Southern People

Happy birthday, singer Joe South, who made it to age 71 Monday (so says the  AJC’s celebrity birthday column), and my modest best wishes, even if he did throw me out of his house many years ago.

No hard feelings, Joe. Like sewer and stockyard workers, garbage haulers, and Charles Manson’s trial lawyers, reporters (sometimes) have a job that ain’t fun, and rejection for asking too many questions  comes with the territory.

It is safe to say that Joe South was the best known person, nationally and possibly overseas, ever to tell me to take a flying leap at a galloping goose (or, if you have a twisted mind, commit a sexual and physically impossible act.)

One November morning in 1974, Journal city editor Bob Johnson dispatched me to South’s house — somewhere in Atlanta, but I can’t recall where — to ask him about the pistol killing of Stephen “Jeff” Lee, 26,  who was found sprawled dead of two gunshots to the head, near a water bed at his rented home on Roswell Road.

Lee once produced albums and records for Joe South, whose hits include “Games People Play” and “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” and organized a backup group for the singer. Atlanta police revealed that Lee had recently been hired as an executive assistant to Mike Thevis, the   notorious pornography kingpin, who was later sentenced to life in prison for the murder of another close associate and bodyguard.

In the Journal story on Jeff Lee written by Orville Gaines, the Journal’s longtime cop reporter,  Thevis said the slain record producer had no connections to the porn racket. Police detectives reported that they questioned both Thevis and the singer at length about their relationship with Lee, and told the Journal they had no suspects in the killing.

Detectives told Orville that Joe South and Jeff Lee ended their association a year prior, over business disagreements.

Dispatched to South’s home later that morning, I rang his doorbell and he invited me inside. I recall sitting on the couch in a rather dark living room, considering it was late morning. South sat facing me, and did not want to be quoted.

I remember little of the conversation, except that the name  Jeff Lee.certainly came up.

Suddenly, perhaps, even probably pissed off at the reporting strategem of asking the same question for the umpteenth time in a slightly different way, Joe South looked me in the eye and said with cold anger:

“Get out of my house, man!”

Now perhaps Woodward and Bernstein, or Sam Donaldson especially, would have mentioned the First Amendment, the public right to know, and asked, “What do you have to hide?”

“I’m outta here,” said I, stuffed my notebook in my pocket and left.

It was his house, after all.

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery, aka "Monty," packed it in a few years back after 38 years as a reporter with the AJC, covering mostly crime and other forms of public insanity, such as political campaigns, strip club crackdowns, and the Georgia legislature. His career includes coverage of zanies that run the gamut from Lester Maddox and J.B. Stoner to Larry Flynt, and crime reporting that followed the 1973 Alday family killings in South Georgia to the execution of ringleader Carl Isaacs 30 years later, and the 20-year saga of Palm Beach millionaire James V. Sullivan, who hired the murder of his estranged wife at her Buckhead condo by a gunman packing a pistol in a box of roses. Montgomery lives in a Decatur condo with his wife Linda and their Boston terrier.