South should be regarded as a legend.
Popular music is filled with has beens, also rans, marginals and others who couldn't juggle music, fame and business.
South, had his hits (he won a Grammy) but then burnt out as quickly as he rose. There would be no phoenix-like return.
His moment at the top, because of personal demons and external circumstances, was untenable.
He is not alone but few were as interesting as South.
Joe South was born Joseph Alfred Souter on February 28, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia. By the mid 1950s he was involved in music and went on to an impressive credit before striking out on his own.
Allmusic: "Joe South began his career as a country musician, performing on an Atlanta radio station and joining Pete Drake's band in 1957. The following year, he recorded a novelty single, "The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor," and became a session musician in Nashville and at Muscle Shoals. South appeared on records by Marty Robbins, Eddy Arnold, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan (Blonde on Blonde), and Simon & Garfunkel ("The Sounds of Silence"). During the '60s, South began working on his songwriting, crafting hits for Deep Purple ("Hush") and several for Billy Joe Royal, including "Down in the Boondocks." South began recording his own material in 1968, scoring a hit with the Grammy-winning "Games People Play" (Song of the Year) the following year. While South produced hits like "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" and "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," Lynn Anderson had a smash country and pop hit in 1971 with South's "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden."
Well, that does not tell us much about South the person and South the person is important here as his music is clearly is an expression of where he was at, at the time.
There is very little detail out there on Joe South the person.
By the time of this album he had difficulties with drugs. In a interview with music journalist Robert Hilburn, South admitted that he had been addicted to (in typical Southern fashion) to amphetamines and tranquilizers which he thought would help keep his deep-rooted insecurities and shyness in check.
“Nobody could get in touch with me … I had a problem with talking on the phone… Shyness, I dreaded to talk to anybody about anything… Don’t know why. I guess it was just part of my sickness with the drugs and shyness.”
Unfortunately, South's personal world was colliding, inevitably, with the worlds of those he loved. His brother, Tommy, was a drummer in Joe's recording and touring band and had spent several years battling his own drug problem. He committed suicide in 1971. Tommy's death sent Joe into a deep depression.
This is the world in which this album was recorded. Produced by Jefferson Lee, the album gathered up material recorded before and shortly after Tommy's death.
When you listen to the album you can here the pain. I don't know which songs were recorded before or after his brother's death but they are seamless and equally confrontational in their honesty.
South, even when writing upbeat pop, had a cynical edge to his music. He observed others, much like Ray Davies, but without any fondness for them. On this album he looks at others, perhaps he is singing to his brother, but he also looks within. The front cover art and album title are a giveaway: "A Look Inside" and "Joe South" written about a window placed over his forehead. ie: a look inside the mind of Joe South.
This is Joe South's album on "fame" …every song, just about, references the effects of fame and too much ready cash. Drugs, loneliness, false friends, betrayals, dashed hopes, paranoid distrust, memories that haunt, lost innocence.
On earlier albums he experimented a lot more within the musical frame work but here it sounds as if he has decided to concentrated on his lyrics. South, though, is no fraud, and could not depart from the music of his youth and the south (sic). This is beautiful southern blue eyed rock and soul (gospel chorus and horns included) which by its nature is going to have dollops of country, gospel, and folk woven into it's sound.
And, the music and lyrics almost pulling in opposite directions make this record fascinating.
It's like South is pouring his heart out with downbeat lyrics but perversely wrapping them in funky upbeat sounds. I mean you can dance to these laments, of sad, lonely, wounded and destructive people. What the fuck?. He is screwing with my mind.
South, as unhappy as he is, hasn't given up though. Personal singer-songwriters singing about the dark side of life have musical touchstones which are always sourced. They are supposed to be "wounded", aren't they? (well, a lot of them seem to be)
The music here is upbeat, defiant and angry and has South kicking those touchstones flipping everyone the bird and in the process creating music which is distinctive and original.
Following this album South relocated to Maui, Hawaii where he effectively dropped out of sight for the next two years.
He returned to record an album in 1975 and then basically retired though everything is even more sketchy post 1975. He died in 2012.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Coming Down All Alone – The song starts with what I suspect is an intentional referencing of South's "Games People Play". This song refers to drug abuse and is a distinctly melancholy and perhaps despondent way to start an album though it's quite funky.
- Imitation of Living – Despite the clean vocal, upbeat instrumentation and sing-a-long-ability of the song this song is strident its self criticism.
- It Hurts Me Too - Catchy and again lyrics with bite.
- Real Thing – This starts out like a southern field song before morphing into a white funk with some great Elvis-like vocal mannerisms.
- One Man Band – a good song with a good melody and some swampiness to it ….quite mainstream compared to the rest though.
- Misunderstanding – eat you heart out Rufus Thomas … Stax like soul with a white vocalist. It works quite a groove.
- Misfit – A playful South with a hint of Jerry Reed. It's also a statement of "who I am".
- Save Your Best - Gentle Joe South giving advice from a informed position.
- I'm a Star – In Glen Campbell mode but clearly a song about himself South even name checks his hit "Games People Play".
- All Night Lover – a soulful workout.
A forgotten mini masterpiece …. I'm keeping it.
Coming Down All Alone
Save Your Best
interview (and some clues to Joe South here)