The Return of Joe South

Composer of '60s hit `Games People Play' reappears on music scene. POP MUSIC: INTERVIEW

JOE SOUTH. You say the name doesn't quite ring a bell? Well, how about ``Games People Play''? That song was the anthem of 1969 - the double Grammy Award winner from South's groundbreaking album ``Introspect.'' With a guitar, a sympathetic band (The Believers), a great warm, rich voice, some memorable melodies, and lyrics that zeroed right in on every personal and universal foible you could think of, Joe South's music became a kind of mental blueprint for a lot of soul-searchers in the late '60s and early '70s. Then he virtually disappeared.

I remember back in 1970, a fellow jazz lover said to me, ``You've gotta hear this album by some guy from Atlanta named Joe South.'' What? Atlanta? Country music? Are you kidding? (No self-respecting be-bopper ever listened to country.)

But I bought the album (after all, the guy who recommended it was a jazzer, too!) and found out that even though it had elements of country, rock, and even '60s psychedelia, you really couldn't slap a label on it.

At the time, I didn't know that Joe South had also written and produced great AM radio hits like ``Untie Me,'' by the Tams, and ``Down in the Boondocks,'' by Billy Joe Royal. He played guitar on Aretha Franklin's ``Chain of Fools'' and Bob Dylan's ``Blonde on Blonde.'' Country singer Lynn Anderson had a huge hit on his ``Rose Garden,'' and Deep Purple's first US hit was South's ``Hush.''

Well, I've been lugging ``Introspect'' around with me ever since those days, listening to it off and on, and always wondering - whatever happened to Joe South?

A few weeks ago I heard that Rhino Records was announcing a ``Joe South revival.'' Sure enough, Rhino had released a ``Best of Joe South'' collection (Rhino R2 70994, CD and cassette) containing almost all the songs from ``Introspect,'' plus several songs from other albums. And the fact that his songs have recently been recorded by contemporary artists k.d. lang, the Georgia Satellites, and even Milli Vanilli (!) was a good sign something's been cooking in Georgia.

Curiosity got the best of me, and I went down to Atlanta to meet with Joe and his wife of three years, Jan. He told me his story, and why he'd been out of the picture for so long: drugs.

``I was involved in them before I even knew what I was doing,'' said South, a big man with gentle eyes and an almost self-effacing manner. ``I knew there were pills you could take that just changed your mind about everything, and you all of a sudden saw something that you didn't see before.'' Then he added, ``What was happening was just the process of self-deception.''

That self-deception led him into a downward spiral of addiction that continued on well after his fame in the late '60s and early '70s. When his brother Tom - who had played drums with Joe - committed suicide because of drugs, things got worse.

``I didn't see myself doing [drugs] for the kicks. I did it more or less to keep going, and to tap into inspiration. I equated the chemicals with the inspiration.''

Over the years Joe tried a number of recording projects, including an album that was released in 1975, ``Midnight Rainbows,'' but nothing really took off for him, and the dependency continued. Four years ago, though, he met Jan, and things started to turn around.

``Jan helped me,'' said Joe. ``It was great. She was placed in my life, and I hung my hat on her for a while.''

Joe South was always one to explore spiritual things, and these explorations colored many of his lyrics. It was this spiritual approach to things which finally pulled him out of his problems.

``I really kicked myself around for years ... one of the main hangups was I just refused to forgive myself,'' he said with disarming candor. ``You know you can go through drug treatment centers and it's not a permanent healing until it's a spiritual healing.''

NOW Joe South is ready for his move back into music - regular writing, recording, and most of all, touring. In the past couple of years he has released a couple of singles on Southern Tracks, (a label owned by Bill Lowery, South's long-time manager), and he's been working on new material for an album. But he feels like he's still testing the waters.

``I'm groping right now for a way to get back into it,'' he said. ``I think I'd like to get in the studio and tune in and just let the music come through me, without trying to do a lot to harness it, you know?''

A lot has happened in music since Joe South was on top - modern technology for one, and changing musical styles for another. But he is ready and willing. He wants to learn about synthesizers and MIDI (the language synthesizers use), and lately he's gotten into what he calls the ``wild'' music of Metallica, one of his 15-year-old son's favorite heavy metal bands.

I had been asking myself for years what it was that made Joe South's music so special, and always found myself at a loss for words. Mike McCarty, who has designed album covers for South, commented in a phone interview that ``at one point, John Lennon said he felt Joe was the greatest songwriter in the world.''

Singer/songwriter Ben Vaughn sums it up nicely in the liner notes of the Rhino release:

``Real. Joe South was real. Sure, the press had all kinds of fancy terms to describe him - terms like ``pop spokesman'' and ``introspective genius'' - but that wasn't what won over millions of record buyers in 1969. No sir. It was the way he delivered his message. He sounded honest. He sounded real.''

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