Tony Joe White reigns supreme as one of the true masters of get-down funky bluesy swamp rock music. The singer/songwriter/guitarist was born on July 23, 1943. He was the youngest of seven children who grew up on a cotton farm near Oak Grove, Louisiana. White first began performing music at school dances. Following graduation from high school Tony Joe went on to perform in night clubs in Texas and Louisiana. White went to Nashville in 1968. He had a big hit with his classic hard-stomping song “Polk Salad Annie.” Tony Joe had modest country hits with “The Lady in My Life” and “We Belong Together.” Among the artists who have recorded Tony Joe’s songs are Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, George Jones, Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Jessi Colter, and Elvis Presley (the King of Rock’n’Roll sings “Polk Salad Annie” in the rock concert documentaries “Elvis on Tour” and “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is”). In 1989 White wrote four songs for and played both guitar and harmonica on Tina Turner’s “Foreign Affair” album. Tony Joe has toured with such groups as Steppenwolf, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Sly and the Family Stone. A huge cult favorite in Europe, Tony Joe White continues to record albums on his own Swamp Records label and performs in concerts all over the world. Publisher Brad Evans caught up with Tony Joe on the road ahead of his August 28 concert at the Cox Capitol Theatre.
Mr. White, I got to tell you, I’m a huge huge fan. I don’t think there is a single artist out there who’s voice invokes a more spiritual feeling in me than yours. Not only your lyrics but just your sound… the sound of your actual voice, it sounds like something not from this world. You are one of my all time favorites, it’s an honor to talk to you. So how are you?
I’m doing real good. And thank you for that bud.
Your voice, though, I really don’t know why I didn’t expect it to be like this when I talked to you. But I feel weird just hearing it on the phone. It’s so haunting.
(laughs) Ah, man someone said in an interview in Europe one time that he thought that I operated between two worlds. One was that old way-back swamp world, and the other was in the now. I believe that. That I operate in another world sometimes.
Do you have siblings? Do they sound like you?
I do, and no they don’t.
Well you got a gift, sir.
Yeah, I think my voice was down there, in my early teens, 13-14 years old, my sisters, and brothers, some of them even accused me of being spooky. The thing about it is that most people say that I sing like a talk. I like that. I don’t have to try to sound this way, I just do.
Well, we started a radio station here in Macon about a month ago, and we play a lot of Tony Joe White, I mean a lot. It was funny the other day, a lady from a church was in here singing, and the song I had to introduce after she stopped singing was “Old Man Willis,” by you, which I noted was about a man chasing around his family with a Bowie Knife. Not sure they knew how to take that.
(Laughs) That’s funny. Yeah that old man was getting after them, wasn’t he?
Can you tell me about the first time you wrote a song?
I started playing guitar when I Was 15 years old. My Brother brought an album home by lightning Hopkins. The old blues singer. I started sneaking my daddy’s guitar up to my room at night and learning blues licks. But I never did think about writing any. I was doing a lot of shows through Louisiana and Texas. I was doing a lot of Elvis songs, John Lee Hooker. I heard “Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobby Gentry on the radio and it changed me. I thought to myself, man that’s real, and right then and there I decided when I wrote, I was going to write something that I knew about. Wasn’t two or three weeks later, I tried to write a song. My first two attempts, were “Polk Salad Annie,” and “Rainy Night In Georgia.”
Are you serious?
I am. Those were the first two songs I ever wrote. I used to drive a dump truck for the highway in Marietta, and whenI sat down to write I thought about what I had.
Well I think that’s why those songs resonate. Because you can tell it’s an experience that is honest, something you really had inside you. It’s why they are still so important today. Tell me how Elvis came to record “Polk Salad Annie.”
Well, I put it on in ‘69 and it got up to number #2. Elvis came out with it in ‘73. It was one of those amazing things that happened to me. When I first started I was singing his songs, and there he was signigng mine. He flew me and my wife in his Jet out to Vegas, we watched him record it. All week long we hung out with him. Later on he did a couple more of my songs in Memphis and I got to hang with him at Stax.
You were in Macon with Phil Walden for a minute right?
Yeah, I don’t have really any stories about Macon. We were usually just there for press stuff. Pictures, or interviews. But I do remember Phil Walden came to Corpus Christi to a club and hunted me down to sign me, and I signed with him.
Tell me what a normal day is like for you. The way I have it pictured in my mind, you come out of some trailer in the swamp, wrestle an alligator, kill a squirrel, roast the squirrell over an open flame, and then eat it. Does that happen every day for you? Well not every day. But when the weather is right I always have a fire. Especially when I’m trying to write a song, I always go to the River down behind my house, and build a fire, get me a six pack of beer,and I don’t push it, I just sort of wait for a song to drift in on the wind.
Wow. I don’t know how this talk can get any cooler Mr. White. Such an honor to talk to you and I’m so looking forward to your show.
I’m looking forward to it too Brad. I’ll see you down in Macon now.