The World of Joe Tex

Singer, dancer, writer, preacher, rapper, comic and all around original...

The early years

 BIRTH AND CHILDHOOD

 Joe Tex was born Joseph Arrington Jr, in Rogers, Bell County, Texas on August 8, 1935 (often misreported as 1933) to parents Joseph and Cherie Sue (Jackson) Arrington.  At first Joe and his sister Mary Sue were raised by his grandmother, Mary Richardson.  After her divorce from Joe Sr, when Joe was twelve Cherie moved the family to Baytown (on Galveston Bay, about thirty miles East of Houston).

 

Growing up he listened to country music (Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce were big in the late 40’s and early 50’s) while also singing in church. The first blues Joe remembered hearing was Charles Brown singing Drifting blues which hit in 1946. Joe found he had an uncanny memory for retaining songs and would play a jukebox game in which his cousins would press imaginary buttons on him and he would sing the songs they wanted to hear. Joe said “Our house was right next to a joint and I used to learn all the songs, the lyric and beat and everything”.

 

His sister Mary Sue Singleton said “Because there wasn't a father in our home, Joe acted as a father figure.”  Joe worked many part-time jobs to help the family

 

At Baytown Joe attended the segregated G W Carver School. At school he was a highly skilled athlete, he also played the trombone and sang in the school choir and the COGIC McGowen Temple Church choir. A school teacher Matty Bell Durkee encouraged Joe’s musical talents entering him in local talent shows. The Baytown Sun has reports of Joe singing with Mary Sue and performing Johnny Standley’s It’s in the book in local churches in 1953. The comic monologue and song in which Johnny performed Little Bo Peep in the style of a revivalist preacher had made Billboard No.1 the previous year. In the evenings, Joe worked at KREL Radio in Baytown, as Jivin’ Little Joe, alongside country disc-jockeys such as Cowboy Dickie Rosenfeld.

 

While living in Baytown Joe fathered a daughter Eartha Laverne James. Joe is not listed on the birth certificate. However his daughter (now Eartha Doucet) remains a beneficiary of Joe’s copyrights.

 

MOVE TO NEW YORK 

 

 

In his junior year in high school eighteen year old Joe entered the Trumet Kanes amateur talent show in Houston. The 1954 show included Johnny Nash, Hubert Laws and others but Joe won first place, performing his showpiece version of It's in the book.

 

Joe later told writer Joe McEwan,  “The first prize was $300 and a two-week trip to New York. I went to New York and stayed at the Theresa Hotel on 125th St. While I was there I appeared on the amateur show at the Apollo and won two weeks in a row. I called up my mother and asked her if I could stay two more weeks. Well, two weeks later I had been a four time winner and Henry Glover, who had been in the audience at the time and who was an A&R man for King Records, offered me a contract. But my mother was all set on me finishing high school, because none of our immediate relatives had ever graduated. Glover said I could go home and come back a year later. That's just what I did. I went back to Baytown and graduated, and then headed back to New York (in 1955)."  Other stories suggest that he met singer Arthur Prysock while performing at the Celebrity Club, Freeport, Long Island in 1955 who arranged a meeting with Henry Glover. At the Apollo Joe performed BB King's 1953 hit Woke up this morning, later recorded by Arthur Prysock.

 

In his early days in New York Joe was briefly a member of the Sunbeams, a vocal group formed in Glen Cove, Long Island who sang in the style of the Orioles, Ravens and Dominoes.  Joe, who was living Hempstead, New York and working as a gravedigger in a Jewish cemetery briefly became their sixth member before leaving to continue his solo career.

 

By now Joseph Arrington was performing under the name Joe Tex, reportedly suggested to him by a night club owner in Houston.

 

 

KING RECORDINGS

 

 

Joe signed with King Records of Cincinnati and recorded his first session in September 1955 at Belltone Studios in New York. This produced his first single, the bluesy Come in this house and the Davy Crockett inspired novelty Davy you upset my home. Further sessions at Belltone in 1956 and May 1957 produced four more singles but none were hits.

