In May of 1970 I attended “Scarboro Fair”, a Toronto music festival. It was an outstanding line-up on a bright sunny day, (including the Butterfield big band who laid down over an hour of fine Blues).
As the day wore on it got progressively colder; to the point that when Tony Joe White hit the stage in the evening it had started to snow. White performed solo, accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica and keeping time with constant foot stomping on a wooden crate. Granted, it wasn’t the best of circumstances to appreciate the music, but I have to admit that I just didn’t get it. His percussive songs all seemed to be a variation of a theme and his vocal range appeared limited. I’m sure my take was like that of a number of uninitiated or passive listeners.
It wasn’t till much later when, on a whim, I bought a used copy of TJW’s third Monument album – Tony Joe – in 1972 that I started to get an understanding of where White was coming from. Instead of trying to be critical or judgemental I gave in and fell into his web, or “soulful groove” as he liked to call it – one that was backboned by riff driven wah wah guitar. It was totally infectious, and his growling and grunting on a mix of backwoods stories was totally well-matched with his overall sound. Rather than dwell on any vocal shortcomings, I came to realize quite quickly the nuances of his singing. That is, that his vocals were actually quite expressive as he molded his low key approach to suit each story at hand. In sum, it can’t be explained; because doing so just complicates matters.
Tony Joe White’s career stretched 50 years over the course of some 30 albums. Unfortunately he’s remembered for only 2 songs by the general music buying public: “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night In Georgia”. Although both are representative of TJW’s obvious talent and style, to think that those two selections are a fitting summary of his career is to sell him woefully short. There’s a lot more to Tony Joe White than initially meets the eye, (and ear).
Tony Joe White, the youngest of 7 children, was born in 1943 in Northeast Louisiana in Goodwill, about 12 miles from Oak Grove, West Carroll Parish, with a population of approximately 2,000. The family worked a 40 acre cotton and corn farm, and TJW grew up in a shotgun shack, (a long narrow wooden framed house with a tin roof and a front and back porch). The family came to know a dirt poor existence that was shared with neighbours in the same geographical area.
While all members of the household worked the fields by day, there was music was all around. Everyone in the family played either guitar or piano. There were family sing-alongs, Gospel in church on Sunday, and Saturday nights were spent listening Country music on The Grand Ole Opry. For his part, although he played some rudimentary guitar, TJW wasn’t as taken with music. His passion was baseball. That is, until his brother brought home a Lightnin’ Hopkins record when Tony Joe was 15. He was immediately drawn in by the Houston Texas based Hopkins’ stark understated approach. After his brother showed Tony Joe some Blues guitar licks it was all over. To hear Tony Joe tell it; “That completely turned me around. That’s when I started playing and forgot completely about baseball”.
While his style would evolve as he added harp and wah wah effects, his approach was fully formed early on when he was in high school. Performing solo at school dances and house parties, he primarily played Blues as was the fashion at these functions as well as the area in general where White grew up. He would keep time by stomping on a Coke crate, (as he had seen Hopkins do the same), and layed down Hopkins licks combined with hypnotic repetitive guitar riffs learned from another idol John Lee Hooker. To the crowd’s delight, his repertoire initially consisted mainly of Hopkins, Hooker, Slim Harpo, Silas Hogan, and Elvis Presley tunes.
After graduating high school, following a short stint in Marietta Georgia working as a highway department dump truck driver, White moved to Corpus Christie Texas. It was there that TJW started to seriously consider music as a career. Knowing the best gig prospects were the beer joints along the Texas / Louisiana “Crawfish Circuit” he recognized that he would need a band to be heard above the din of the wild crowds. Indeed, “the beer bottles would be flyin’” as White recalls and his band – under a variety of names: Tony White & His Combo, Tony & The Mojos, Tony & The Twilights – worked that same track for more than 10 years.
While in Corpus Christie, he heard a southern based hit song that would serve as a major inspiration to TJW as a songwriter: “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. He could identify with the song, which had such a profound effect on him, because he knew exactly where the Tallahatchie Bridge was located, (about 100 miles northeast of his home town). It made the tale of Billy Joe McAllister so real that he swore right then and there that “If I ever write a song it’s going to be about something I know”.
TJW would take his own advice of “if you didn’t live it don’t write it” to heart, and it was borne out in virtually all of his songs. He matched that homespun songwriting with his drawling delivery and natural talent as a story teller. The most well-known example being his first hit, “Polk Salad Annie”, with a spoken intro:
“If some of ya’ll never been down south too much
I’m gonna tell you a little bit about it so’s you’ll understand what I’m talkin’ about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods, and the fields
And it looks somethin’ like a turnip green
Everybody calls it polk salad
Used to know a girl lived down there and she’d go out in the evenings and
Pick her a mess of it
Carry it home and cook it for supper
Because that’s about all they had to eat
But they did all right”
“Down in Louisiana
Where the alligators grow so mean
There lived a girl
That I swear to the world
Made the alligators look tame…
Polk Salad Annie, Polk Salad Annie
Everybody said it was a shame
‘Cause her momma was a workin’ on the chain gang
A mean vicious woman”
White proceeded to write a number of songs and recorded them on a basic tape recorder with a plan to audition them for powers that be in Memphis. He reasoned that the rural sensibility of his Blues / Soul / Country songs would be well received by a prospective label there. The story goes that he got on the highway heading northeast towards Memphis, but having never driven to Memphis he missed the cut-off. That being the case, he then decided to continue on to, (his future home), Nashville where – with tape recorder and guitar in tow – he started knocking on doors on Music Row.
