Joe South, Forgotten Visionary: 1940-2012

Monday, 10 September 2012 06:19 AM Written by 

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Joe South, who died last Wednesday at 72 at his Georgia home, said what he thought, right or wrong, decades ahead of the time others would embrace similar views. Profiled by Rolling Stone writer Jerry Hopkins,  in the wake of his 1969 hit "Games People Play," South acerbically declared, "Country music is sh*t."

 "It just isn't honest anymore," he continued, complaining about singers in flashy Nudie show outfits and cowboy hats who hail from Georgia (South's home state).  He went on to ask, "How can you sell Porter Wagoner to the kids? Nobody wants to be like Porter Wagoner." 

 When did he say that? In their June 14, 1969 issue (page 8 for those who are curious).

No fan of traditional country, he said other things, and some of them didn't quite pan out. Willie, Waylon, Hank Jr., Alabama and Taylor Swift all proved country could appeal to younger generations as well as older fans. When he died in 2007, Wagoner was hailed by many (myself included) as a hallowed Elder Statesman of traditional, Nudie-suited country. Those misfires don't alter the fact South, claimed by a sudden heart attack at his home outside Atlanta, was in other ways a visionary of the late 60's-early 70's.

He had only a couple big hits of his own, but left behind enduring records and songs that truly epitomized that era's social changes through a distinctly Southern viewpoint.  "Down in the Boondocks,"  his own hits "Games People Play" and "Walk A Mile in My Shoes," Lynn Anderson's 1970 country-pop hit "Rose Garden" and Deep Purple's "Hush" all came from his pen.

He was Joseph A Souter, Jr. at birth in 1940, and came up through the Atlanta country and rock scene as a teenager and started recording in the late 50's and connected with Atlanta music magnate Bill Lowery. 

A first-rate guitarist, South later accompanied some of the best. In 1965, he overdubbed amplified guitar on Simon & Garfunkel's original acoustic recording of "The Sounds of Silence." He played on Bob Dylan's 1965  "Vision of Johanna" session and guitar and bass on several Blonde On Blonde tracks done in Nashville, including "Just Like A Woman" and "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat." His swampy, open-tuned guitar opens Aretha Franklin's 1968 hit "Chain of Fools" that opens and pulses through the whole record. Listen to it here.

South only had two Top 20 singles, both of them memorable.  This is him performing his signature hit: "Games People Play" on CBS's Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The first South original to hit big came in 1962, when the Atlanta R&B vocal group the Tams scored a # 12 R&B hit with "Untie Me."

Georgia singer Billy Joe Royal recorded South's plaintive, poor boy-rich girl tune "Down in the Boondocks."  South produced Royal's 1965 hit single.  Note the slide guitar licks, before that sound was widely used.

"Hush" was a tune Billy Joe Royal first recorded, but Deep Purple's 1968 recording became a keeper. This live version is from a Playboy After Dark appearance in 1969.

South's 1970 single version of "Walk A Mile in My Shoes" made it to # 12, but Elvis Presley's live performance, filmed in Vegas that year, endures.

This is South's original hit single.

South disliked old school country, yet he could write commercial country material. This is the best example: Lynn Anderson's 1970 hit  "Rose Garden." With its slick orchestrations, the single charted both # 1 country and # 3 pop.

South's 1968 version had a Phil Spector-inspired arrangement.  Here's his take.


When South's brother Tommy, drummer in his band, committed suicide in 1971, it proved too much. He retired to Hawaii and later overcame substance abuse issues. He kept his hand in music in recent years yet never quite pulled off a comeback, though 2005's The Joe South Tribute Album with covers by R&B singer Otis Clay and various alt. rock acts, proved he hadn't been forgotten.   This is one talent who could have become an Americana elder statesman. 

We'll finish with South's 1970 guest spot on the Johnny Cash Show, singing his then-current single "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home," joined by John, June and (no kidding!) guest George "Goober" Lindsey.






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