By Ray Shasho
-An Interview with Tony Joe White “Polk Salad Annie” legendary singer and songwriter
Tony Joe performed onstage playing mainly Elvis Presley and John Lee Hooker cover tunes. After hearing “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry on the radio, White had an epiphany and realized that he should be writing songs about things he knew. His first big hit “Polk Salad Annie” was released from his debut album entitled Black and White on the Monument Records label. The 1969 single peaked at #8 on Billboards’ Hot 100 and was successfully covered by Elvis Presley and Tom Jones.
In 1970, a song Tony Joe White had penned entitled “Rainy Night in Georgia” was covered by R&B singer Brook Benton. The song reached #4 on the Billboard charts.
Tony Joe White toured worldwide in the 70’s supporting legendary rock heavyweights Steppenwolf, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Sly & the Family Stone to name just a few.
White also composed various tracks on Tina Turner’s Foreign Affair (1989) album including “Undercover Agent for the Blues” (1989) co-penned with his wife Leann White and “Steamy Windows.” White also played guitar, harmonica and synthesizer on the album. Turner’s manager Roger Davies also became Tony Joe White’s manager while signing with Polydor Records.
White’s popularity soared in the 90’s with the release of the critically-acclaimed and commercially successful Closer to the Truth album. White attained additional success with subsequent releases … The Path of a Decent Groove and Lake Placid Blues. Tony Joe White toured Europe with Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton. He also opened for Roger Waters in 2006.
His Uncovered (2006) album on Swamp Records featured guest appearances by Eric Clapton, J.J. Cale, Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), Michael McDonald (Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers) and Waylon Jennings.
Tony Joe White’s most recent release is entitled Hoodoo (2013). The album spawns a brilliant array of swamp rock, blues and boogie with a hint of psychedelic overtones. I gave Hoodoo (5) stars. My favorite tracks are … “Who You Gonna Hoodoo Now?”… “Holed Up” a tune about the gratification of solitude, “Alligator Mississippi,” and a mystical track co-penned with wife Leann entitled “Gypsy Epilogue.” The album is superbly produced by his son Jody White.
Tony Joe White is a rare gem in today’s ambiguous music world. He’s an original and could easily be described as a cult hero. White will be performing various southern dates beginning February 12th in Birmingham, Alabama.
I had the rare pleasure of chatting with Tony Joe White recently about Hoodoo his latest album, The inception of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” his friendship with Elvis Presley, and of course my notorious ‘Field of Dreams’ question.
Here’s my interview with legendary singer, songwriter, guitarist and swamp rock and blues icon… TONY JOE WHITE.
Ray Shasho: Tony Joe …how’s it going man?
Tony Joe White: “Good man, how are you doing this morning?”
Ray Shasho: Are you in Nashville?
Tony Joe White: “I live by the river in a little town about forty miles out called Leipers Fork.”
Ray Shasho: Did you grow up in Oak Grove or Goodwill, Louisiana?
Tony Joe White: “I grew up in Goodwill, Louisiana. It really wasn’t even a town; it was a church, a cotton gin, a grocery store, and then farms all around there down to the swamp. Oak Grove was about fifteen miles away.”
Ray Shasho: What was it like growing up in Goodwill?
Tony Joe White: “Well, we really never did see any town at all because there was the cotton fields, the swamp, the river, and we worked to pick cotton and worked the fields back in there. If you wanted to go to town you waited till Saturday and rode with somebody fifteen –twenty miles.”
Ray Shasho: Is that part of Louisiana considered Cajun country?
Tony Joe White: “Goodwill is up in the northeast end of Louisiana about twelve miles from Arkansas. When you head on down south like Baton Rouge or Lafayette, right there is where the line changes, and the food, the language, and the music is totally different.”
Ray Shasho: Who were some of the influences that triggered you into becoming a professional musician?
Tony Joe White: “Down on the cotton farm there was my mom and dad, my older brother, and then there was five sisters in between us, and I was the youngest. Everybody played guitar or piano and sang. But I would just listen back in those days. Then one day I was about fifteen and my brother brought home an album by Lightnin’ Hopkins. I heard that and boom, turned it around man. I started sneaking my dad’s guitar into my bedroom at night and learned the blues licks. I was into Lightnin’, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and then all of a sudden Elvis pops up about that time. We had house parties with all the kids from the Bayou and the blues is all we played.”
Ray Shasho: Did you get to play with some of the early blues legends like John Lee Hooker?
Tony Joe White: “John Lee a little bit back in the dressing room, but I did a whole album with Lightnin’ Hopkins. I played guitar and harmonica on an album called California Mudslide. It was just me and him … he was always a hero.”
