Joe South: Singer and songwriter best known for 'Games People Play'

 

Chiefly known in the UK for "Games People Play", the sitar-laden soul-country ballad with a universal message which won Grammy Awards for best contemporary song and for song of the year in 1969, Joe South also wrote some of the most enduring hits of the late 1960s and early '70s. These included the dynamic "Hush", first recorded by Billy Joe Royal in 1967 and the US chart debut for British rockers Deep Purple the following year, the infuriatingly catchy "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden", country singer Lynn Anderson's 1971 worldwide smash and signature tune, and the plea for racial acceptance, "Walk A Mile In My Shoes", South's second biggest US single, instantly adapted by Elvis Presley in his Las Vegas pomp and covered by Bryan Ferry and the British dance duo Coldcut.

South's engaging baritone, his superior guitar playing and production skills – developed while a sideman in Atlanta, Muscle Shoals and Nashville – combined with his gift for melody and his common touch as a lyricist, made his material attractive to artists across the spectrum. His songs have been covered by everyone from Ry Cooder ("Down In The Boondocks") to the Osmonds ("Yo-Yo"). The Canadian synth band Kon Kan sampled "Rose Garden" for their 1988 hit "I Beg Your Pardon", while the hip-hop group PM Dawn based their 1995 single "Downtown Venus" on "Hush".

Born Joseph Souter in 1940, South was given a guitar by his father when he was 11 and became extremely proficient. He later recorded with Tommy Roe ("Sheila" in 1962) and Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde album, and contributed the mesmerising tremolo guitar intro to Aretha Franklin's 1968 R&B No 1 "Chain Of Fools", for which he tuned the low E string to a low C, to the delight of producer Jerry Wexler.

In his teens, his other love was radio. He began appearing on an Atlanta station run by the country music disc jockey Bill Lowery, who turned a blind eye when the youngster built his own transmitter with a limited signal range and began broadcasting his own songs, and subsequently became his manager and music publisher. After changing his name to Joe South, he enjoyed some success on Lowery's NRC label in 1958 with "The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor", a Chipmunks-like novelty record co-written by The Big Bopper, and its rock'*'roll follow-up "I'm Snowed", and also recorded with country artists Ray Stevens and Jerry Reed. Lowery placed "I Might Have Known" and "Gone Gone Gone" with Gene Vincent, but South made his mark writing and producing "Untie Me", a hit for the Atlanta R&B vocal group the Tams in 1962, and Royal's first pair of chart singles, the Gene Pitney-like "Down In The Boondocks" and "I Knew You When", in 1965.

After signing to Capitol in 1968, he issued the fittingly-titled Introspect album whose mixture of country and soul, use of unusual instruments – South's beloved sitar – and thoughtful material like "Mirror Of Your Mind", "Don't Throw Your Love To The Wind" and "Birds Of A Feather" seemed to anticipate both the swamp-pop of Tony Joe White and the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters. Unfortunately, the success of "Games People Play", inspired by the eponymous bestseller about the psychology of human relationships by Dr Eric Berne, the Canadian psychiatrist, seemed to have an adverse effect on South's career.

"The Grammy Awards are a very nice gesture by the record industry, but they can really mess up your head," South said in 1970. "The Grammy is a little like a crown. After you win it, you feel like you have to defend it. In a sense, I froze. I found it hard to go back in to the studio because I was afraid the next song wouldn't be perfect."

Arguably, both Don't It Make You Want To Go Home (1969) and So The Seeds Are Growing (1971) matched his full-length debut, while affecting compositions like "Walk A Mile In My Shoes", "Children" and "Fool Me" showed he could still effortlessly reconcile the mainstream and the counter-culture scene. However, when his brother Tommy Souter, who played drums in his backing band, committed suicide, his life unravelled, as documented on songs like "I'm A Star" from A Look Inside (1972). "I really kicked myself around for years," admitted South, who divorced his first wife, went to live on Maui, struggled with drug abuse and made a patchy album, Midnight Rainbows (1975). He had been an uncomfortable performer, turning on audiences while under the influence, eventually cleaning up with the help of his second wife.

In 1979, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He made fitful attempts to return, including a visit to the UK in the mid-'90s, and released a new song, "Oprah Cried" in 2009. Mostly, he was content to enjoy life back home in Georgia, where he died of heart failure.

Pierre Perrone

Joseph Alfred Souter (Joe South), singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer: born Atlanta, Georgia 28 February 1940; twice married (one son); died Burford, Georgia 5 September 2012.

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