If you grew up in the early to mid-1970s, you may remember tuning your AM radio to a local Top 40 station and grooving to music that, for want of a better word, we’ll call the Memphis Sound. It was a hybrid of country’s twangy guitar and plaintive vocals with the driving beat and existential, socially conscious lyrics of the West Coast’s psychedelic rockers, with a little soul music mixed in, to produce a catchy sound that was a little hippie and a little homespun. Songs such as “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” made you want to shake your hips and get funky, but when you listened to the words, you couldn’t help but think, too.
And there are people on reservations and out in the ghettos
And brother, there, but for the grace of God, go you and I.
The performer who wrote and sang those words was singer-guitarist-songwriter Joe South, who died yesterday at age 72 in Buford, Ga. Though largely forgotten today, the denizen of Memphis’ renowned American Studios was a man of diverse talents and achievements. He was a sought-after session guitarist who played on records by Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Simon and Garfunkel, and made the pop charts with his own recordings of “Games People Play” in 1968 and “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” in 1970.
But the slew of hits in varying styles that South wrote for other stars, ranging from country singer Lynn Anderson to hard rockers Deep Purple, are probably his most enduring legacy. Here are five of his most memorable compositions:
- “Down in the Boondocks.” South penned this romantic lament, about a hardscrabble boy and his hopeless love for the daughter of his “bossman,” which became a hit for Billy Joe Royal in 1965.
- “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” South had a hit of his own with this song in 1970, but the Elvis Presley version is probably more famous.
- “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden.” This South composition, which became Lynn Anderson’s signature hit in 1970, offers the sage advice: “life shouldn’t be so melancholy.”
- “Birds of a Feather.” South released this song himself in 1968 as a follow-up to the Grammy-winning “Games People Play.” But it became a bigger hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders.
- “Hush.” South originally wrote this psychedelic-soul classic for Billy Joe Royal, but a faster, louder remake by British rockers Deep Purple got to No. 4 on the Billboard chart in 1968.