Thursday, December 18, 2008

Joe Tex Fights Obesity On The Dance Floor

In these politically correct times, it’s unlikely that a song titled ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)’ could avoid attracting a bit of flack from the plus size community, and health professionals, and ‘concerned’ journalists and politicians - actually no cancel that, given most of what makes the charts these days, the song wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. I don’t recall if there was any ‘fallout’ during the song’s original run on the charts in 1977, but I do recall the song itself being one of the biggest disco anthems of the era, and propelling the name of Joe Tex back where it belonged, to the toppermost of the poppermost of the music charts. In addition to being a classy funk-disco tune, it was a bit of good old fashioned, tongue in cheek, comic fun on record.

Joe Tex was born Joseph Arrington Jr., in Rogers, Texas, and more than likely assumed the name ‘Tex’ in reference to his home state. Like many of his generation, Tex grew up listening to, and performing, gospel music. He sang with a variety of gospel and R&B groups in his teens, and scored his first big break after he won a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in 1954, which led to high profile club bookings. While he was performing at the Celebrity Club on Long Island, Tex was noticed by a talent scout from the King Records label, and recorded there from 1955 to 1957, but without any impact. Keen to shuffle to another label, Tex then switched to Ace Records for a couple of years, though still commercial success eluded him. Having tried his hand (and voice) at everything from traditional blues, to rock ’n roll, to gospel, to soul, Tex had taken on a reputation as being quite the music journeyman. All the while Joe Tex continued to write music and perform regularly, and in 1961 he scored his first big break as a songwriter, when James Brown recorded a hit version (US#49) of the Tex penned song ‘Baby You’re Right’.

Joe Tex the recording artist, then signed to work with Nashville based producer/songwriter Buddy Killen, at Killen’s Dial label. The pair then set about finding a formula that would enable Tex to finally crack the charts. Tex had always had a liking for country music, in particular the story telling aspect to it. Tex and Killen took the basic concept of story telling, and revamped it to incorporate a preacher’s sermon style vocal to the mix. Joe Tex began writing mini-sermons, with a folksy slant, mostly drawn from his own day to day experiences and observations. They recorded at a facility that would later become known as the famous Muscle Shoals studio, and Tex would often scream himself hoarse prior to recording a take, in order to give his voice a raspy, rough quality that would sound more emotionally resonant. This emotive, preacher style, story telling vocal delivery, later prompted many to credit Joe Tex with the title of the ‘world’s first rapper’. In late 1964 Tex made his debut on the U.S. Hot 100 for the first of what would amount to 28 occasions. The soulful ballad ‘Hold What You’ve Got’ reached #5 on the American charts in early ‘65, and Tex had finally broken through. The soul/R&B hits continued to flow over the next few years, including ‘I Want To (Do Everything For You)’ (US#1-R&B), ‘The Love You Save’ (US#10-R&B), and in 1967 Joe Tex gave a hint as to his cheeky sense of humour, with the US#10 pop hit ‘Skinny Legs And All’, which musically is a not so distant ancestor of modern day hip-hop.

In 1968 Joe Tex participated in arguably the world’s first ‘soul supergroup’ The Soul Clan, with Solomon Burke, Arthur Conley, Don Covay and Ben E. King. They scored a US#91 hit with ‘Soul Meeting. In early 1972, Joe Tex scored the biggest hit of his career with the hyper-energetic, funk classic ‘I Gotcha’ (US#2). Tex’s frantic, hoarse vocal style helped to make ‘I Gotcha’ so memorable, and possibly explains in part why Australia’s hoarsest set of vocal chords, Jimmy Barnes, covered the song twenty years later. ‘I Gotcha’ was the title track from Tex’s final album (US#17) on Killen’s Dial label, though Tex and Killen would later work together again as producer/artist. Soon after Tex made a high profile conversion to the Muslim faith in July ‘72, and changed his non-professional name to Joseph Hazziez. He turned his back on music for a time, and focussed his time and energy on touring as a spiritual lecturer. But eventually the lure of music, or the need to pay some bills, proved too much, and Joe Tex the musician resurfaced with a handful of singles on the Mercury label (none of which charted).

Tex jumped over to Epic, and continued to record through the mid 70s, though the hits had appeared to dry up. In 1977 Tex turned to the comedy record concept for one more crack at the big time. With producer Buddy Killen, Tex recorded the funk-disco comedy classic ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)’. The song hit the U.S. and U.K. charts in April ‘77 (and Australia shortly after), and went on bump and grind its way to #12 in the U.S., #2 in Britain and #2 in Australia, becoming one of the biggest radio and dance floor hits of the year. It was lifted from the album ‘Bumps & Bruises’ (OZ#64/US#108), “she done broke my hip!” after all.

Over the next few years Joe Tex largely withdrew from the dance floor, and the music scene, and focussed on his work as a Muslim minister, as well as spending time on his farm. Tex was reputedly a devoted fan of the Houston Oilers American football team. One of his last recordings was a tribute to Oilers’ running back Earl Campbell, titled ‘Do The Earl Campbell’ (possibly inspiration for ‘Do The Bartman’ - or possibly not). He also tried his hand at screen writing for television.

Joe Tex reunited with his former Soul Clan buddies in 1981. The reunion line-up featured Tex, Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, Solomon Burke and Ben E. King. Sadly, not long after the reunion tour concluded, Joe Tex died of a heart attack, aged 49. Among the pallbearers at his funeral were Buddy Killen, Pickett, Covay, King, and Percy Mayfield. Joe Tex was more than a music journeyman, he was in many ways an innovator, and pioneer across a range of musical styles.

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