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Postscript (I): Joe Tex

I got to know Joe when he appeared at the Student Union on Holländargatan. Joe had a fairly large group of fans in Sweden. Not only among the pure soul fanatics. My impression is that many of them rather bought Joe Tex latest LP than James Brown’s.

He was philosophical and a keen observer of human behaviour. Man’s strength and weaknesses are described in his lyrics. He was a very good songwriter and mixed his brand of soul music with a healthy dose of Country and Western. He was a good singer, but Texas has not been the birthplace of the truly great soul singers like Georgia and Alabama. I guess church gospel training is more intense there.

We set up a meeting one hour before the show next day at the Domino. This is what Joe Tex said about his life and career 48 years ago:

“After the talent show I won in Houston, I got some money and went to New York. I went straight to the Apollo Theatre to try my luck on their Wednesday Amateur evenings. I won four Wednesdays in a row and as the prize I got one week’s engagement at the Apollo. Arthur Prysock was there one night, and he arranged an audition for King Records and their producer Henry Glover. We recorded “Come On In This House.”

Joe had written songs of his own, and Henry liked what he heard. But it took a few weeks to release the record and Joe did not want to go home without having accomplished anything. So he stayed in New York. Joe sees himself as a self-made man. He didn’t have a mentor or protector who took him under his wing. He had to work his way up by his own efforts. He began to take part in talent shows already in high school.

I had hoped to meet Joe in Memphis in 1968 after a big concert at the Mid-South Coliseum. Now Joe told me what had happened.

Early in his career, Joe was on his way to New York from North Carolina, but in Washington he ran out of petrol. Fortunately Roy Hamilton appeared at the Howard Theatre. Joe was a big fan of Roy and wanted to take this opportunity to ask Roy for advice and maybe some money. He got both. Roy – The Golden Boy also had a heart of gold and he gave Joe $20. Three years later they were on the same show in Florida but then Roy had forgotten everything and refused to take the money back.

In 1968 Roy had a long engagement in Memphis at the Top 4 Um. Joe went there and not to the Hippodrome at Beale Street where I went looking for him. Otis Redding and Sam Cooke also always had time to listen to and help others, said Joe.

Joe had only worked as an artist. He had not taken any other jobs unless absolutely necessary. For example, he took a job in a furniture store on Long Island while he waited for King Records to release his first record. At the time he was nineteen years old but looked like fifteen and no clubs would let him in. He stayed as an assistant in the furniture store until the owner was released from prison. He was there for two weeks on drunkenness. Then Joe took a job at a Jewish cemetery at $1 per hour. He cut grass and kept tombs clean but stayed only half a day – enough for a bus ticket to visit Henry Glover. Glover had waited for him as “Come On In This House” did well in the southern states, and after three weeks he had a check of $200 waiting for Joe.

Joe took the first train home “In Baytown everybody had heard my little record. I thought I had reached the top but didn’t suspect that I had ten years (1955-1965) of hard work ahead of me.”

But he is glad he did not became a star overnight. He remembers Little Willie John, who wasted two million dollars and died penniless in prison. During those ten years, Joe lived in lots of cities, stranded without any money.

That’s why so many people say that Joe Tex is from their city and that they remember him – “He lived in the neighbourhood and was always broke.”

Joe lived in Greensboro, Charlotte N.C, New Orleans, Nashville and Atlanta. It was easiest to get jobs in the South, especially around harvest time when people had a little money to spend. Now he lived in Baton Rouge with his wife and their four-year old son, but his hometown was after all Baytown in Texas.

This was Joe’s first European tour, but he had been on his way twice before. Once they could not afford his band and he did not want to use local bands. The second time it was an air strike and Joe did not know if he could return on time again.

“But had I known how nice it was in Europe, I would gladly have stayed a little longer. It is much easier to work here than in the US. It is almost impossible to make a coloured audience satisfied. You have to work so hard that it’s incredible. You have to knock your head on the wall for the audience to be satisfied and happy. This tour has really been like a holiday for me.”

We talked about James Brown. I really liked his fantastic recording of “Baby You’re Right” written by Joe Tex. Like most other artists Joe didn’t like him or trust him. In the mid 1960s Solomon Burke had said the same while in England. Joe said that James complains of heart trouble but it’s just to get sympathy. He has a liver problem because he drinks too much champagne. In fact, said Joe, “James has no heart at all. He is very cold.”

Shortly after my meeting with Joe, I read James Brown’s column in a soul newspaper that he and Joe Tex were friends again. They had reconciled.

