Singer-songwriter who played with Bob Dylan and crafted several hits
JOE SOUTH: WHEN PEOPLE think of Joe South, they generally think first of Games People Play, one of the most successful protest songs of the late 1960s, with its distinctive electric sitar accompaniment, played by the singer and composer himself, and a bitingly prescient lyric directed at pseudo-hippy types who “while away the hours/In their ivory towers/Till they’re covered up with flowers/In the back of a black limousine”.
South, who has died aged 72 of heart failure, won a Grammy for that million-seller and went on to write many other fine songs, including: Walk a Mile in My Shoes; Down in the Boondocks; Hush; and (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden.
South – a member, like Eddie Hinton, Dan Penn and Troy Seals, of a generation of US southern white boys who grew up listening to rhythm and blues – was a fine guitarist. He became a popular session man, performing on a series of important records, starting with Sheila, a hit in 1962 for Tommy Roe, a fellow native of Atlanta, Georgia. In 1966 he played bass guitar on much of Bob Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde. And the following year he created the shivering, menacing bottom-string guitar licks that opened and underpinned Aretha Franklin’s classic Chain of Fools.
It is South’s playing that gives a clue to the spontaneity of the Blonde on Blonde sessions, which often lasted late into the night. The musicians were obliged to follow Dylan wherever his songs led, resulting in the occasional mistakes and missed changes – as when South fails to spot Dylan’s chord shift in the second verse of Visions of Johanna, taking half a bar to adjust under the line about the nightwatchman clicking his flashlight.
South was born Joseph Souter and was given a guitar by his father at the age of 11. He built a small radio station on which he played his songs and had modified his name when, still in his teens, he had his first minor hit in 1958 with The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor, co-written with the Big Bopper (JP Richardson) to capitalise on novelty hits. The following year Gene Vincent recorded two of his songs, I Might Have Known and Gone Gone Gone.
He had made a successful career as a session musician in Muscle Shoals and Nashville when Games People Play brought him to international attention. Its title was borrowed from a successful book on transactional analysis by the psychiatrist Eric Berne and took an unusual approach to the social tensions of the day, more oblique and unpredictable than other Dylan-influenced protest songs that topped the charts. But when it won a Grammy for best song of 1969, his problems began.
“The Grammy is a little like a crown,” he told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “After you win it, you feel like you have to defend it. In a sense, I froze. I found it hard to go back into the recording studio because I was afraid the next song wouldn’t be perfect.”
None of South’s subsequent records made the top 20, but Walk a Mile in My Shoes was recorded by Elvis Presley (and later by Bryan Ferry and Coldcut), Hush took the British progressive rock band Deep Purple into the top five in the US and Canada in 1968, and the lilting Rose Garden gave country singer Lynn Anderson a worldwide hit in 1971. He also produced records by the singer Sandy Posey and the folk-rock duo Friend and Lover.
The suicide in 1971 of his brother, Tommy Souter, who had been the drummer in his road band, brought on a depression that curtailed South’s recording career. After struggling to overcome a drug habit, he re-emerged for an album titled Midnight Rainbows with Island, the British label, in 1975, and another, You’re the Reason, for the Gusto label the following year. In 1979 he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. His final recording, of a song titled Oprah Cried, was added in 2009 to a repackage of two of his early albums.
He married twice, and is survived by a son and grand-daughter.
Joe South (Joseph Alfred Souter), born February 28th, 1940; died September 5th, 2012