Unafraid you will brand us uncool because of our enthusiasm for country music, today we’re celebrating the legacy of a top-notch songwriter and singer whose short career includes a variety of great songs. Joe South is most known today through the recordings of other artists, if he’s known at all.
Joe South’s songs were recorded by country and rock artists, including “Birds of a Feather” by Paul Revere and the Raiders and Lynn Anderson whose record of “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” was his biggest seller for another artist. Here’s South performing his song “Hush” followed by the well-known recording by Deep Purple taken from their first album:
In addition to “Hush”, South wrote and produced several songs for Billy Joe Royal in the late 60s, including “Down in the Boondocks” and “I Knew You When”. He also wrote and sang this novelty song “Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor”:
Around this time South performed as a session musician with NRC, recording with Ray Stevens and Jerry Reed. A song he wrote for the Tams, “Untie Me”, was one of his first hits. He also recorded this single for Fairbanks, which may be the first release of his own:
Recording at Muscle Shoals South played on classic sessions by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Marty Robbins. He also appeared as a soloist on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and his unique guitar style is heard on the electric backing overdubbed onto “The Sound of Silence”. South played a customized Gretsch “Country Gentleman” guitar with a distinctive sound. All the while he was recording his own debut album, Introspect. The electronic experiments and strange backing (Which includes Ravi Shankar and Las Vegas Elvis’ guitarist James Burton) help keep his country-soul debut sounding exciting years later. “Games People Play” became the singer’s first big hit, even more so when it was covered by Freddy Weller in a slick Nashville arrangement.
I can’t help but to assume that South’s politics kept him back. Lines in “Games People Play” and “Walk A Mile in my Shoes” peg him as a hippy, and guitar jams like “A Million Miles Away” don’t help. Technically less proficient than contemporaries like Glen Campbell, South could jam. “A Million Miles Away” may have been behind the times in technical terms (Electric Ladyland came out two years earlier), but its juxtaposition of Joe’s attempt to call the president with guitar jamming and strange looped drums is far more conceptually interesting than the hammy hippy anti-war anthems of the day.
This next track is the Paul Revere and the Raiders cover of “Birds of a Feather” I mentioned near the beginning of this post. I think its not as good as the original but its nice to hear some variety.
Although he was southern white soul’s best songwriter, South was almost entirely snubbed by Elvis (Probably the sideburns). The loss is everyone’s because Las Vegas Elvis probably would have hit a track like “Hush” out of the park. Its hard to imagine how the king overlooked South, half-heartedly adding the concert closer “Walk a Mile in my Shoes” to the middle of his Vegas sets but never another. South’s best rockers (Especially “Hush”) were perfect for Elvis and a track like “Games People Play” could have given him a much-needed post-”Suspicious Minds” hit. Other singers beat Elvis to South’s genius, especially Lynn Anderson.
Anderson scored South’s biggest hit with “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” in 1970 while his second album had these two big hits, “Walk A Mile in My Shoes” and “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home?”:
Yes, by all accounts he was brash and arrogant and a pretty poor live performer. Clearly he was more comfortable in the studio and his idiosyncratic lyrics suggest an anxious personality. South also wrote one song which was a total rip off (“Masquerade” is undeniably stolen from the Leiber/Spector track “Spanish Harlem”). South’s classic albums continued to be full of interesting surprises, trending more an more towards soul and away from country. Just after South finally had a hit record with Lynn Anderson’s recording of his song at #3 on the pop chart, he abruptly stopped writing and recording after his younger brother Tommy committed suicide. South moved to Maui and lived in the jungle, finally returning with an album on the Island label, Midnight Rainbows that I have never been able to find. A couple other albums were issued the following year, including an album on Capitol of tracks seemingly from the time after his brother’s death. After this he retired at 37.
Some of his best songs were not, as far as I’ve ever known, covered by other artists. The track above is “Shelter” and this next one is “These Are Not My People”. “Shelter”, like some of his earlier hits, displays the gospel roots of his singing and arranging, complete with a choir and tasteful handclaps. “These Are Not My People” is far from his best arrangement, but has an interesting narrative.
How awesome is Joe South? He’s playing guitar on this track:
Comments are now closed.