Tony Joe White - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


With his signature blend of  atmospheric swamp rock, back country Southern mythology and deep funk-blues, singer-guitarist Tony Joe White is one of American music' most distinctive and rugged individualists. Best known for his 1969 bayou work out "Polk Salad Annie," the song which both introduced and best typifies his  masterly employ of undulating, rhythmic throb, chopping, syncopated guitar grooves and rough-hewn down in the bottom vocals, White's unique sound and hyper-masculine delivery resonated not only with record buying public (it was a Top ten hit) but also with singers like Elvis Presley and Tom Jones, both of whom promptly added the song to their repertoires. Significantly, he was also one of a very few performers of the day whose material directly addressed the bigotry and racial tension still pervasive throughout much of the nation.


Born July 23, 1943 in Goodwill, Louisiana, he grew up with a head full of hillbilly and blues and by the early 1960's was haunting the Texas beer joints, both as a club performer and an avid fan of the mesmerizing, idiosyncratic blues star Lightnin' Hopkins, from whom he learned, first hand, more than a few insider tricks of the bandstand  trade. White made the pilgrimage to Nashville circa '68, landed a job as staff writer at Combine Music, the publishing company operated by Fred Foster's freewheeling independent Monument Records, which had enjoyed tremendous success several years earlier with Roy Orbison and also issued the first records by Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.  The label released White's debut album Black & White (Monument, 1969), and after  the single "Polk Salad Annie" hit, White's profile as a songwriter also ascended, via Dusty Springfield's concurrent version of his "Willie and Laura Mae Jones," and  several months, later Brook Benton's classic recording of White's instant standard, "Rainy Night in Georgia."


Although neither easily recognizable as country or rock & roll, the charismatic White managed to straddle the line with a swashbuckling grace, parlaying his unusual sound and image (his leading promo shot was taken deep in the Louisiana swamp, bare-chested and clad only in some skin tight black leather pants, with his guitar slung over his shoulder) and he quickly gained a rabid following in Europe, particularly the UK and France, whose critics first bestowed White's enduring nickname, the Swamp Fox. Back in the United States, White's gritty, offbeat songs also won approval from rising outlaw country kingpin Waylon Jennings, which led to a lifelong friendship and a steady list of Jennings versions of Tony Joe numbers. While White's solo career cooled somewhat in the 80's, he worked with Tina Turner at the height of her stunning  comeback, writing (and playing on) four songs featured on her  Foreign Affair album (Capitol, 1989). In the early 1990s, he toured Europe with rock royalty Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker and maintained strong albums sales on the continent. In the US, he continued to release critically acclaimed records like the superb One Hot July (Mercury, 1999) and after establishing his own label, the star-studded duet sets The Heroines and Uncovered (both Swamp Records, 2004 and 2006, respectively). Working his son Jody White, who produced the brilliant, techno-tinged Deep Cuts (Swamp Records, 2008), White made clear that, even in his sixties, his power and singular style stand undiminished.


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