Ray Shasho: You’ve been fortunate to play with some distinguished players and artists over the years like …Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and J.J. Cale to name just a few.
Tony Joe White: “Through the writing and my songs over the years and I’d get to go with them into the studio and play guitar or harp… from Elvis to Joe and artists all over the world, I was really lucky with the songs.”
Ray Shasho: You got to know Elvis Presley?
Tony Joe White: “Yea. His producer was a friend of mine here in Nashville and also my publisher. He called us and said hey we’re getting ready to do “Polk Salad Annie” live in Las Vegas and we want to send a plane down to Memphis and pick you and your wife up and bring you to Vegas and watch us record it. So we sat out there for a week and listened to the show every night and hung out in the dressing room. It was so cool man; it was just like me and you talkin’ right now. Later on at Stax Records in Memphis they did a couple more of my songs down there. So we got to hang out a few times. Elvis always treated me really good.”
Ray Shasho: If Elvis only sang the blues, he would be Tony Joe White. There were definite similarities between you and him.
Tony Joe White: “Back in that dressing room in Las Vegas, Elvis had an old acoustic guitar. Every night he’d get it and say okay show me another lick. So I’d show him a couple of blues runs and I thought by the end of the week he was going to have it down where he’d know a few licks but he’d forget them each night. But he didn’t have to play.”
Ray Shasho: I always wondered how proficient Elvis was on the guitar.
Tony Joe White: “He only knew a few chords and hung it around his neck because it looked good. He could make a few chords but he really loved the blues licks.”
Ray Shasho: Your first album entitled Black and White had several musicians that had also played with Elvis?
Tony Joe White: “I think the drummer had played with Elvis and the keyboard player played some with him. Most of the boys were living in Nashville and trying to make a living playing country music. So when I came into town and had a little bit of blues hangin’ off of me, it gave them the chance to really go at it in the studio. We had some really good first takes …everything.”
Ray Shasho: Tony Joe, I’m going to include a review of your latest album entitled Hoodoo with this interview in my column. It’s a very original and refreshing sound and I’m giving it (5) stars. Just a great album!
Tony Joe White: “It’s funny, across the world …England, Australia and everywhere, I’ve seen more excitement and good reviews on this album since “Polk Salad Annie” and Closer to the Truth. People are really jumping on this album for some reason. People from the press and magazines say the sound on the album is like you guys just walked in, plugged up and started playing, and didn’t think much about it. And I said that’s exactly the way it went down.”
Ray Shasho: A lot of blues albums, especially today, are comprised of classic cover tracks … but you’re an original.
Tony Joe White: “Swamp rock is what most called it in the early days, which is blues that you can dance to. I never really went in for …My baby left me Monday morning…I always liked to try and write something that would make you want to boogie a little bit. We left so much breathing room in the album. Jody my son who produced the album has been listening to me since he was five, so he knew exactly where to leave stuff out and just let it breathe. ”
Ray Shasho: My very favorite tracks on Hoodoo are “ Who You Gonna Hoodoo Now?” and “Holed Up.”
Tony Joe White: “Holed Up” is the catalyst on how we all want to get sometimes man. Get yourself a little trailer house and back it up to a river and stay there. J.J. Cale used to do that. They had an airstream and he was kind of a hermit type guy anyway. J.J. stayed holed up a lot of times.”
Ray Shasho: I sensed several psychedelic riffs on certain tracks on the album.
Tony Joe White: “I’m still using the original Wah peddle which I call a ‘Whomper’ that I did on “Polk Salad Annie.” I bought a Tone Bender back in 1968 which is kind of an old fuzz box made in England. So I’m still using those two pieces and that’s where you’re getting that psychedelic feel like the hippie days.”
Ray Shasho: The track “Alligator Mississippi” had an interesting story behind it.
Tony Joe White: “Highway 61 out of Memphis, which is according to everybody the old blues road, which the people we’ve been talking about all played up and down that road. “Alligator Mississippi” is just outside Clarksdale and is nothing but a big ole grocery store on the side of the road where a lot of people just hang out in the parking lot, drink, smoke, gamble and everything. It’s just a meeting place in a totally black community. But if you needed to stop there late at night you’d better do your business and get on out.”
Ray Shasho: You collaborated on the track “Gypsy Epilogue"a sort of mystical tune with your wife Leann?
