Joe South, 72: Music ‘lit him up’

The Beatles, Aretha Franklin and Donny Osmond were just a few of the artists that singer, songwriter and session musician Joe South got to rub elbows with. And while most of his hits came in the ’60s and ’70s, he never lost his love for music.

“He’d just really started to enjoy life,” said Judy Thompson, a friend of more than 30 years. “But he was still working. He’d just had a song released in Australia.”

Mr. South’s death Wednesday was sudden and unexpected, Ms. Thompson said, noting they’d recently returned from an extended trip to California. They flew out for his granddaughter’s second birthday and took the train back to Atlanta.

“It took us four hours to get out there, and four days to get back,” she said with a laugh. “But he loved every minute of it, and said taking the train across the country was on his bucket list.”

Born Joseph Souter, Mr. South died from apparent heart failure at his Flowery Branch home, Ms. Thompson said. He was 72. A funeral is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Saturday at H.M. Patterson, Oglethorpe Hill, which is handling arrangements.

Mr. South worked as a session guitar player on recordings of some of the biggest names of the 1960s — including playing on Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” He also worked with Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, among others. In the late ’60s he had a string of his own hits that made his booming voice a familiar one on radio stations, with a style that some described as a mix of country and soul.

The Atlanta native may be best known for the song “Games People Play,” which reached No. 12 on the Billboard charts in 1969 and won him two Grammys for Best Contemporary Song and Song of the Year. The song, released on South’s debut album “Introspect,” spoke against hate, hypocrisy and inhumanity.

“He was a brilliant writer because he was a deep thinker,” said Karin Johnson, of Lowery Music, who’d worked with Mr. South for the past 10 years. “He was able to capture the times well, particularly in the ’60s.”

Don Law, a Lawrenceville recording artist, said Mr. South felt “music could change people from the inside out.”

“Joe had this way about him, a way to convey a message through music, that I don’t think anyone has matched,” he said.

Mr. South was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979 and The Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2003, according to the Lowery Music group.

Butch Lowery, president of Bill Lowery Music, called Mr. South, “one of the most prolific songwriters of our time.”

“To not only be a great writer, but to be a performer and guitarist, he was a triple threat,” said Ms. Johnson. “He was immersed in music. That’s what lit him up.”

In addition to his granddaughter, Mr. South is survived by his son, Craig South of North Hollywood, Calif.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.