Tony Joe White

Tony Joe White


“Nobody knows if I’m white or black” has always been one of Tony Joe White’s favorite descriptions of himself. On the telephone, it really is impossible to distinguish his heritage, but there’s no mistaking the deep voice with the exotic Louisiana drawl on the other end of the line. It’s the growl heard on the spoken introduction to “Polk Salad Annie,” Tony Joe White’s signature tune and one of the classic examples of a lost genre known as Southern soul music. “I was raised on polk, and my momma used to get us to eat it all the time,” White says of the inspiration for his 1969 hit during a telephone conversation from his Nashville home. “We lived in a cotton field down there [in Louisiana]. It was growin’ wild, and she’d cook it like greens.” 

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Raised in the swamps of Goodwill, Louisiana, Tony Joe White had little interest in music until one day his brother brought home a Lightnin’ Hopkins record. “Yeah, when I was 15 or 16 my brother played that thing for me. Before that, music meant nothing.” White began playing in roadhouses several years later. “Well, at that time I was playin’ clubs in Texas and Louisiana, doin’ Elvis covers, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins covers . . . In the early days I used to comb my hair like Elvis [who recorded a dynamite version of 'Polk Salad Annie']. Before I started writin’, I had him down pretty good . . . I actually had a little microphone that fit around my neck, and I could play the guitar and do the legs [like Elvis] all at the same time. He was a heavy influence on them early days for me,” White remembers.

But it was the Bobbie Gentry hit “Ode to Billie Joe” that inspired White to give songwriting a shot. “I heard that song on the radio, and I thought, ‘Man, how real can it get. I am Billie Joe.’ So, I decided that if I ever was goin’ to sit down and try to write, I was goin’ to try to write somethin’ I knew about, and somethin’ that was real. And in a couple of weeks time I started on ‘Polk’ and ‘Rainy Night in Georgia.’ So both them tunes came about the same time.”

In 1970, singer Brook Benton recorded “Rainy Night in Georgia,” an intensely gorgeous tune whose inspiration holds less mystique than its timeless quality might suggest. “Later on after high school, I went to Marietta, Georgia, and drove a dump truck for the highway department, stayed with my sister some,” White explains. “Down there when it was rainin,’ I knew I didn’t have to go to work the next day, and I could sit and play my guitars.”


“Meetin’ Lightnin’ Hopkins was just like meetin’ Elvis or Tina Turner for me.”

White eventually met his boyhood idol Lightnin’ Hopkins thanks to an invitation to play on a session with the blues singer. “Yeah, that was after ‘Polk’ was out, and he was in L.A. at the same time I was. And the record company invited me down to play guitar and a little harmonica with him on the album called L.A. Mudslide. Meetin’ him was just like meetin’ Elvis or Tina Turner for me.” Meeting Tina Turner, however, was more than a simple thrill for Tony Joe White. The introduction resurrected his career, which had entered a lull in the late 1980s. In 1990, Turner recorded four of White’s tunes on her multi-platinum Foreign Affairs album. One, “Steamy Windows,” was a worldwide hit. He’ll never forget Turner’s reaction the day he walked into the studio. “She just died laughing when she met me. Her manager and me came into the studio, gettin’ ready to do that album with her and she looked up and just started rollin.’ Yeah, she said she always thought I was a black man,” he remembers, laughing.

Among White’s lasting memories of his many years on the road were the shows in the 1970s that he did with Sly Stone, who had a reputation for making audiences wait, if he bothered to show up at all. “Sly was always a problem. He was always late for the show, and the crowd was always nearly in an uproar,” White says with amusement. “And when a white boy started walkin’ out on stage in front of all them people, they was hollerin’ at me and everything. As soon as I’d talk or hit a lick on my guitar, they’d go, ‘Hey, alright!’ It was pretty spooky. In fact, a couple of times up north, I’ve had promoters offer to pay me my money not to go out on the stage. They said it’d be too rough on me. I’d say, ‘Well, I flew a long ways, man, to play some music. Sure hate to go back and not play nothing.’ Yeah, Sly always made sure he was an hour late. He was at the Isle of Wight Festival with me in 1970 [Jimi Hendrix was on the same bill]. Anyway, Sly wanted to come on at sunrise instead of his regular time [earlier in the evening]. There was 600,000 people there. Well, here comes Sly and the band up through the woods, all these tambourines shaking and making this beat and smoking and singing. And 600,000 people are in their sleeping bags asleep. And, man, he kicked into one song and a few woke up and kinda got up, and he played another and a few more got up. And he started into a third one, and all of a sudden he just walked off stage,” White said, laughing throughout the story.

Jimi Hendrix also left a lasting impression on White at the Isle of Wight. “I saw him on the airport runway there where they had a little four-seater carrying us back and forth over to the island. And he had managed to get out on the runway in a very high state of mind, and he was thumbing the plane when we landed—like he was trying to hitch a ride. He had on plaid pants, a leather jacket, and a big quilt. And he almost got hit by the damn plane. And then a few days later he died.”

The lack of interest in rhythm and blues among the current crop of black musicians is disappointing to White. “There’s more white people playin’ blues now than there are the other way,” he says with more than a hint of resignation. “I think rap knocked it all the way out. Most bluesy people, you know, all blacks and everything, they’d rather have an electric drum kit and sit there and yak about what happened in the street that day than learn how to play a B3 organ or learn how to do an Otis Redding moan or shout.” &

Tony Joe White performs at the Blockbuster stage on Sunday, June 20, from 4:20 p.m. to 5:20 p.m.

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