Tony Joe White: “Leann and I write about two or three songs a year together and they’re usually really powerful songs. She did “Undercover Agent for the Blues” (Tina Turner) and Leann wrote most of all that and I put music to it. To me “Gypsy Epilogue” was one of the most mysterious songs on the album. I told her when I first saw the first verse written down … “A gathering of spirits, a scattering of souls …we all are born naked and some will grow old” … I said man where are you headed with this? So we worked on it for awhile and I got the guitar, got the chorus going and then she finished the last part … “No one can see but they hear the dogs bark.” Dogs can see spirits, so anyway she ended it with chill bumps.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m getting ready to go into the studio as soon as we’re done talking and mix two songs that Leann and I just finished. So we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Ray Shasho: Will those songs be part of the next album?
Tony Joe White: “Yes probably so, I hadn’t really planned on a next one or anything, songs just pop up with us and I’m lucky enough to have a studio that I can just go in anytime I want and call my drummer or bass player and have freedom with it. We do most of the songs on a first take and sometimes I would just sing and play to my drummer or bass player, maybe thirty seconds of the song, and then I’d say okay we’re going to hit record so just play what comes out of your heart.”
Ray Shasho: Both Elvis Presley and Tom Jones recorded your song “Polk Salad Annie.” Which version do you like best?
Tony Joe White: “I’ve got to say, I love Elvis’ version of it because watching him do it live every night …it really shook him up. Man, he would catch fire. He told me that he felt like he wrote the song. I said… well, you probably ate a lot of Polk growing up. But it set him on fire man.”
Ray Shasho: When you think of Elvis’ musical repertoire, “Polk Salad Annie” was always an important song on his setlist.
Tony Joe White: “I know … it was the first song that I got cut by someday else from my first album. Brook Benton did “Rainy Night in Georgia” and they sent me a copy in the mail on a 45rpm and I played it around fifty times in a row. I couldn’t quit listening to it and how someone else could grab your words, interpret it, and just make you feel the whole thing. So after hearing Brook I learned how to sing it myself.”
Ray Shasho: “Rainy Night in Georgia” is such a beautiful song, what’s the origin behind it?
Tony Joe White: “When I got out of high school I went to Marietta, Georgia, I had a sister living there. I went down there to get a job and I was playing guitar too at the house and stuff. I drove a dump truck for the highway department and when it would rain you didn’t have to go to work. You could stay home and play your guitar and hangout all night. So those thoughts came back to me when I moved on to Texas about three months later. I heard “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio and I thought, man, how real, because I am Billie Joe, I know that life. I’ve been in the cotton fields. So I thought if I ever tried to write, I’m going to write about something I know about. At that time I was doing a lot of Elvis and John Lee Hooker onstage with my drummer. No original songs and I hadn’t really thought about it. But after I heard Bobbie Gentry I sat down and thought … well I know about Polk because I had ate a bunch of it and I knew about rainy nights because I spent a lot of rainy nights in Marietta, Georgia. So I was real lucky with my first tries to write something that was not only real but hit pretty close to the bone, and lasted that long. So it was kind of a guide for me then on through life to always try to write what I know about.”
Ray Shasho: Tony Joe, my favorite version of “Polk Salad Annie” is yours. It’s one of those classic late 60’s hits that helped define the decade.
Tony Joe White: “They’re still playing it somewhere and when I hear it I always turn it up like it’s the first time. All of a sudden in the midst of what was happening music wise on the radio, ole “Polk” stuck out like a sore thumb. But then it stuck out in the right way.”
Ray Shasho: Tony Joe, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish like the movie, to play, sing or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Tony Joe White: “Man, I’ve just about covered them all. But I’d say Sade. I’ve loved her music for so long and we’ve had the same manager. Roger Davies managed Tina Turner, Sade, me, Joe Cocker …and so we’ve seen each other a good bit. I’ve told her that we’ve got to hook up one day and she said that she loved my guitar and we’ve got to do it. We’ve talked about it for about seven years and so far we haven’t done it yet … but still maybe.”
Ray Shasho: Any tour dates coming up?
Tony Joe White: “We’ll be going out in February but I think most of the dates are in the south. I’m sure we’ll be back in Europe or Australia in April. I always like to go back to Australia especially because the people over there remind me of early Louisiana or Texas days on a Saturday night. Either way it’s good to play in America for awhile.”
Ray Shasho: Tony Joe, thank you for being on the call today but more importantly for all the incredible music you’ve given us and continue to bring.
Tony Joe White: “Thank you for calling Ray …take care man!”
Tony Joe White official website www.tonyjoewhite.com
Tony Joe White tour dates
Purchase Tony Joe White’s latest release Hoodoo at amazon.com
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Very special thanks to Jody White
Coming up NEXT…My interview with Geoff Downes legendary keyboardist and songwriter for The Buggles, Asia and YES
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