Through a series of encounters in Nashville White secured both a publishing deal and a recording contract with Monument Records; (a label mate was Roy Orbison who TJW never did get to meet). White would go on to record 3 fine albums for the label that included the aforementioned “Annie”, his first European hit “Soul Francisco”, and the Roots / Americana classic, “Rainy Night In Georgia”.
Despite containing TJW’s two best known songs as well as other outstanding numbers the albums didn’t fare well in the U.S., (a foreshadowing of essentially all of his albums stateside). While building an instant following in Europe, in the U.S. TJW was deemed too black for white radio and too white for black radio.
TJW’s entry into the European market was the single “Soul Francisco”, (from his first release Black And White), that hit initially in France in August of ‘68 and was followed by a successful run in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Japan, and the Philippines. Tony Joe would continue to have a strong base in Europe – particularly France – and Australia throughout the rest of his career.
Contrary to his success in Europe, TJW wasn’t making much headway in the U.S. The targeted single “Polk Salad Annie” languished for 9 months on the charts when an L.A. disc jockey picked up on it in July 1969. By the fall, TJW’s only U.S. charting single would enter the Top Ten peaking at # 8. And there was more to come in that the song was covered more than 60 times over the years including Elvis Presley’s version that hit # 2 in the UK, (and, going forward, became a staple of his live shows).
TJW’s other claim to fame “Rainy Night In Georgia” almost never happened. He wrote the song and put it aside until his wife, (and future co-songwriter), Le Ann convinced him to record a demo. The demo found its way into Jerry Wexler’s hands and was ultimately cut by Brook Benton who had a Top Five hit in 1970. (On first hearing Benton’s version White said “God, man, I got to learn the song. This is good”). Once again, the song that White would record on his second album, ...Continued, and be named one of the top 500 songs of all-time by Rolling Stone Magazine, would have lasting power in that it would go on to be covered more than 200 times to date.
It wouldn’t be the last time that TJW’s songwriting talents would be recognized and songs of his would be recorded by other artists. The extensive list of artists who covered his songs includes: Dusty Springfield, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Robert Cray, Jerry Reed, Jessi Colter, Johnny Adams, Eric Clapton, and Joe Simon. Fully understanding that he had what would best be described as a cult following, White knew that those covers represented a much needed revenue stream. And, in addition, they helped to keep his name in the forefront of prospective music buyers and concert goers. Accordingly, White made it known on more than one occasion that he was forever grateful for the success of his songs in other people’s hands.
The fact that TJW commanded less than mass appeal isn’t indicative of his talent. Rather it’s representative of White’s steadfastness to continue on his own unique path. Forever a maverick, he explained; “When I look back now, I guess it was pretty different to be doing what I was doing. I haven’t changed a whole lot. I’m almost a lone wolf out there. I just play my guitar and don’t worry about it.”
Using his understated approach – although he performed in a full band setting as well, White preferred being backed only by a drummer in live performance because he reasoned that it freed up his guitar playing – White made some outstanding albums in his career despite the comparatively limited audience. One of his very best is the 1972 Warner Brothers release The Train I’m On. Produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd and cut in Muscle Shoals, White is backed by the Muscle Shoals house band on a set of songs primarily grounded on a bed of acoustic guitars courtesy of TJW and overlooked southern guitar stalwart Tippy Armstrong. With hardly a “Womper Stomper”** laden number in sight, it varies somewhat from a lot of TJW’s recordings. The constants are the superb songwriting, performance, and production values that remain on a set of numbers convincingly delivered by White and his cohorts. With a winning combination of songs including: “I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby”, If I Ever Saw A Good Thing” “As The Crow Flies”, “Take Time To Love”, the fun “Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll”, plus the title cut, the recording presents White in a soulful singer / songwriter light. Given the timing of release, it should have been a big hit. The album is currently out of print but well worth searching for.
