Tony Joe White is a rock ‘n’ roll anomaly in the truest sense.
With his distinctive down-home growl, the Louisiana native helped create the swamp-rock sound of the late 1960s. Mainstream America may not remember his name, but they likely will remember “Polk Salad Annie,” a Top 10 smash in the summer of 1969.
And rock aficionados can answer this trivia question: Who wrote Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” in 1970?
Tony Joe White.
Elvis Presley had Top 40 hits with the White-penned “For Ol’ Times Sake” and “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” and Dusty Springfield cut “Willie & Laura Mae Jones” during her Memphis-soul phase in 1969.
Even Tina Turner was drawn to – and fooled by – White’s incomparable vocal and lyrical styles. Looking to put some Southern soul flavor into her “Foreign Affair” album in 1989, she enlisted his help to write four tracks, including the Top 40 hit “Steamy Windows” and the title track, and play guitar and harmonica.
“I was excited about these songs, because they reminded me of songs the Rolling Stones would record,” she told The New York Times in September 1989. “Depending on how you perform them, they can be raunchy, naughty songs, and they take heavily from rhythm and blues. Until I met him, I didn’t realize Tony Joe was a white man. I’d pictured him as like Bo Diddley.”
Did we mention that he’s a rock ‘n’ roll anomaly?
Though White rarely performs in the United States – in fact, the only U.S. gig he has played in recent years is at his son’s annual fraternity party at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville – his popularity from Europe to Australia (and just about anywhere but America) has never waned over the past 31 years.
An example: He has recorded and released albums only in France, one of which sold more than 100,000 copies. Of all places, France.
Aside from an occasional bone (such as Warner Archives’ 1994 retrospective “Polk Salad Annie: The Best of Tony Joe White”), the dearth of White albums in record stores has been a deplorable situation for many U.S. fans for the past 20 years. The only way they could replenish their collection of White albums was by ordering insanely expensive imports.
All that has changed with the April 18 release of “One Hot July” (on Mercury/Hip-O). The album, produced by White and Turner’s longtime manager, Roger Davies, originally was issued in Europe in 1998, and after a few stutters and steps stateside, it finally marks what White jokingly refers to as “my American comeback that’s really not a comeback.”
“I’m in the shadows a little bit here, but I’m still a part of it,” he said from his home in Goodwill, La. “I’ve really been lucky because I’ve been able to keep my writing private and get out in the woods, where I do most of my writing. I’ll build a fire at night and sit out in the woods with my guitar and a few cold beers.
“But I think now, with this album coming out in America for a change, instead of Europe and Australia so much, I will probably be doing more (touring) over here, so the bonfire won’t be as new as I’ve been keeping it.”
That’s a relief for American followers.
“Over here in America, I’ve got a lot of people who care about my music,” White said. “The fans order the albums from Europe. I’ve had people pay $38 for my last CD, and it always amazes me that people would care that much to go that far. I’ve never had any problems over here with my fans and people loving my music; it’s just that the record companies over here are more into the flavor of the week and if they can’t box you up and ship you out like a hamburger, it’s like you get kind of lost in the shuffle.
“People who’ve probably heard one of my songs are probably going right now, ‘Oh, look, Tony Joe White’s making a comeback.’ I never went anywhere. Anyway, it’s going to be a real relief that if people want the album, they can find it here in America.”
It nearly didn’t make it at all. It was scheduled for a U.S. release on Mercury a year ago but got caught up in the politics surrounding the Seagrams-Universal merger.
“I’ve had that happen to me three times on an album release with different companies,” White said. “But I see someone like Tina Turner, as huge as she is, and it happened to her even right after ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It.’ You see people making huge decisions about your records and then the next day they don’t have a job. If it can happen to you at that level, it can happen to anyone.
“Years ago, I made up my mind that I was just going to keep playing my guitar, write my songs in a good way and let the business take care of itself.”
White was taking care of business a long time ago. After scoring nationally with “Polk Salad Annie” and his debut “Black and White” album (Monument) in 1969, he was recording his follow-up LP, “… Continued,” when a songwriter friend heard one of his new tracks.
“Donnie Fritts was at the session, and he wanted to know if he could make a copy of ‘Rainy Night,’ ” White said. “It was the only slow song on the album, all the others were real rock. I said, ‘Well, yeah, man.’
“About four months later, in the mail I get this single with Brook Benton on it. I looked at it and said, ‘What’s this?’ I put it on, and I betcha I played it 50 times in a row. It was beautiful to hear someone else doing my song. After I listened to it, I thought, ‘Man, I gotta learn this song. It’s beautiful.’ He sung it so good, it sounded like he wrote it.”