In the early 1970s I heard the Joe Tex recording “You Keep Her” on Checker. It sounded like an open letter to James Brown who had tried to return Joe’s girl friend after a period of use. I guessed that this was the basis of the enmity.

Joe was very pleased with the enthusiastic reception in Sweden. It was easy to appear for a white audience. He believed that soul music was at its peak right now and that it would stay a while, but then it would change. This was a pure PR trip. He charged no more than $1,000 per night which was very cheap.

His reputation as a performer was widespread. His special gimmick was his interaction with the microphone. He did not use a long microphone cable to walk out among the crowd. His microphone was standing on the floor, with a heavy foot. Sometimes he set it in motion, and the microphone swung back and forth and from side to side. The audience followed breathless the microphone’s path through the air – Would it arrive in time for Joe to sing the next verse? Would he get hold of it when he was kneeling on the floor? Or would it even smash his head?!

Joe’s tour was a great success in Sweden and I guess in the rest of Europe. He really connected with the audience. Everything he did seemed spontaneous and unrehearsed. His band was just great.

We talked about his songs. I had some earlier recordings on King-Ace-Anna-Parrot-Checker that he did before Dial.

Joe never sang in vocal groups or gospel music groups. He lacked that kind of training. Texas was not the best place to acquire such a background.

In New Orleans, he was part of the group around Huey Smith who claimed that Joe sang on For Crying Out Loud as one of the Clowns; together with among others Curly Moore.

As a songwriter, he had written for Jerry Butler (The Wicked Man).

“Old Time Lover” dealt with his childhood sweetheart. They were about to marry. But she moved to Chicago and met a man in the computer industry. When Joe got back from a tour in 1960 to marry her, she was already engaged to this man.

His favourite singer was Ray Charles.

Joe was not worried if his name would disappear from the neon signs and his popularity wane.

“I can’t understand artists who hang on in New York when their careers are over. I will go down to the South again. I have 12 acres of land and a tractor so I just go back where I come from – to the cotton fields. This time ‘The (white) Man’ will not be able to take my money.”

Joe was not particularly fond of pop and psychedelic music. But it brought in new people and new ideas. Which can’t be wrong. Joe thought soul music was at its top right now, but in a few years it would sound a little different.

His friends Lee Dorsey, Otis Redding and Don Covay had said that it was good in Europe. He had not had any language problems during the tour except in France.

Before we parted, when Joe was due on stage, he told me that he always checked that his stage clothes are OK. “That the shirt is really pulled down in my pants, and that all buttons are folded.” Once at the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia a girl waved frantically from the audience to him. He waved back before he realized that she pointed to his fly that was standing wide open. He did not want that to happen again.

Joe did two shows in Stockholm. The first on the 29th of January 1969 was at the Student Union. On the 30th he was at the Domino Club at Hornstull. The Domino gig was much longer and more relaxed, fun and inspired. Swedish TV also filmed him.

January 29, 1969

The band was introduced as the Big Joe Tex Recording Band and started an instrumental set with:

Soul Finger, Philly Dog, Up Up and Away, Yesterday, Brand New Bag and a Tribute to a Soul Man, which was an Otis Redding medley with; Satisfaction, Dock of The Bay, Security, Respect, Don’t Mess With Cupid and I Can’t Turn You Loose.

“And now to the bandstand a real soul man from the state of Texas in America – Joe Tex!!”

Dressed in a yellow shirt and a green suit Joe entered the stage and sang: “Letter Song,” “I’ll Never Do You Wrong.”

On “Tighten Up” Joe invited at least six girls from the audience to chose band members to dance with. Finally two girls accepted.

Joe presented:  “Green Green Grass Of Home” … “from my forthcoming Soul Country album,” and his latest single “That’s Your Baby,” plus “I’ll Never Do You Wrong.”

Then Joe invited us to request time.

The audience wanted: “Who’s Makin Love” (the Johnnie Taylor song) and his own classic hit “Hold What You Got.”

Joe started talking: – ”When you come home early and your woman stays out ‘til 2-3 in the morning,” before he let the song’s moral speak for itself. The tension-building line “One – Two Three ..” was effective.

He did Eddie Floyd’s “Bring It On Home To Me” complemented with dance steps from the Boogalo dance and a duel with heel kicks to the microphone stand that rocked back and forth.

Since Otis Redding was the biggest R&B star in Europe, he did two of his songs “Fa Fa (The Happy Song)” and “Hard To Handle.”