 

The early tracks, a mixture of blues ballads and novelties, showed him aping stars of the time. Six of the twelve tracks recorded for King were Tex compositions, not a bad average for a brand new artist.

 

WHO’S GOT THE FEVER?

 

Joe claims that while staying in New York he wrote and sold the rights to the now classic song Fever. Joe said he had the words on paper and was asked to provide a tune, so he quickly improvised a tune based on Sixteen tons (a No.1 for Tennessee Ernie Ford in November 1955).  He was behind on his rent and sold the song for $300 to Henry Glover of King Records.  Little Willie John’s King recording of Fever hit the charts in May 1956 and the song went on to become a standard. The named writers, John Davenport (a pseudonym for Otis Blackwell) and Eddie Cooley, and others have strongly disputed Joe’s claim.  Joe himself recorded two Davenport/Cooley songs for King and by September 1956 had written and cut Pneumonia his own answer record to Fever.  This was the first of many songs which showed Joe’s ability to respond quickly to hits of the day in his own style.

 

 

THE ROCK 'N' ROLL COWBOY

 

 

Dispirited by his lack of success Joe managed to end his contract with King. He moved from New York to New Orleans in 1957 and befriended pianist James Booker who took him to Ace Records, run by Johnny Vincent.  Now known as “The rock’n’roll cowboy”,  Joe recorded for Ace between 1958 and 1960;  still mimicking other artists’ styles and still not hitting the charts. Charlie Brown got expelled was quickly released to answer the Coasters' schoolboy tale Charlie Brown.  Several songs showed Joe in full throttle Little Richard mode; You little baby faced thing was recorded in the same year as Richard’s hit revival of 1920’s standard Baby face.

 

The Ace sessions were held at Cosimo’s studio in New Orleans using musicians including Allen Toussaint, Huey Smith and drummer Earl Palmer. All but one of Joe’s Ace tracks (the Chuck Willis penned Cut it out) is a Tex composition. Hints of Joe’s later writing style come through here and there such as the autobiographical details slipped into Mother’s advice.

 

Although disappointed by his lack of success on record Joe maintained his self belief that one day his time would come. In any event his renown as a stage performer was growing while he was opening shows for acts like James Brown and Little Richard.   Joe’s signature microphone tricks, manipulating the stand with his foot and catching it before it hit the floor,  were developed back in high school.  Many, including Little Richard, believe that James Brown got many of his moves from watching Joe on stage.

 

In the late 1950’s Joe married singer Bea Ford, although they were divorced by 1959 when Bea joined James Brown’s revue. The stormy relationship inspired the song You keep her, see Build up to the breakthrough

 

 

ALL I COULD DO WAS CRY

 

Joe finally scored a minor hit in 1960 with 'All I Could Do Was Cry'. A disc jockey in Baton Rouge leased Joe’s version of Etta James’ recent hit to Anna Records, a company owned by Berry Gordy. More significantly the two part record included Joe’s first extended rapping. Inspired by the wedding of his childhood sweetheart, Jean,  Joe improvised a heartbroken sermon on love and loss. The record bubbled under the Hot 100 pop charts for a few weeks and Joe got another chance to play the Apollo in New York.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

      Joe at the Apollo in 1960

                 

Nashville disc jockey Hoss Allen paid for Joe to go back unto the studio for more recordings. The sessions produced two more Anna singles (later issued on Chess subsidiary Checker). The next single, I’ll never break your heart  followed the All I could do was cry formula. Joe answered Jerry Butler’s current hit He’ll never break your heart in Part one and in Part two got down to some serious rapping.

 

The final Anna single continued Joe’s artistic growth; the rocking  Aint I a mess has Joe giving a potted history of his audience pleasing career thus far. The other side Baby you’re right (which Joe had previously recorded for Ace) would put Joe at the top end of the charts but only as a writer - James Brown took the song to No.2 on the R&B charts in 1961.

 

 

                                                                  On to Build up to the Breakthrough