After a long career as a session musician and occasional songwriter, Joe South burst into the national spotlight as a solo artist at the end of the 1960s. "Games People Play," which South wrote and sang, became an anthem of 1960s idealism, and several of his other compositions, including "Rose Garden" (best known in a version by country singer Lynn Anderson), remain standards of American popular song. South's hit albums Games People Play and Don't It Make You Want to Go Home were adventurous productions that drew on pop, southern soul, country music, and psychedelic rock in equal measure. A troubled artist, South vanished almost completely from the music scene after several years of major popular success.
Joe South was born Joseph Alfred Souter on February 28, 1940, in Atlanta, Georgia,. He grew up in a housing project in a family that had few resources but plenty of enthusiasm for country music. When he was eight, South began to emulate his father by learning to play the guitar. He would stand on a woodpile near the family home and imagine that he was on stage playing for an audience. Three years later, South's father encouraged his son's growing talent by buying him a guitar of his own, and it took South only a year to land an early morning show of his own on Atlanta country radio station WGST. Interested in the technical side of music and radio, he also built a home-based radio station of his own with a broadcast radius of over a mile.
The disc jockey who spotted South's talent at WGST was Bill Lowery, who later became his manager and also nurtured the careers of other Southern musicians, from rockabilly star Gene Vincent to southern rockers the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Through Lowery, a major figure in country radio, South gained a wider set of contacts, and in 1957 he joined a band headed by country steel guitarist Pete Drake. South began to record and had some minor regional impact with several releases on Lowery's NRC label. One of them, "The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor," merged two of the novelty hits of the time into a single song.
As it did in Memphis, Tennessee, music played an important role in the dismantling of racial segregation in Atlanta in the late 1950s and 1960s. South played in bands with both white and black musicians as a teenager, and he wrote songs for the Tams, one of the rhythm-and-blues groups Lowery signed. South's "Untie Me" went to number one nationally for the Tams in 1962, and his music career was on its way.
But South, who sometimes had a reputation as a difficult person to work with, was frustrated by his lack of solo success, and he moved to Nashville in 1962. His guitar talents continued to bring work his way as he appeared on releases by country crooner Eddy Arnold, traveled to nearby Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for soul recording sessions, and worked even farther afield as he contributed guitar parts to album releases by folk-rockers Simon & Garfunkel (the Sounds of Silence album) and Bob Dylan (the epochal Blonde on Blonde). The lead guitar part on Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" (1968) also belongs to South. South returned to Atlanta in 1966 and honed his own songwriting under the influence of these ambitious albums. The commercial potential of his compositions was demonstrated when the country-flavored "Down in the Boondocks" became a hit for Georgia vocalist Billy Joe Royal, and the early hard rock band Deep Purple scored with South's "Hush."
Signed to the Capitol label in 1968, South released the single "Birds of a Feather" to moderate success. His debut album, Introspect, appeared at the end of that year. He was still mostly unknown to the general public and the album sold poorly. South's fellow musicians, however, were aware of his talent and began to mine the album for material. When "Games People Play" caught on with various performers, Capitol reissued Introspect under that title in 1969. Both South's own single version of "Games People Play" and the album achieved gold record status for sales of 500,000 copies, and South took home two Grammy Awards for the single: Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song. The song's title came from a best-selling self-help book of the same name by psychologist Eric Berne, and "Rose Garden," another song on Introspect, took its title from that of a novel by Joanne Greenberg (as Hannah Green), I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.
South's follow-up album, Don't It Make You Want to Go Home, didn't find quite that level of success, but both its title track and another single, the upbeat, gospel-tinged "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," reached upper chart levels and became durable rock classics. South's run at the top of the music business continued with country singer Lynn Anderson's 1971 recording of "Rose Garden," a major success in both pop and country fields with its mysterious yet compelling assertion that "You better look before you leap/Still waters run deep/And there won't always be someone there to pull you out./And you know what I'm talkin' about."
South's career was derailed, however, by worsening substance abuse problems. Drug use caused the suicide of South's brother Tom, who had played drums in his band, and South found himself relying on drugs as well. "I didn't see myself doing [drugs] for the kicks," he told Amy Duncan of the Christian Science Monitor. "I did it more or less to keep going, and to tap into inspiration. I equated the chemicals with the inspiration." Caught in a downward spiral, South often took a surly attitude toward audiences and parted ways with Capitol after two unsuccessful albums. He lived for a time in the 1970s on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
A comeback album on the Island label, 1975's Midnight Rainbows, went nowhere. South had a son and virtually dropped out of the music business. His drug problems recurred. "I really kicked myself around for years … one of the main hang-ups was I just refused to forgive myself," he told Duncan. "You know, you can go through drug treatment centers, and it's not a permanent healing until it's a spiritual healing." South's marriage to his wife, Jan, in 1987 helped turn things around, and he began to write songs and occasionally appear in public.
Some of those personal appearances came in connection with the honors South began to receive in recognition of his influence. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 1994 he appeared on a London concert bill called "The American South," featuring various musicians from the region. South maintained his ties to Lowery Music Publishing, and he was still working for the company in the early 2000s, around the time of the death of his mentor, Bill Lowery, in 2004.
Introspect, Capitol, 1968 (renamed Games People Play, 1969).
Don't It Make You Want to Go Home, Capitol, 1969.
So the Seeds Are Growing, Capitol, 1971.
Midnight Rainbows, Island, 1975.
The Best of Joe South, Rhino, 1990.
(With various artists) The Joe South Tribute Record, Jackpine, 2005.
For the Record …
Born Joseph Alfred Souter on February 28, 1940, in Atlanta, GA; married, 1987; wife's name: Jan. Education: Attended Southern Polytechnic State University, Atlanta, Georgia.
Had regular show on Atlanta radio station WGST, early 1950s; joined band of steel guitarist Pete Drake, 1957; recorded for NRC label, Atlanta, late 1950s; active as songwriter, Atlanta, early 1960s; composition "Untie Me" became number one hit for group the Tams; moved to Nashville, 1962; active as session guitarist, Nashville, mid-1960s; returned to Atlanta, 1966; signed to Capitol, released Introspect, 1968; Introspect renamed Games People Play and became major hit, 1969; released Don't It Make You Want to Go Home, 1969; released Midnight Rainbows, 1975; mostly inactive in music business, 1980s and 1990s; worked for Lowery Music Publishing, Atlanta, early 2000s.
Awards: Two Grammy Awards, for Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song, for single "Games People Play," 1969; inductee, Georgia Music Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Addresses: Office—Lowery Music Publishing, 3051 Claremont Rd. NE, Atlanta, GA 30329.
George-Warren, Holly, and Patricia Romanowski, eds., the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, 3rd ed., Fireside, 2001.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, rev. ed., St. Martin's, 1989.
Christian Science Monitor, September 12, 1990, p. 10.
"Joe South," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 23, 2006).
"Joe South," Jackpine Social Club label, http://www.jackpinesocialclub.com/joe_south.htm (June 23, 2006).
"Joe South," Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, http://www.nashvillesongwritersfoundation.com (June 23, 2006).
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