RIP Joe South, "Games People Play" country rock singer/songwriter extraordinaire
You might not recognize Joe South's name, but you've surely heard his music.
South kicked off his career at the age of 18 with the obscure 1958 novelty hit, "The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor." A silly tune, to be sure, but from there, he became well known as one of the most soulful singer/songwriters of the 1960s and early 1970s. South passed away yesterday at his home in Buford, Georgia, northeast of his Atlanta birthplace, reportedly of natural causes stemming from a heart attack. He was 72.
Born Joseph Souter in Atlanta, Georgia February 28, 1940, South reportedly taught himself to play guitar by the age of 11, and as a child, was so fascinated both by music and by technology that he developed his own radio station with a mile-wide transmission area. Following his 1958 novelty hit, South wrote two songs for rockabilly legend Gene Vincent, and after being discovered by Atlanta DJ/music publisher Bill Lowery, began a recording career in that city with National Recording Corporation, serving as staff guitarist alongside Ray Stevens and Jerry Reed.
In addition to his songwriting and NRC credits, South for a time worked as a session musician in both Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His guitar work is featured on Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde," and on recordings by the likes of Eddy Arnold, Marty Robbins, and other country, R&B and rock acts of the time.
Above all, South is best known for his own music. The songs he wrote and sang have remained radio staples even after fifty-plus years, but their ubiquity has never overshadowed their gentle urgency, their ability to compel, to chill. The South-penned "Down in the Boondocks" became a hit for Billy Joe Royal in 1965, and Deep Purple scored another with their version of his song, "Hush." South garnered Grammy nods in 1969 for Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song for his own recording of "Games People Play," with introspective lyrics taking digs at late 60s society.
South's other hits included "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" and "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," a song notably covered by Elvis Presley and Bryan Ferry. He picked up yet another Grammy for writing the bouncy but enduring song, "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden," which was a hit for Lynn Anderson in 1971.
But that same year, South's brother and drummer Tommy Souter committed suicide as he battled with drugs, and South, also by then reliant on drugs, experienced an emotional trauma strong enough to pull him away from stage and studio, derailing his career for many years. His first marriage ended in divorce, but he eventually went through drug rehab and married his second wife, Jan, in 1987.
South began performing again, and was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979 and in 2003, to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
"He's one of the greatest songwriters of all time," said Butch Lowery, son of late DJ/publisher Bill Lowery and president of the Lowery Group. "His songs have touched so many lives. He's such a wonderful guy and loved by many."
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