He wrote a big hit for close pal Elvis. He penned “Rainy Night In Georgia” for Brook Benton and “Steamy Windows” for Tina Turner.
But at heart, Tony Joe White is a true blues man – as new stripped-back solo album “Bad Mouthin’ ” testifies – his 42nd album across a 50-year career.
The 75-year-old legend spoke to Simon Redley from his Tennessee home, about how the blues helped him through a tough childhood on the swamps and cotton fields of Louisiana…
Tony Joe White has a background story that’d make a cracking biopic. Or at least a decent auto-biography.
Some reading this article may not know who he is. But you will most certainly know a few of the many songs he has written.
So, let’s bring you up to speed about this talented singer, songwriter and performer, who has written songs that will outlive all of us.
We’ll go back to when Southern boy Tony was more or less just starting out, driving trucks daytime for the city council to keep food on the table and playing $10 a night club gigs, but with one burning desire: To write, write, write.
No hunger for fame or fortune. No real aim to be an artist. Just the drive and passion to write songs about what he knows from his own hard life. Coming from a poor family, one of two boys and the youngest of seven kids, working on the Louisiana cotton fields with his parents, sisters and older brother from the age of about five-years-old, until he graduated from High School at 18.
Wearing hand-me-down jeans from his five sisters. No running water in the house; all the kids taking it in turn to pump water from a well in the yard. The solitary lightbulb in the house, hanging from string to light up the one room.
Teaching himself to play guitar and sitting on the porch after the sun has gone down on the cotton fields, with the whole family all singing or playing guitar. Learning note for note blues licks from the records his brother brought home.
Then one day following his dreams to leave the family home and let the wider world hear his songs, to try to make it as a songwriter. Setting out for Memphis, but for some reason, ending up in Nashville – only to be told he’d had a wasted journey peddling blues songs in that town; as it was all “Country and Western here” – so he best keep driving to his original destination.
But ignoring that advice and after a chance chat with a bouncer ‘who knew a guy who knew a guy’, he got hold of one telephone number for a music publisher who agreed to see him, and offered him a chance to record one of his songs, so he could hear how his voice sounded.
He liked Tony’s material and his deep, moody voice and took his songs on. Young TJW was gobsmacked when soon after that first meeting, he was stood in a recording studio, cutting his first album.
Elvis Wants Your Song…
But that surprise and delight was nothing compared to what was to come. He gets a call one day with news that would change his life. “The King is recording one of your songs”. The King aka Elvis Aaron Presley. The biggest music star on the planet. He was cutting Tony’s song “Polk Salad Annie”. What’s more, he wants Tony and his wife to be there when he is recording the song live during a show in Las Vegas.
So he sends a private plane to get them there. As you do! Tony takes up the story, but there’s a sad end to this tale, I warn you…“It was wonderful. Elvis was one of the heroes I would talk about on this new album. He was right up there with John Lee Hooker, Lightin’ Hopkins and everybody.
“It was kind of bluesy to me when he sang. They called me in Memphis, and Elvis wanted to send a jet out to Memphis to pick my wife and me up, and fly us to Las Vegas to see him record Polk Salad Annie live. He was there six nights a week at the Hilton.
“That was like living in a little dream, man. You didn’t think it would ever happen. I’d been doing Elvis tunes for three years already in Texas in the clubs, and I had him down good too. I could do him right. I had my hair combed like him, then all of a sudden I turned round and there he is doing one of mine”.
Unlike many of the songs Elvis covered, this time the songwriter did not have to give up any of the writing credit to have The King record and release it.
Dolly Parton tells the story of when she was approached by Elvis’ infamous manager, Colonel Parker, with the news that Elvis wanted to record the song she wrote, “I Will Always Love You”. This young girl from the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee was beside herself, until she was told that Elvis would have to share the writing credits.
She didn’t think that was fair and after speaking to her father about it, she refused to give up any of the writing credit, and so he never did record her song. But a singer called Whitney Houston did cut it some years later, and Dolly now says that recording made her as the writer, far more money than if Elvis had cut it, as his sales were declining at that time. Kerchiing!
