“Grass and Trees and Cars, Fish and Steaks, Potatoes” – The Total and Utter Genius of Joe Tex
by Steve Mainprize
Listening to Joe Tex’s history, it’s hard to escape the thought that there really ought to be a Joe Tex biopic, to sit alongside “Walk The Line”, “Ray”, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and all the rest of the baby boomer heritage pop movies. Just like Johnny, Ray and Tina, Joe Tex was a formative influence in the history of black music, but his career was full of false starts and stylistic cul-de-sacs, and he never quite achieved the momentum necessary to get the popular recognition that he deserved.
Here are some of the scenes from the imaginary film of his life that’s playing in my head.
Scene 1: We’re outside a Texas honky-tonk, some time in the late 1950′s. As we track through the car park, past chrome and fins and pick-up trucks, we hear the muffled, galloping sound of a country-and-western group. The music becomes clearer and louder as we push through the door, and across the crowded, darkened room we see the band on a tiny stage, fronted by a powerful figure in a purple cowboy outfit and an enormous white ten-gallon hat. The singer lifts his head, and we see his face for the first time. It’s Joe Tex, and he’s the only black man in the place. From the side of the stage, a man in a suit – the joint’s owner – is screaming at the top of his voice: “Get him off the stage, he ain’t country! He ain’t white, he can’t be country!” Joe grins at him, and the band plays on.
Scene 2: Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama. Joe and his producer, Buddy Killen, can’t agree on anything; their working relationship has been showing cracks, Joe’s fledgling career is on the line if he can’t get a hit, and the last of their studio time is nearly up. They’ve worked through the night and it’s starting to get light outside. Joe’s voice is almost shot. “Joe,” says the weary producer, “this number isn’t working. Let’s try a new song.” The band gets set up one last time, and they start to play “Hold What You’ve Got”. And it’s magic. Joe’s vocal isn’t technically perfect, but the hours of singing have left him with just the right degree of weariness and hoarseness for the tune. He’s on his way.
Scene 3: Joe’s on stage again: he’s ripping through a Southern soul number, opening for James Brown. Joe openly mocks Brown – a man, let’s face it, not known for his enjoyment of a good joke – by wrapping himself in a cape and dropping to his knees in fake anguish, hollering “Please! Please! Please! Please … get me out of this cape!” The audience thinks it’s hilarious, but later, a furious Godfather of Soul confronts Joe in a nightclub with a shotgun. Joe dives through the exit, as Brown opens fire: Joe’s unscathed, but several of the club’s customers are wounded and have to be paid off.
The James Brown shotgun incident was the culmination of a series of disagreements between the two men, not the least of which was that Brown had taken up with Bea Ford, Tex’s ex-wife. Joe also held the opinion that Brown had copied his act – hence the cape gag – and there’s no denying the strong similarity between the two men’s dance moves. Joe Tex was a total showman (or show-off – take your pick), whether he was juggling his tambourine, hurling his mic stand around, or dropping to the floor in a perfect splits. Little Richard used to say that James Brown picked up a good deal of his act from watching Joe Tex.
It was typical of Joe Tex that his instinct was to face misfortune and arguments with humour. Apart from the cape routine, he also wrote the song “You Keep Her”, which riffed on Brown’s own “Baby Don’t You Weep”, about Bea taking up with Brown. How much he could really complain about Brown lifting his moves is questionable, because his own early records were really only notable for their resemblance to the works of other artists. In those early days, up until about 1965, his recordings sounded like Little Richard, Sam Cooke or Fats Domino, and he never seemed to find his own voice.
In the end, it was James Brown who became the superstar because he took it all very seriously. With Joe Tex, though, you always got the idea that he was on the verge of cracking a joke. Take one of his best records, “The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)”, possibly the grimmest thing he ever wrote. The chorus is about the importance of working out your romantic relationships, but the verses are a social commentary, of the type that would later turn up in the protest movement, on the black experience in the American South in the fifties and early sixties, something Joe would have known all about:
I’ve been pushed around
I’ve been lost and found
I’ve been given til sundown to get out of town
I’ve been taken outside
And I’ve been brutalized
And I’ve had to always be the one to smile and apologize
But watch him perform the song on YouTube and you kind of think, well, he means it – but on the other hand there’s a lightness of touch there too. It’s almost the same humour that you find in early Morrissey lyrics, but without the self-pity.
Like so many of his contemporaries, he was heavily influenced by the gospel music of his childhood. In small town Texas, though, where Joe was born and brought up, country-and-western was also popular, and although society was heavily segregated, young Joe experienced enough country music for its rhythms and outlook to have an effect on him too.
