Like any aspiring singer, Tex headed directly to the Apollo Theater, where he hoped to keep his talent show streak intact. He did too, winning four times in a row at the fabled venue. That’s how A&R man Henry Glover heard him and offered a deal with King Records. In accord with his mother’s wishes, Tex finished high school first, and then signed with King when he was 19.
Tex was at King from 1955-1957, but didn’t have much success. Years later he would claim that he had written the song “Fever” during that time, a song that was a huge hit for King-artist Little Willie John. Tex said he didn’t have rent money at the time, and had sold the rights to King staff. Otis Blackwell (under the pseudonym John Davenport) and Joe Cooley, the song’s credited writers, didn’t see it that way.
After leaving King, Tex signed with Ace Records. He still wasn’t having success as a recording artist, but he was gaining a reputation for live performance as an opening act for stars like Jackie Wilson, James Brown, and Little Richard. Tex began to be well known for the things he could do with a microphone stand. Combining those tricks with his outstanding dance moves, Tex became one of the most dynamic performers in popular music. Some have even claimed that James Brown “borrowed” a lot of what he saw Tex doing on those shows they did together.
After leaving Ace, Tex had a stint with Anna Records, out of Detroit. He wasn’t there long, but he did manage a minor hit with his cover of Etta James’ “All I Could Do Was Cry.” An early form of rapping was becoming a regular part of Tex’s repertoire by that time. While at Anna, Tex also recorded a song he had written called “Baby You’re Right.” James Brown borrowed that too, recording a cover of the song with different lyrics and getting a #2 R&B hit out of it in 1962, while also taking the songwriting credit.
It was around that time that Buddy Killen entered Tex’s life, and formed Dial Records with Tex as the artistic centerpiece. At first Tex didn’t have any success with Dial. He recorded 30 songs for the label, but none of them made a dent. Then Killen entered into a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, things began to happen.
Tex recorded “Hold On to What You Got” at the legendary FAME Studios in November, 1964. Tex didn’t think it was going to be a hit, and told Killen not to bother releasing it. Killen thought otherwise however, and released the single without Tex knowing it. “Hold On to What You Got” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the R&B chart, where it remained for 11 weeks. Eventually the single sold a million copies.
Once things were rolling for Tex, they kept right on rolling. In 1965 he had six Top 40 R&B singles. Two of them, “I Want To (Do Everything For You),” and “A Sweet Woman Like You” went to #1. The following year, Tex had five more Top 40 R&B hits. He was at that time a bigger hit maker than James Brown himself, and the pair had become bitter enemies.
More hits followed in 1967, including “Show Me.” It was the 14th Tex single to show up on the R&B chart, where it reached #24, and it also crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100 at #35. A much bigger hit for Tex that year was “Skinny Legs and All,” a live track that went Top 10 on the Pop chart and the R&B chart. The single stayed on the charts for 15 weeks, no mean feat in that year of the Summer of Love.
Tex left Atlantic for the greener pastures of Mercury Records and there he continued to have R&B hits with songs like “Buying a Book,” and “Give the Baby Anything the Baby Wants.” In early 1972 Tex released a thunderbolt called “I Gotcha.” It was on the charts for 20 weeks, reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, sold two million copies, and was Tex’s biggest hit. The album that the single came from climbed all the way to #17 on the pop albums chart.
There was one more album, and then Joe Tex was gone. In September, 1972 he announced that he was retiring from the music business to become an Islamic minister. The death of Elijah Muhammed in 1975 brought Tex back to music for a short time. He had success with “Under Your Powerful Love,” and his last hit, “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman),” which reached #12 on the Pop chart. He also appeared as part of the Soul Clan in the early ’80s, along with Don Covay, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, and Arthur Conley before retiring for good and going home to Texas. He died there of a heart attack in 1982, just a few days before his 47th birthday.
The feud between Joe Tex and James Brown has become legendary over the years. I’ve outlined a few reasons for it above, but in addition to what Tex perceived as Brown’s lifting of his moves, and his song, there was also the issue of Bea Ford, who had once been married to Tex. After their divorce, Brown brought her into his fold and the pair recorded “You Got the Power.” When Brown decided that he was through with Ford, he sent Tex a letter telling him he could have her back. Tex’s answer was to release single called “You Keep Her.”
Relations between the soul giants went from bad to worse when Tex opened a show for Brown in Brown’s hometown of Macon, GA in 1963. During his set Tex openly mocked Brown’s famous cape routine. Brown found Tex at a party after the show, and took a few shots at him. Tex suspected that Brown was exerting undue influence with DJs to keep Tex off the radio, and said so. He even suggested that he and Brown square off in a “who is the real soul brother” contest, a challenge that Brown refused, suggesting that Tex needed psychiatric help.
Listen to Brown’s recording of “Funky Side of Town” below. You’ll hear Brown sidekick Bobby Byrd running down a list of the soul music stars of the day. When Byrd gets to the name “Joe Tex,” you can clearly hear Brown say “who?”.
History tells us who won that particular war, but that doesn’t mean that the achievements of Joe Tex should be overlooked. In fact, I’ll bet that the two of them are up in soul heaven right now battling it out for the top spot.