“Polk Salad Annie” and the enormity of “Rainy Night in Georgia” – more than 100 different artists have recorded versions of it – set White’s career up for life. It allowed him to write songs at his own pace, with complete freedom, without worrying about radio airplay, sales figures and deadlines.
“I’ve got my own publishing company,” White said. “My manager and the people that work with me, they just allow me to go my own way and write and play my guitar. I really don’t see many (royalty) checks or think about them. The only time I do is when I don’t have any money in my pocket. Then you think, ‘Whoa, man, I need some cash.’ There’s been many times when I’ve taken off for Europe to do concerts, just me and my drummer, Boom Boom (Marc Cohen), and have had $10 in my pocket before I realized I didn’t cash any royalty checks before I left home. If you’ve got music and a guitar, you can always find your way.”
He certainly has found his way in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
“The popularity overseas comes from the records being put out steadily and I’ve been touring steadily over there and done a lot of press,” he said. “It’s amazing how much press I’ll do in one day over there. If you don’t do that regularly, people say, ‘Well, I think I remember him, but I’m not sure.’ Maybe this time, we can get this album out over here and everyone will know I didn’t go to the swamp, got snake-bit and died.”
On “One Hot July,” White’s voice sounds as raspy and bluesy as it did 30 years ago. He sings of loves won and lost (“Crack the Window Baby” and “I Want My Fleetwood Back”), and he covers a lot of musical territory on “Gumbo John,” “Ol’ Black Crow” and “Goin’ Down Rockin’.”
“Anybody who’s ever liked anything I’ve done would listen to this and know that I’m still on the path of a decent groove,” White said, jokingly referring to the title of his 1993 album. “The simplicity of this album, with just me, the bass and drums and an old B-3 organ, feels great.”
The album’s most touching moment comes on the track “Selena,” a tribute to the Tejano singer who was murdered in 1995 by the founder of her fan club.
“That whole thing broke my heart. She may have been the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” White said. “Corpus Christi, Texas (Selena’s hometown), was where I got started after I left Louisiana; I was 18 or 19. It’s like the whole mood of that place is still with me. Of course, she came along long after I had left there. I really loved her music; I loved what was going on and what was about to happen with her worldwide, before the shooting.
“I felt so bad about her death that I had to get it off my mind by writing about it. I went off to San Antonio when they filmed the movie with Jennifer Lopez and Eddie Olmos, who’s a real good friend of mine; he played her father in the movie. He called me and told me about the movie; I told him, ‘I got this song about her going.’ I had ‘Selena,’ but it had music to another tune. Eddie and I ended up writing a song for the soundtrack, called ‘One More Time.’ It was sung by a Spanish blind guy named Lil’ Ray who sounds a little like Stevie Wonder. They didn’t use the song ‘Selena,’ so I made sure it got on this album.”
Hip-O is negotiating to release White’s past European-only albums; in the meantime, he’s anxious to hit the road again in the United States. Whenever he needs a reminder that American fans haven’t forgotten him, he’s buoyed by the reaction he gets every November at his son’s frat party.
“It’s so huge, I can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s all these kids, 17 and 18 and 19 years old, and they know every word to even ‘Trolls Like Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ one of my old early songs, and ‘Willie & Laura Mae Jones,’ all those old swamp tunes. They have access to all the rap songs and everything else in the world, but something like ‘Polk’ is new to them. They say, ‘I like that. Where can I buy it?’ Well, it’s hard to get right now, but it’s changing. It feels good knowing someone’s digging your music who’s exposed to all kinds of music in the world.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “A Lightnin’ Hopkins album. He was a big influence on me, my guitar and everything. Back then, for me, it was between Lightnin’, Elvis and John Lee Hooker.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Roy Head, when ‘Treat Her Right’ was out (in 1965). He still plays and dances around like James Brown.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “The Gipsy Kings. I love their playing; I bought their greatest hits the other day, and I also got the soundtrack to ‘Buena Vista Social Club.’ I’ve always liked a little Spanish guitar.”
BWF (before we forget): The Tony Joe White album discography – “Black and White” (Monument, 1969); “… Continued” (1969); “Tony Joe” (1970); “Tony Joe White” (Warner, 1971); “The Train I’m On” (1972); “Homemade Ice Cream” (1973); “The Best of Tony Joe White” (1973); “Eyes” (20th Century, 1977); “The Real Thang” (Casablanca, 1980); “Dangerous” (Columbia, 1983); “Roosevelt and Ira Lee” (Astan, 1984); “Live!” (Dixie Frog, 1990); “Closer to the Truth” (Swamp, 1992); “The Path of a Decent Groove” (1993 – released only in France); “Polk Salad Annie: The Best of Tony Joe White” (Warner Archives, 1994); “Lake Placid Blues” (Remark, 1995); “One Hot July” (1998 – released in Europe; Mercury/Hip-O, 2000).
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