The Mississippi River was a one mile walk to the east.
He heard Elvis sing Baby Let’s Play House on a neighbor’s transistor radio when he was 15, and instantly knew he had to be a musician. Two years later a brother gave him a Lightnin’ Hopkins record and it nearly set him on fire.
White formed a three piece band, Tony Joe and the Mojos, in high school, and started working the juke joints, and honky tonks of the Deep South’s ‘crawfish circuit.’ “We played in some of the toughest places you can imagine.”
Coming of age in the hardscrabble barrooms of rural Louisiana and Texas at the dawn of the sixties was a hell of a coming out party for a naive country boy.
Tony Joe would walk along the path toward stardom for nearly a decade before reaching the summit.
White had relocated to Corpus Christi, Texas in 1965, and soon found steady work playing in the honky tonks for ten bucks a night. He woodshedded for three years til finally mustering up the courage to travel to Nashville to see if he had what it takes to make it in the big city.
Like a salesman pitching wares he went door-to-door visiting nightclubs and publishing houses before a bouncer working at a tavern near Music Row told him about local wheel Bob Beckham of Combine Music.
“When I went into his office everything was so relaxed. I just started singing.” After hearing two songs Beckham took Tony Joe into a recording studio to make a demo. That brief session would lead to a deal with Monument Records.
Monument signed the country boy to a contract, and the resulting LP Black and White started a slow burn to the top. That ascent came on the back of one song: Polk Salad Annie.
White would record and perform live for another half-century after Annie came out but this one cut would remain his biggest hit, and his signature song for the entirety of his career. On the back of Annie, White’s hero Lightnin’ Hopkins invited him into the studio to watch him and his band do their thing. The two hit it off, and Hopkins hired the young man to write the liner notes for his California Mudslide LP.
Royalties are a musician’s best friend, and a who’s who of canonical stars recorded Polk Salad Annie over the years. Mailbox money started coming to White from the likes of Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, and Johnny Cash.Regional acclaim met White as he built a following by playing live shows across the southern United States. He finally got his big break when he was approached by Angus Wynne III to play an outdoor festival in Lewisville, Texas.
At the Texas International Pop Festival in late summer 1969 Janis Joplin closed the Saturday night party by ending her set at 3:30am on Sunday morning.
Tony Joe White picked up where she left off just 11 hours later at 2:30 pm. 60,000 people were filing onto the grounds when he revved up the Sunday leg of the affair. Admission was $6.50. A still-unknown Led Zeppelin would follow just a few hours later.
This kind of exposure for Tony Joe led to his signing by Warner Brothers a year later. White would release three LPs over the next three years, and they are benchmarks in the world of southern soul but they were also hit-free.The lack of hit records came in spite of Warner bringing in heavy-hitter producers Peter Asher (James Taylor) Jerry Wexler (Aretha Franklin) and Tom Dowd (Allman Brothers) as well as a coterie of the best studio players on the planet.
The Hollywood glitterati loved the Louisiana country boy, and White’s dance card rapidly filled with appearances on the Mike Douglas Show, the Joey Bishop Show, the Tom Jones Show and Playboy after dark among others.
R&B singer Brook Benton would soon discover the White-penned Rainy Night In Georgia, and take it to Billboard’s number two position in 1970. It would sell over a million copies.
I knew Brook, but I didn’t know he had recorded ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ until, well, I was working in Memphis at the time, and they sent me a little 45 rpm. I’ll bet I played it 15 times without stopping. And I just thought, ‘Man, how a voice like that can just take a song and sing it that way…
The royalties off that song alone allowed Tony Joe White to do whatever the hell he wanted for the rest of his life.
Elvis Presley got wind of a strapping, swamp-rocker who was writing some of the best southern rock songs in the canon, and sent his private jet to Tennessee to pick White up and carry him to Las Vegas so he could meet the king
Elvis was hard and mean then, man, he looked real good. Afterwards, I went backstage. We were sitting and talking and I told Elvis, ‘You know, when you get tired of all this, I’ve got a place up in the Ozark Mountains that is so far back in the woods ain’t nobody even heard of you there. We can go up and fish and relax.
Commercial success continued to elude White who responded by rarely releasing new music. At the conclusion of the Warner deal he would only record one more LP during the seventies. Two more albums followed in the eighties, and they too were dogged by lack of sales.
But when Tina Turner ushered Tony Joe into a recording studio in 1988 he quickly got a taste of what a superstar’s climb up the charts looked like. White wrote four songs for Turner, played guitar in her band and also sat in on harmonica. Turner’s Foreign Affair would go on to sell six million copies. And that mailbox money kept right on coming.
With the free will that having a fat bank account provides, White and his family settled down in Leipers Fork, Tennessee near Nashville. From there he could fly all over the world when the notion hit him to go on a tour or just walk out back to a crude recording studio he’d fashioned out of an old horse stable.
“…I’ve always just waited, and been like a receiving spot for whatever flies through the universe and lands in swamps,” he would say about the writing process. Spoken like a rural Sun Ra.
Tony Joe White lived a dozen lifetimes in his too-short 75 years on earth. From being a 20-something idol in Paris, France when he was a nobody back in the states to playing 15,000 seat arenas in the 70s, and then coming full circle and touring what could kindly be called a modern day chitlin’ circuit as an elder rocker.
Tony Joe invented a musical genre, perfected it, then became the ne plus ultra of it. The only musician I can think of to even begin comparing him to is Alabama’s supreme, and other-worldly jazzbo Sun Ra.
On performing songs he wrote decades ago White would say, “If I’ve got a crowd, and we’re going at it, it’s like, you just sweat and let it roll.”
He did just that for over a half-century, wildly stamping himself on to the face of popular music where his strange and sublime songs will be listened to for the next thousand years.
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b. July 23rd 1943
d. October 24th 2018