Joe was sweating heavily now, and his suit jacket was wet, and when he sang “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” he changed the city’s name to Stockholm.

Of course he also did “Skinny Legs and All,” and started a competition where the woman who had the most skinny legs would win. But he had to change it to a Big Leg contest, since few women in Sweden have skinny legs. One of the girls who had danced during Tighten Up won 50 Swedish Kroner (about $10 USD).

His own set lasted maybe one hour and fifteen minutes. He took off his jacket and pretended to throw it out among the crowd, but it fell down in the orchestra pit. The bow tie and the shirt ended up among the audience. Bare-chested, with a cloak thrown over his shoulders, the band followed him from the stage.

The MC announced that those who had not had enough should come to the Club Domino Club tomorrow.

January 30, 1969

At the Domino Club Joe Tex did two sets:

His orchestra, consisting of three trumpets, three saxes and guitar, bass, drums, played

Tribute to Otis Redding (a medley with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Satisfaction,” “Dock Of The Bay,” “Security,” “Respect”)

Showtime!

Joe was introduced as “Well-known from The Apollo Theatre, The Regal, The Hollywood Bowl, TV … etc”

He came out dressed in a brown-red suit and did “The Letter Song.”

He held the floor microphone with both hands and lifted it into the air.

When the applause ceased, he welcomed everyone to the next 40-50 minutes show.

In Show Me, he picked up a tambourine, and he kept it into “Papa Was Too.” There, Joe changed a line of text to “He put Stockholm Daily News in the shoes to cover the holes ..”

“We’re looking for the girl with the skinniest legs in Stockholm and we’re giving away 50 SEK. “A girl in pants won the competition. They had to pull up her pants to check her calves.

“Go Home and Do It”

“Dock Of The Bay” gave Joe a chance to show that he could whistle.

When it came time for the audience’s requests a man wanted to hear

“I Don’t Trust Myself Around You” – but Joe had forgotten most of the text.

Björn Luthander wanted to hear one of my own favourites from the Parrot LP (I Wanna Be Free) but Joe could not do it because his current band had not been with him at the time.

Instead followed:

“Men Are Getting Scarce”

“A Sweet Woman Like You” – This song was probably the best this evening.

At Domino, he did two sets. When he came out for the second set he had changed his brown suit against a black one.

Joe was in splendid form and delivered a string of hits and wonderful songs like

“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Show It,” “You Better Get It” was absolutely perfect, “Yesterday,” “You Got What It Takes,” and his latest single “That’s Your Baby” – “Which all of you can buy this Monday when it will come by air from the United States.”

“Hold What You’ve Got”

A friend wanted to hear “Yum Yum” (The B-side of his Little Richard imitation You Little Baby Face Thing)

Joe replied: “It is too old, my band has not been together that long. I recorded it in 1958 on Ace. Take a newer number!”

One guy asked for “Who’s Making Love” (Johnnie Taylor) and Joe started to speak: 

“Do you know what your baby is doin’ when you’re out all night? She might be at the Domino Club listening to some psychedelic music.”

He went to the turntable of the club. There lay “The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown” LP. Joe put down the pick-up and started singing with it: “I’m the god of hellfire and I bring you fire,” and then he continued with “Who’s Making Love.” (Joe never missed a chance to improvise…)

Next was “Ode To Billy Joe.”

Joe tried to encourage a girl to jump down from the balcony just like Billy Joe had done from Tallahassie Bridge – to make the song more realistic!!

It was midnight – 12 o’clock – The club had to close, but Joe wanted to sing more. The audience would not let him go.

Now followed: “I Don’t Trust Myself Around You,” “Men Are Getting Scarce,” “A Sweet Woman Like You,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Hard To Handle,” “Go Home And Do It,” “Dock Of The Bay.”

And a new Johnnie Taylor song and a ten minute long version of “Skinny Legs and All.”

In the finale, he threw out cufflinks and a bowtie just like James Brown. (I hope someone saved it and James Brown’s 1.5 years earlier). Considering the development of black music in recent years, genetic engineering might clone both Soul brother No. 1 and No. 2. back to life …

Joe finished with a small James Brown robe routine at the end. He had stayed half an hour over time and seemed to have had as much fun as the audience.

It’s great to have to have met Joe Tex, and to have seen him perform under such optimal conditions, with a band he used on his recordings. This was the best performance I have ever seen in a Swedish club.

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Postscript (I): Joe Tex by Jonas Bernholm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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