Joe South’s timeless tune with a powerful message makes him one of the great one-hit wonders. But he was much more than that.
This late-Sixties protest song has been floating around my head ever since I was ten.
With its potent lyrics speaking out against hatred and hypocrisy, intolerance, inhumanity and irresponsibility, you could say it’s the perfect song for our times. Also… that electric sitar (played by South himself) is one of the all-time great intros.
The million-selling song’s message, castigating pseudo-hippies who “while away the hours / in their ivory towers / ’til they’re covered up with flowers,” is as relevant today as it was back in 1968, which it reached No.6 to give him his only UK hit single.
A southern boy from Atlanta, Georgia, Joe South started out as a country singer in the 1950s (he had a minor hit in 1957 with a Big Bopper song called The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor).
He then became a session musician in Nashville and at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, appearing on an extraordinary range of discs by singers including Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin – it was Joe who played the distinctive tremelo guitar intro on her hit Chain Of Fools.
He also recorded with Bob Dylan, playing guitar on most of Blonde on Blonde, and Simon & Garfunkel (The Sounds of Silence) and wrote hits ranging from Hush for Deep Purple to Lynn Anderson’s Rose Garden. Yet for years he remained in the background.
He only began recording his own material in 1968 – and soon had a hit with this tune, which reached No.6 in the UK and went on to win two Grammys.
Yet, even though the list of artists who have covered his songs is as long as your arm – a list that includes Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Andy Williams, Kitty Wells, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Ike & Tina Turner and, more recently, k. d. lang – he remains, in UK chart terms at least, a one-hit wonder.
Having struggled with a drug habit following the death of his brother, Joe died in 2012, leaving a legacy of huge contributions to music history – and making him one of the great one-hit wonders.