This led to the ill-advised scattergun approach of his early records, when he was releasing seven or eight singles a year, but without a strong identity. He’d make a rock and roll record, then a country record, then a soul record, then a novelty record about a pig. Part of the problem is that in those days it was – and still is, I guess – assumed that you had to fit a particular role. You couldn’t be a comedian and a soul man and a country singer. Make no mistake, Joe Tex was great in all three of those roles, but if he’d been world class in just one, or even just stuck to one, perhaps he’d be more well-known today.
But then, of course, he wouldn’t have been Joe Tex.
In his early career, he was in demand from other artists, including Little Richard and James Booker, to sing on their records, but had little success on his own. He moved regularly from one record company to the next, each label failing to find the exact combination of song and backing to turn him into a star. You can’t knock the labels’ faith in him, or their persistence, though: he released over 30 singles on various labels before he and his producer Buddy Killen, who had set up Dial Records specifically to get Joe’s records out, finally hit on the right formula and “Hold What You’ve Got” became a hit in 1965. He finally got to release an album, the similarly titled “Hold On To What You’ve Got”, and wrote every track on the record – an almost unheard of honour at the time for a soul singer.
What followed was a career in which Joe Tex, casually and almost unnoticed, sowed the seeds for all kinds of developments in black music. One of his trademarks that he returned to continually was the trick of speaking his verses, then singing the refrains: he coined the term “rap” to describe the spoken word passages, and the ribald humour of songs like “Skinny Legs And All” and “You Said A Bad Word” is right there in hip-hop. He sang about social issues before Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and was the first soul singer to have a hit about the Vietnam War (“I Believe I’m Gonna Make It”).
The style that brought him success was more rustic than that of other soul singers of the period. He loved to take some folksy colloquialism that he’d overheard and build a song around it, like “Buying A Book” or the magnificent “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”. One of his favourite themes was the battle of the sexes, in which he’d offer home-spun philosophy on a man’s responsibility to his woman and his family. He was particularly fond of morality fables; anyone, man or woman, guilty of messing their partner around in the first verse of a Joe Tex song was bound to have the tables turned on them by the end of the second verse.
There’s roughly a metric truckload of Joe Tex compilation albums. (One of the best available ones is 1988′s “The Very Best Of Joe Tex”, on Charly Records.) The glut is partly due to the fact that he recorded for lots of different labels before he got successful, and partly because he managed to sign himself – not entirely ethically – to more than one simultaneous contract while he was with Buddy Killen. Consequently the rights got passed around and around, and the legal side of Joe Tex’s back-catalogue goes a little murky, but I don’t think he would have worried about that too much. As previously mentioned, who owned what and who did what first weren’t questions that particularly bothered him anyway. He did claim to have written the pop standard “Fever”, a hit for Little Willie John and Peggy Lee, and recorded by dozens of other artists, but to have sold the rights to the song because he needed the money. (The usually-credited writer, Otis Blackwell, denies this.) Joe then went and wrote “Pneumonia”, a pastiche of “Fever” so cheeky that you hoped he had indeed penned “Fever”, otherwise he was really going to need a good lawyer.
Joe Tex had one hit single in the UK. One. And it was the 1977 novelty disco hit “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)”. Lyrically it’s very much in Joe’s usual cheerful battle-of-the-sexes territory, but it would have been great to hear it with his more usual funk backing in place of the shimmery disco polish. The unfortunate upshot of that is that the man who invented rap music, who first fused soul and country, and who ought to be mentioned in the same breath as Ray Charles, James Brown and Johnny Cash, is more likely to be associated with The Weather Girls and Rick Dees & His Cast Of Idiots.
After “I Ain’t Gonna Bump No More”, Joe Tex went into semi-retirement on his farm in Texas. Throughout his career he’d taken care of himself, almost entirely avoiding alcohol and drugs, but according to Buddy Killen, “during his last four years, he staged a marathon of self-abuse. It was as if he was trying to make up for lost time.” Joe Tex died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 49.
That would be a sad way to leave the Joe Tex story, which is otherwise jam-packed with fun and joy. So I prefer to finish with this quote from the man himself, in an interview towards the end of his life.
“It’s been nice here, man,” he said, “A lot of ups and downs, the way life is, but I’ve enjoyed this life. I was glad that I was able to come up out of creation and look all around and see a little bit, grass and trees and cars, fish and steaks, potatoes…And I thank God for that. I’m thankful that he let me get up and walk around and take a look around here. ‘Cause this is nice.”
Oomska’s Joe Tex Spotify Playlist: http://open.spotify.com/user/mainy/playlist/5k7xkvf08fxOoo7dTOtcsW