Tony Joe White

Tony Joe White

Posted 8 Nov 2018
tony joe white 2004
Tony Joe White, 2004 (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images)

There hasn’t been that many artists in the history of popular music who can genuinely claim to have created a personal style that is not only hugely influential but so unique that it's quite literally inimitable. But such was the case for Louisiana country-blues singer-songwriter and guitarist Tony Joe White, who sadly passed away last month at the age of 75. A popular figure with Australian audiences in recent decades – and a regular visitor since he first came here in 1996 - Tony Joe appeared seemingly out of the blue as a fully formed artist in 1969 with the hit “Polk Salad Annie.” 

“Polk Salad Annie” defined White’s style, sound, and idiosyncratic writing style. It was the sound of the Louisiana swamps, but for many listeners back then it may as well have come from the moon.  Blues had been encroaching into the mainstream since the early 60s thanks to the Rolling Stones, Canned Heat and others, and country music was, of course, popular in its own right, but this really sounded like neither, and it sounded primal. And what the hell was 'Polk Salad' anyway? 

It took Elvis to kind of make sense of it for us. Tony Joe’s original had already been a hit when Elvis covered it in 1970, but hearing Elvis sing gave it a new context. Elvis was the man who brought country and the blues together in the mainstream, giving us rock’n’roll. And no, maybe he wasn’t the first – Billy Haley’s "Rock Around The Clock" was a hit at least a year before most of the world heard Elvis, and Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley all preceded him. But Elvis’s rock’n’roll was dirt poor white country steeped in blues, and that’s what Tony Joe White and “Polk Salad Annie” were. They were a state or two apart – Elvis was Memphis, Tennessee by way of Tupelo, Mississippi, and Tony Joe was Louisiana  - but they both had that real down-home backwoods feel, and hearing “Polk Salad Annie” next to other Elvis hits of the era including “Burning Love” helped us understand what Tony Joe’s music was about.

It should come as no surprise then of course, that Tony Joe's biggest influence was, of course, Elvis himself. You can hear it in Tony Joe’s way down pitch (Elvis was up and down, but Tony Joe just stayed down) and the unbridled sensuousness of his music. 

Tony Joe White’s songs have been covered by a range of artists over the years, and Elvis himself went onto record a couple more after “Polk Salad Annie,” Invariably his songs were picked up by other Southern artists, or artists who wanted to capture something of the south in their own recording. Let’s have a look at a few of the best.

Polk Salad Annie

Such was the connection he felt to Tony Joe White’s music, when the two first met, Elvis told Tony Joe that he felt like he could’ve written “Polk Salad Annie” himself. A breakthrough Top 10 hit in the US and Australia for its writer in 1969, Elvis’ 1970 cover would be the only version to hit the British charts.  

 I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby

This easy-going tune from Tony Joe White’s 1972 The Train I’m On album was perhaps inevitably recorded by Presley when he was exploring his Southern roots at Stax Studios in Memphis in 1973.

 

Read more: 12 Of The Best Elvis Covers 

For Ol’ Times Sake

Originally released by White on his 1973 album Homemade Icecream, it was quickly picked up by Elvis who released it within months as the B-side of the single "Raised on Rock," and then on the album Raised on Rock / For Ol' Times Sake

 

Steamy Windows

The first of two Tony Joe White songs that Tina Turner recorded – with Tony Joe himself on guitar - for her smash 1989 album Foreign Affair. Tina was obviously looking to get back to her own Southern roots with these tracks, which came by way of Turner's producer at the time, Mark Knopfler, who was both a friend and fan of White’s.

Undercover Agent of the Blues

Another tune that Tina recorded first – Tony Joe didn’t release his own version until 1991’s Closer To The Truth. Check out his version here, recorded live at Sydney’s much-missed venue the Basement in 2008.

Read more: The Song That Made Tina Turner 

I Want You

This lesser known White 1969 tune was one of the first to be covered by a British artist, in this case, the future Ms. Christine McVie, who recorded in 1970 on the solo album she released under her maiden name Christine Perfect.

Read more: Before She Was Christine McVie She Was Perfect (And Still Is) 

Rainy Night In Georgia

Second only to “Polk Salad Annie” in his catalog, “Rainy Night In Georgia” first hit for soul singer Brook Benton, and has since been covered by countless others, including Rod Stewart as recently as 2009. One suspects that TJW was most satisfied to have the iconic Ray Charles record it in 1972.

Willie & Laura Mae Jones

One of TJW’s classic character-driven story songs – he’s cited Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe as an influence – was perfect material for Dusty Springfield in the midst of her Dusty In Memphis phase. Waylon Jennings, Southern Soulman Clarence Carter, and our own Normie Rowe were amongst numerous others who covered this.

Read more: The Darkness Of Dusty 

As The Crow Flies

This classic tune from White’s great 1972 album The Train I’m On would become a signature tune for the great Irish bluesmen Rory Gallagher thanks to its inclusion on his classic Irish Tour 1974 live album

Hold Onto Your Hiney

White’s influence was still being felt later in the 70s. This 1976 tune – a good example of Tony Joe’s enjoyment of the kind of down-home humor most artists couldn’t get away with - was covered by legendary Southern Soul man Wilson Pickett in 1978.

tony joe white
(Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for City Winery)

 

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