Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 28th, 1940, Joseph Allen Souter was destined to be one of the most influential songwriters of the 60’s & 70’s winning two Grammy Awards, launching the careers of numerous stars, and selling millions of records along the way.
Under the stage name of Joe South he scored his first hit with a novelty song titled “The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor” in 1959.
He got serious after that writing two songs recorded by Gene Vincent, a pop song “I Might Have Known” and the bluesy “Gone Gone Gone”. Bill Lowery saw potential in South, hiring him as a staff guitarist and songwriter at the National Recording Company in Atlanta where Joe worked alongside future legends Ray Stevens and Jerry Reed.
Joe South became a sought-after sideman. He played guitar on Tommy Roe’s “Sheila”, Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” album, and the classic “Chain of Fools” that launched Aretha Franklin into the stratosphere. He also provided the electric guitar work on Simon & Garfunkel’s second album, “Sounds of Silence” during that period.
Billy Joe Royal had four smash hits with Joe South songs: “Down In The Boondocks”, “I Knew You When”, “Yo Yo” and the timeless “Hush”.
A UK band brought “Hush” to the hard rock world. Organist-extraordinaire Jon Lord transformed the song into a wall-shattering hit with his staccato Hammond chops, Ritchie Blackmore’s searing guitar riffs, Roger Glover’s pumping bass, Ian Paice’s throbbing beats, and Ian Gillian’s impeccable vocals. The opening wolf howls signal that Deep Purple’s rendition is about to blast from the speakers. Jon Lord’s organ solo is one of the greatest organ rides in rock history. His frenetic, chromatic walk up the keyboard that builds to an orgasmic end is tough to replicate. Hands shouldn’t move that fast!
My close friend, Al Brassell, knew Joe well and reports, “He never was much of a wild raucous party animal rather, he was mostly a quiet creator. Always working on his music and his tunes… always writing.
“I once asked him why he chose to put a sitar in his hit song ‘Games People Play’. He said he did not know but he knew darn well that for years to come musicians would be asking that question.” I presumed the sitar was in the tune because it belonged there.
“Games People Play” demonstrated that Joe felt the effects of the turbulent late 60’s. His lyrics cleverly showed his disdain for power brokers in the poignant last verse:
“Cause you’ve given up your sanity
For your pride and your vanity
Turned your back on humanity
And you don’t give a da da da da da”
“And you don’t give a RATS ASS” is inferred. Politicians haven’t changed one iota since then. The song earned Grammy Awards as Best Contemporary Song and Song of the Year. “Birds of a Feather” continued his new direction toward social commentary.
He landed another huge hit with the song “Don’t It Make You Wanna Go Home”, which Brook Benton made even bigger with his cover a mere eight months later.
“Walk A Mile In My Shoes” forewarned my generation. Don’t judge me! You don’t know me! “If you could be me for just one hour… Before you abuse, criticize, and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.” He spoke of the oneness of our generation, the fact that we all struggled with similar problems. He even put in a line about “people on reservations”. The plight of Natives was a popular topic in the late 60’s… for a while.
Then came the song that I have literally played at least a thousand times, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a Rose Garden.” This became the Divorcee International Anthem. The divorce dam broke in the 60’s. It no longer held the shame that it once signaled. Women were no longer the slaves of their husbands… they were liberated.
“Rose Garden”, sung by previously unknown Lynn Anderson, became Joe South’s biggest money-making hit with brisk sales in 16 countries. He literally struck a chord with feminists around the globe. Lynn Anderson ascended the heights of Country Music.
In 1971, at the pinnacle of his career, Joe South suffered a devastating loss. His brother Tommy, drummer for his backing band and constant companion, committed suicide sending Joe into a state of deep clinical depression. His songwriting stopped.
Joe, was subsequently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as the Georgia Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Joe South died of heart failure at his home in Buford, a suburb of Atlanta, at the age of 72. But, it is clear to me that a good part of him died in 1971 with his brother Tommy.