Now I am older such experiences can be somewhat lachrymose. Back then this horny-handed construction worker was warmed by an inner glow of contentment. Man, it felt good !

We lived, at this time, in Westminster, just a spit away from the Thames. We left the gig and walked in the summer night along the Albert Embankment on the South Bank of the river. Feeling good, we were in no hurry. We sat on a bench, smelled the air and took in the illuminated view of the Houses of Parliament. We sat and smoked quietly, buzzing that London could be as great a place as it was being that night. If there had been a better concert on the planet that night then good luck to it. It was after midnight. The bench, the view, the river, the city, was ours. We knew it was not ours to keep, by the morning we had to share with 8 million others. That’s why the times you felt this way were to be honoured and then filed away to memory.