** TJW’s name for his instantly recognizable fuzz toned guitar played through a crunchy wah wah pedal
If you’re looking for a vintage live performance by TJW check out That On The Road Look that was originally recorded and released in 1971. It quickly went out of print until 2010 when it was re-released on the Rhino Handmade imprint. Backed by Mike Utley (keys), Sammy Creason (drums) of The Dixie Flyers plus Duck Dunn (bass) of Booker T. & The MG’s, White and company layed down outstanding takes on some of White’s better known songs including both “Rainy Night In Georgia” and a ten minute rendition of “Polk Salad Annie”. Also added is the definitive version of White’s moving “Willie And Laura Mae Jones” delivered by White in a solo acoustic setting. The song centres around White’s understanding that there was no status or colour disparity when families shared the same socioeconomic conditions:
“Willie and Laura Mae Jones
Were our neighbors a long time back
They lived right down the road from us
In a shack just like our shack
We worked in the fields together
And we learned to count on each other
When you live off the land
You don’t have time to think
About another man’s colour”
The show took place at a time when, on the strength of TJW’s two big songs, he was asked to open for better known, (read successful), artists of the day. That being said, these recordings were taken from dates opening for Creedence Clearwater Revival and define the intensity and competitive spirit of White’s band’s performance. As White recalled:
“Creedence tried to burn us down and we tried to burn them down ‘cause they were goin’ around, ‘swamp this and swamp that’, and ol’ Duck and me was real tight – we was fishin’ buddies and we got talkin’ one night, and he told ’em, ‘you know, Fogerty, there ain’t no alligators in Bekeley’. From then on it was war every night onstage”
TJW continued to release albums in the 80’s but for all intents and purposes stepped away from the business for most of the decade, content to live off his songwriting royalties. That changed in1989 when friend and sometime recording partner Mark Knoffler told him that he was sitting in on Tina Turner’s next album, and that she was looking for material. White sent Turner some songs that she liked, and, in turn, was invited to the sessions. (When he showed up and was introduced to her, Turner immediately started laughing. After regaining her composure she gave him a big hug and told him “I’m sorry man. Ever since ‘Polk Salad Annie’ I always thought you were a black man”). The resultant album, Foreign Affair, not only featured four TJW compositions – including a Turner hit “Steamy Windows” and the title cut – but White also ended up adding guitar, harp, and keyboard bass in addition to producing his contributions.
The Foreign Affair experience led to a comeback of sorts when Turner’s manager signed White to his stable of artists and got him a recording contract with Polydor. The resultant album Closer To The Truth in 1991 was a minor hit that contained two of the songs that he contributed to Turner’s Foreign Affair: “Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent For The Blues” plus the outstanding opening cut “Tunica Motel”. All were done in the inimitable TJW style. (Incidentally, check out the acoustic version of “Tunica Motel” on youtube that cuts to the heart of the matter more so than the studio take).
TJW would continue to record and perform until he passed in 2018. Of note are his last three albums on the Yep Roc label – all produced by his son and manager Jody White – that have sold fairly well to date and garnered some acclaim: Hoodoo (2013), Rain Crow (2016), and Bad Mouthin’ (2018). The relative commercial success may be attributed to a surge in popularity of Roots / Americana and / or it could be that TJW was finally getting his due, (albeit late). Whatever the case, there are no new stylistic roads travelled on the three statements. They all feature TJW’s unmistakeable lazy lowdown Blues grind. Of special mention is Bad Mouthin’ that pays tribute to White’s influencers including versions on “Baby Please Don’t Go” (Big Joe Williams), “Big Boss Man” (Jimmy Reed), “Awful Dreams” (Lightnin’ Hopkins), and White utilizing his “soul whisper” to maximum effect on “Heartbreak Hotel”.
Tony Joe White died of a heart attack in his sleep on October 24, 2018 in his home, just south of Nashville, in Leipers Fork. But there’s more to be heard from Tony Joe White. At this writing a posthumous release of 9 songs taken from a number of recordings, (that White had made in his home studio with just his electric guitar and harp), is in the works. Those bare bones recordings were fleshed out by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys plus Nashville musicians of his choosing to produce the album Smoke From The Chimney.
Tony Joe White summed up his music and approach this way:
“When and where I grew up, Blues was just about the only music I heard and truly loved. I’ve always thought of myself as a Blues musician, bottom line, because the Blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets”.
So ends the ballad of The Swamp Fox, Tony Joe White, an unsung hero of American music. Now and forever a true original.
A SELECTED PLAYLIST
- Polk Salad Annie
- Willie And Laura Mae Jones
- Soul Francisco
- Rainy Night In Georgia
- Roosevelt And Ira Lee – Night Of The Mossacin
- Stud Spider
- Boom Boom
- I Just Walked Away
- I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby
- If I Ever Saw A Good Thing
- The Train I’m On
- Even Trolls Love Rock And Roll
- As The Crow Flies
- Take Time To Love
- 300 Pounds Of Hongry
- Did Somebody Make A Fool Of You
- Tunica Motel
- Steamy Windows
- Undercover Agent Of The Blues
- Bad Mouthin’
- Heartbreak Hotel
- Smoke From The Chimney
- Rico Ferrara July, 2021