Joe South (born Joe Souter in 1940) was an American songwriter and session guitarist for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s before he enjoyed fleeting success with recording his own material as a vocalist. He is best remembered as a solo act for his international hit 'Games People Play' in 1969. His career was interrupted, not to say rather derailed, when his brother Tommy, the drummer in his band, committed suicide two years later, a blow from which he never really recovered.
'Classic Masters' is one of several compilations available, and apart from the rather ungenerous playing time (only 38 minutes) makes a good budget-price introduction to his work. It's telling that several of these songs are better known through cover versions than his own. He was sometimes classified, rather inaccurately in my view, as a country singer. While there are elements of country in his work, there's a soul-like grittiIness and quality in his singing, and a harder edge to the music than that. 'Country soul' is perhaps a more accurate pigeonhole, though the guitar/sitar sound also gives it a psychedelic edge. Difficult to categorise, really.
Like several of these songs, the opening cut 'Walk A Mile In My Shoes', also recorded at various times by Elvis Presley and Bryan Ferry, has a foot in country, a foot in soul, and almost quite a gentle funky tempo. Lyrically, it's about the importance of people putting themselves in someone else's place -
'And yet we spend the day throwing stones at one another
'Cause I don't think or wear my hair the same way you do
Well I may be common people but I'm your brother
And when you strike out and try to hurt me it's a-hurtin' you'
The classic 'Games People Play', which made him a one-hit wonder in Britain as a performer (No. 6), still sounds just as strong as it did over forty years ago. Inspired by a book of the same title by Eric Berne, this is again something of a protest song - an articulate commentary on prejudice, hatred, phoney religion and hypocrisy. If space allowed, I could quote practically every verse to demonstrate what a powerful lyricist he was. Musically it's quite a tour de force with dark strings and an electric guitar/sitar, played by South himself.
Thanks to simultaneous hit versions by Lynn Anderson and New World, 'Rose Garden' is probably his next best-known song. Musically it's a little more gentle, more easy on the ear than the first two, but that gutsy feel in his vocal saves it from sinking into the middle-of-the-road trap. That balance of sweet strings and sitar guitar adds colour as ever.
Another number made famous by others, 'Hush' was an early hit in Europe for Deep Purple, and in Britain in the 1990s for Kula Shaker. (I also have an equally good version on a Love Affair CD). Lyrically it may not be on a par with his best work, but I love that insistent tempo, the gospelly backing vocals - and yet again what else can I say about the wonderful guitar sound?
'Don't It Make You Want To Go Home' opens with an uncharacteristically sweet orchestral intro. This is probably closer to pure country territory than the rest, especially with that nostalgic lyric about longing to return to one's roots.
'These Are Not My People' has something of the put-down attitude of some of the snarling mid-1960s Rolling Stones songs, or even Dylan's acid 'Like a Rolling Stone'.
'Well your momma and your poppa sent you to the finest school
Never let it be said that their little darlin' was a fool
With a credit card and your good name
You were drawn like a moth to a flame
To the people of the night where you more or less lost your cool'
South generally delivers his songs in a fairly laid-back, introspective manner, which often masks the subtle anger in his words. Perhaps it's a relief to know that there is a gentler side to his work as well. 'I Knew You When', a ballad more or less sung in waltz-time, is easier on the ear. While I generally prefer his more urgent songs, there's no denying that he writes and performs material of this kind just as well. That ever-present guitar sitar is in the background, alongside the strings and lush backing vocals. Much the same can be said for the whimsical 'Children'. The pace picks up with 'Untie Me', which with the heavy strings and backing vocals sounds like a nod to the Phil Spector wall of sound.
'Fool Me', a song written from the point of view of a fool who keeps coming back for more, is another almost easy-listening big production sound, with a folksy acoustic guitar intro. In fact this is very countryish, and that powerful chorus grows on you after a few listens.
'Down In The Boondocks', is best known as a hit for Billy Joe Royal on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965, and was probably one of the first hits about class divisions - 'Lord have mercy on a poor boy from down in the boondocks' who has lost his heart to a girl whose father thinks he is too good for her. It's similar in mood to the final track, 'Birds Of A Feather', another guitar/sitar-flavoured particular favourite of mine, with a storyline reminiscing about two youngsters who used to hang around despite parental disapproval, and the feeling that he was not good enough for her. (One is tempted to wonder whether he was writing from childhood experience?). Just as the chorus starts to fade, crashing in comes a two-minute instrumental reprise of 'Games People Play'.
A three-way foldout insert includes two pages of notes about his musical career and a note of original release dates for each track. Being an American compilation, it omits to tell us that while he enjoyed regular chart success in his own country, it took Britain to give him his only Top 10 hit as a performer.
South recorded several albums during his heyday, enough to have made a much longer compilation possible. But at an asking price of around £6 online (maybe as little as £2 secondhand), and with a fair proportion of his all-time classics, this is good enough - and thanks to the strength of the music, just sufficient to merit five stars. The Amazon.co.uk page has a 'Preview all songs' facility.
Ironically, I acquired this CD last summer, and not having listened to my old Joe South vinyl albums for some years, I was delighted to have them on a little silver one. Just a few days later, I heard that he had passed away, aged 72. Thank you for the music and RIP, Joe.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Walk A Mile In My Shoes
2 Games People Play
3 Rose Garden
5 Don't It Make You Want To Go Home
6 These Are Not My People
7 I Knew You When
9 Untie Me
10 Fool Me
11 Down In The Boondocks
12 Birds Of A Feathe