“Joe South,” the postal clerk read aloud. He’d just been handed a check in payment for stamps and postage at the rather non-descript Flowery Branch, Georgia post office by an equally nondescript, heavyset man in his late sixties. “Yeah, ol’ Joe South,” he repeated. “I used to like his songs,” he said as he began to process the check.
“Well, thank you,” the man replied politely.
It was the Joe South. The singer/songwriter, born near Atlanta as Joseph Souter, is best known as the Grammy-winning author of “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden,” “Games People Play,” and “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” But the talented producer/musician who logged countless hours as a studio musician on a number of iconic recordings for Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and many more was a complicated man.
The reclusive composer created complex and layered pop-rock anthems with tinges of country, soul and orchestral pop. South was a Southern-fried mix of Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and P.F. Sloan, fiercely dedicated to the Atlanta music scene of impresario Bill Lowery but staunchly determined to do things his own way. Most residents of Flowery Branch, best known as home to the Atlanta Falcons training camp, had no idea they lived near such a respected artist until news spread that he died at his home on Sept. 5.
“That’s kind of the way he wanted it. He was a bit of a recluse, a very shy guy,” says his son Craig South, of Los Angeles. “He expressed himself though music because he wasn’t good at expressing himself any other way.”
From prodigy to session man
Music was always the center of South’s life. When he was 11, his father gave him a guitar, and by the next year, he was performing on local radio shows. He even built his own small radio station to broadcast his fledgling compositions. Even as a bashful early teen, music was his preferred method of communication.
While still in high school, South was a regular act on the “Georgia Jubilee,” a radio show that featured local performers. Hosted by Bill Lowery, the show, a precursor to today’s glitzy reality/talent shows, became a low-budget, communal hangout and think tank for soon-to-be-successful Atlanta-based musicians, including Ray Stevens, Tommy Roe, Billy Joe Royal, Freddy Weller and Jerry Reed.
“Joe always had an innate understanding of music,” remembers Ray Stevens, who first met South in 1957. “He was a great guitar player and every now and then we’d put a band together with Jerry Reed and play little shows at Georgia Tech. We were pretty green, but we had a lot of fun.”
Stevens and South ripened quickly, often playing sessions at Lowery’s studio in Brookhaven, and igniting a long partnership with the powerful publisher. During this time, the busy South also played with steel guitar player Pete Drake. Lowery eagerly signed South, still a high-school student, as a staff songwriter and artist. South’s first hit on the small NRC label was a novelty cover of “The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor.” His career was soaring.
“When he was only 18—I was still 15—Joe was already a big star locally,” remembers Freddy Weller, who later had a solo hit with his take on South’s “Games People Play.” As a member of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Weller covered South’s “Birds Of A Feather.”
By the mid-’60s, South’s star was on the rise nationally and his workload was heavy. He backed Tommy Roe, Billy Joe Royal, Freddy Weller and a number of others. Most of Lowery’s stable of artists took turns recording South’s growing catalog of songs. Royal’s hits with the South-penned “Down in the Boondocks” and “I Knew You When” set South up for a number of session and production jobs in Nashville, Muscle Shoals, Memphis and even in New York, where he played on Bob Dylan’s classic Blonde On Blonde album. On “Stuck Outside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” that’s South trading guitar licks with Al Kooper. He also played bass on “Visions of Johanna.”
“Joe was self-taught and quick on the trigger,” remembers his friend, fellow musician and producer Emory Gordy, Jr. “I learned about writing for strings and horn arrangements from looking over his shoulder. Ninety-five percent of what I know about making records, I learned from Joe.”
Moving into the spotlight
By 1968, South was signed to Capitol to record his own album. Rodney Mills was the recording engineer for the project, tracked at three studios around Atlanta, including LeFevre Sound. “Joe was always about three steps ahead, because he had the vision,” recalls Mills. “He knew exactly what he wanted and sometimes I couldn’t even tell how it would wind up when he started the songs, but he made sense of the chaos and it all just worked. He never played to a click track or metronome because his timing was totally unique.”
The core band on the sessions included his brother Tommy South on drums, Tommy’s wife Barbara South on keyboards and backing vocals and John Mulkey on bass. “I always thought of them all, including Joe, as a band. It was Joe’s family more than anything.”
The resulting album was called Introspect and remains his greatest single collection of songs. It contained “Games People Play” and his own version of “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden.” Singer Lynn Anderson happened to get a promo copy of the record.
