May 19, 2005

Joe Tex is never the first soul guy to spring to mind. He lurks behind giants of the field, names like Otis Redding, James Brown, Al Green, Solomon Burke, hell, even Wilson Pickett, in the national unconsciousness. His rustic Southern soul rarely gets revived on oldies stations, and aside from his barked-stomp of “I Gotcha” busting out on Reservoir Dogs, he’s hardly even been on the urban pop culture radar for the last three decades. But he had a string of 33 Top 40 hits starting in 1963 and stretching into the seventies, and in that gruff locution of his, that sly humor, that amenable drawl, it’s not hard to parse those other Southern voices (think Mystikal, BigBoi, Mannie Fresh, Bun B, and so on) that done raised up–in the words of his 1972 album–from the roots of the rapper.

Down-home wisdom, clucking-tongue tales, chuckleworthy yarns, counsel for couples both young and old, grunts and gospel shouts, all abide on that gravel road of his throat. They frame his stories of small-town America, his voice acting as their own. Tex explained it once: “People are my most important product. I spend over half of my time observing people, all kinds of people, and this is where I get my material from.” For “Buying A Book,” the title track from his most succinct depiction of rural America (still more Mayberry than Peyton Place, but touching on social tensions, from segregation to sex), Tex got prudence and gumption for the ladies and gentlemen. He recreates his conversations and sermons expertly. I can never get over how “Miss Lady” responds to his preachy nattering: “Son, oh son, ya dippin’ in my bizness.”

Or else check the sermon and consolation of a troubled female fan in “That’s the Way,” how he assuages and soothes with his sage-like words. The real world advice (for both ladies and men) tucked among the glissading guitar licks, the Memphis horns punctuating his subtle statements.

“I’ll Never Do You Wrong” appears on the surface to just be a little ditty about love, and even has insipid, simpleton rhyme schemes to match: “fly/pie/eye” and “so’e/elbow/toe.” As it play itself out though, the backing gently nudging towards a climax, the words give way to something deeper beneath the soulful pop surface. It’s about love, sure, the promises of love, a love that secretly acknowledges that pain, and it comes to light that what happens to the lover also happens to the beloved. Superstitious perhaps, in that if he did anything wrong, his own body would receive that payment, but Joe hints at something more profound, the true art of devotion, of that art thou.

Around this time in 1968, Joe Tex accepted the Muslim faith, and Joseph Arrington, Jr. became Joseph Hazziez. Even with such faith to steady him through a decrease in performances and the changing tide of soul music into disco, Joe’s final years were tumultuous, heart-breaking, and ultimately tragic. But he still kept his perspective till the end, as this quote from Peter Guralnick’s excellent Sweet Soul Music book puts it:

“It’s been nice here, man. 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.“

Amen, Joe Tex.

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Andy Beta is a freelance writer for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice and City Pages.

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