(Joe South died today, September 5, 2012. In his honor, I'm reposting an article I wrote here on May 20, 2011, RIP.)
First things first: why is Joe South so damn great?
1. He changed his name from Joe Souter to Joe South. Could there be any cooler classic name for a Georgia-born boy than "Joe South?" "Bill Midwest" simply doesn't have the same ring to it, does it. JOE. SOUTH! WOOOOO! FREEBIRD! WOOOOO!
2. He was a red-hot guitar picker, and has played on records by such musical luminaries as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Marty Robbins, Simon & Garfunkle, and Bob Dylan, as well as the slightly-less-luminous Tommy Roe.
3. He totally rocked the bowl cut.
4. Most importantly, he was one of the '60s/early '70s best pop songwriters, period. This guy knew how to write unbelievably catchy 45s for himself and other artists like nobody's business, each with effortlessly sunny melodies, clever construction, and a country soul groove. Check it out: "Down In The Boondocks
," "I Knew You When
," "Games People Play
,""Don't It Make You Want To Go Home
," "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden
," and "Walk A Mile In My Shoes
Sadly, after a family tragedy in 1971 and other personal issues, Joe South largely left the music business and has remained reclusive. He is now 71 years old. Today, I am bringing you three versions of a song Joe composed in the mid-'60s, and which took a few more years to find its biggest success: "Yo Yo."
First version is by South's pal and former roommate Billy Joe Royal (another great Southern name there). This has a Motown-stamp all over it, with the handclaps, honking sax, soul vox, and quickstep pace. It's easy to hear almost any of the Motown artists handling this one, male or female. South completely nailed the format. It creeped into the Billboard charts in 1966.
A couple of years later, Cavern-days Liverpudlian Beatle gal-pal Cilla Black took a crack at the song, although it was rather buried on the B-side of an album called "Sher-Ooo!" which I doubt was ever released in the US. Her booming husky white-soul voice better captures the playful twists and bends in the melody, and largely sticks with Royal's arrangement.
Fast forward to 1971, and who grabs up "Yo Yo" and takes it to #3 on the charts? Why, of course, the toothy clan from Utah, the Osmonds! I wasn't at all an Osmonds fan then, even though I was the correct demographic, but you have to give them props. They worked incredibly hard and had a lot of vocal talent, not to mention dance moves that were "Soul Train" quality. Don't you sneer at me; it's true!
So why did this version make it to the top, even after its particular Motown-genre was getting a bit out-of-date in '71? It wasn't just that a top teen group with a lot of TV and radio exposure did it, although that's big. But listen to what they threw in to the arrangement, which completely grabbed listeners ears -- the calliope-circus backing vocals and the slide whistle metallic pseudo yo-yo bounce, which I PROPOSE was influenced by Smokey Robinson's "Tears Of A Clown
," which was a mighty hit the year before. Adding to the catchy was the lead vocal split between Merrill Osmond and teen god Donny. It amuses me to hear what they had to do with the key there -- poor older brother Merrill had to bust a gritty gut to hit the notes that had to be tailored for the 13-year-old Donny, whose voice hadn't changed yet. But Donny owns it in the choruses, hitting the blues notes dead on and singing it like he MEANS IT. Later on in concert, the Osmonds would drop the key as Donny's voice matured, and as they sing it now as elder gentlemen, the blast of the original is gone, along with the soulfulness. What can ya do. This was the only Osmonds record I ever bought, on a 45, and I wrote my name in my newly-acquired cursive script on the blue-and-gold label.
This is for sure: "Yo Yo" is a really fun song, and Joe South was somethin' else. Thanks, man.