“Introspect made me have an immediate bond to Joe,” says Anderson. “Every song was great, and I knew I had to record at least one of them. But ‘Rose Garden’ just spoke to me.”
Initially the producer, and Anderson’s husband at the time, Glenn Sutton, said it was a “man’s song” and wasn’t keen on including it. “But at the session, we ran out of material, and he said, ‘Run home and grab some things for another song.’ So we started back up with ‘Rose Garden’ and the rest is history. It became a number one county and pop record.” Pete Drake, South’s bandmate from the 1950s, played pedal steel on the track, which became Anderson’s biggest success, just as it had been for South.
A retreat into the shadows
Tragically, South wouldn’t enjoy the song’s triumph and awards for long. As ‘Rose Garden’ was still in bloom on the charts in 1971, Tommy South committed suicide. “I sat with Joe at a BMI Awards very soon after that,” Anderson remembers. “He was so quiet and sad.”
Tommy South’s death proved to be the turning point in his father’s life. It turned the once-outgoing and charismatic singer into a shy recluse, according to many of his closest friends, including his surviving son. “It defined everything in his life after that,” says Craig South. “It caused him pain every day of his life because he never really healed from it.” He certainly tried to heal, albeit in his own self-medicated way. South moved to Maui in 1971 to escape some of the pain and the pressures of the success he created. But by 1975, he was back in Atlanta and welcomed his only child, a son, into the world while he tried to restart a career with a new album, the poorly received collection called Midnight Rainbows. Rodney Mills engineered those sessions, as well. “He was just different,” Mills says. “He’d lost that fire, that drive that made him so great to begin with.”
But South continued working, writing and playing music, relocating to Nashville, where he worked with singer/songwriter Marshall Chapman and befriended Belmont music student Todd Cannon. Though his recording career had faltered, Cannon says, “Joe was always full of great ideas and we’d play for hours, working up new songs and demos for Marshall.” His overwhelming sadness would disappear when he played or talked about music. “He wasn’t boastful about all he’d done,” says steel-guitarist Cannon, who now lives in Gainesville, Ga. “You’d have to directly ask him about his past to hear all these great stories—about meeting the Beatles, touring England, shows with Linda Ronstadt. So many things that he’d just keep to himself unless you pulled it out of him.”
Of the Beatles meeting in England, Cannon fondly recalls South laughing as John Lennon approached and said jokingly, “’Rose Garden’ drives me mad!”
On his own terms
Back in Atlanta by the mid-1980s, South began an on and off two-decade working friendship with producer Jim Zumpano at ZAC Studios. “He always used to say, ‘One thing you know—is that you never know.’ And that’s what working on sessions was like with Joe,” Zumpano says. “You never knew, but I learned to roll with his changes and we had fun.” Of their lengthy partnership, only one new track has been released, 2010’s “Oprah Cried.” In keeping with South’s mystique, it isn’t readily available; it’s only offered as a bonus track on an Australian reissue CD of two of his classic albums. “No matter what period of Joe’s life you look at, or how he felt at the time, the songwriting genius was always just amazing. He just truly loved music,” says Zumpano.
“He was in his zone when he was around music,” says Bill Pound, who first met South at a gig in a Mexican restaurant near South’s final residence in Flowery Branch. “That’s when he was really himself.” Pound says he saw firsthand how much South loved to absorb music. “Even in his last days, under all his pain, I saw how big his heart was.”
South was very generous to worthwhile charities, fellow musicians and especially to children, says his son. “There’s going to be a Joe South Foundation set up to help needy kids [with proceeds] from his songwriting royalties,” Craig South explains. “That’s exactly how he would have wanted it.”
He says he’s proud his dad managed to exist completely on his own terms, even if it was part of his downfall. “If he’d made a few compromises, he’d probably still be with us, but that was his own decision, too. He lived his life the way he wanted, so what else can you say? It‘s all in his songs. That‘s his life and how he wanted to live it.”
Special thanks to Lynn Anderson, Ray Stevens, Tommy Roe, Billy Joe Royal, Freddy Weller, Buddy Buie, Emory Gordy, Jr., Al Kooper, Butch Lowery, Karin Johnson, Jeff Calder, Darrell Phillips, Rodney Mills, Todd Cannon, Bill Pound, Jim Zumpano and Craig South. All vintage photos courtesy Bill Lowery Music.