“No, they didn’t ask me to give up any writing credit. His producer was a good friend of mine and my publisher, and we didn’t get into any of that stuff. He ended up doing three songs and they called me, two or three years later, to say he was just getting ready to do my song Rainy Night In Georgia.
“He did a piece of it in the back seat of his limo, when I went on tour with Elvis in 1972. Then a few weeks later, he went to the other side. So no one knows how it would have sounded. But I can tell it was gonna be great, from what he sang to me in the car that day. Him going like that before recording the song, was just one of them things, I guess”.
With your name always associated with that song, “Polk Salad Annie” and Elvis, is it ever a wee bit tiresome, when you have done so much more since then? “He sung the hell out of it and he did it good. We’d sit back in the dressing room every night and talk. He had an old acoustic guitar back there, and he said, man; I felt like I wrote Polk Salad Annie.
“He said, I know about that life. He’d say, take a guitar and show me a couple of blues licks. I showed him, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, as I had that one down really good. The next night I’d be in there to talk and hang out, and I asked him, you got that lick down? He said no, I don’t have it. So I thought, here we go again as he passed me the guitar.
“But he did beautiful shows every night and on Polk, he sweated on it and worked hard on it and it was really good”. The song he played Elvis, “Baby Please Don’t Go”, written by Big Joe Williams (or Lowell Fulsom say some blues experts) is the same song he shocked his Dad with, when he picked up the guitar on the porch as a kid and played it note for note.
On the new album “Bad Mouthin’ “, Tony delivers that one in the same raw and stripped back approach as back to his childhood. “I was about 14 when my brother brought home an album by Lightin’ Hopkins. I hadn’t heard anything other than country and gospel up until then.
I Shocked My Dad
“I started borrowing my Dad’s guitar and taking it up to my bedroom at night and learning blues licks. Two or three weeks later I came down one morning, he was sat there having coffee. He loved Lightnin’s playing too, and I played him ‘Baby Please Don’t Go” on the guitar and freaked him out. ‘Where did you learn that boy?’ I said, upstairs from that record, and he said God, show me that lick.
“I showed him a couple of things and he showed me a few. Music was completely surrounding us all the time. That’s all we had; we didn’t have TV or nothing back then in the swamps”. Of the five originals on the new album, Tony says “Sundown Blues” is the most personal and evokes memories from way back on that cotton farm.
“Takes me all the way back into Louisiana and the cotton fields, where I worked with my Dad, Mum and sisters in the cotton down by the swamps. For some reason, when it got to sundown, which was a time to rest, we’d sit on the porch with a guitar and all of a sudden I’d have the blues. Sundown Blues…We just didn’t want to let the day go.
“But it was hard in them fields. Them girls would say, hey go up by the river in the shade of the trees, we’ll be through here in a minute. It was so hot and humid. They would give me a break as the youngest. They were all great musicians and good singers”.
On the new record, Tony strips back Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Awful Dreams,” and Charley Patton’s “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” – his deep, in-yer-boots bass baritone growl of a voice and the less-is-more guitar work is as laid back and natural as it comes. Like he’s playing and singing just for you.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a blues musician, bottom line, because the blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets. So, I thought it was time to make a blues record that sounds the way I always loved the music”.
When Tony had good fortune with his first big royalty cheque for his songs “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night In Georgia”, his first thought was for his family and the hard life they lived on that cotton farm. So he splashed out circa $38,000 to buy them a house and move them all out of the farm. He was living in Corpus Christi, Texas at that time.
“I had been playing night clubs for $10 a night, and writing on the side trying to get something going. I finally got enough money saved and drove up to Nashville; I was going to Memphis but for some reason I just kept going.
“I don’t know why, because Memphis was a blues town. But most everybody in Nashville in the music stores and places would ask ‘what do you play?’ I’d say, it’s kind of swamp blues’, and they’d say well, you drove a long way for nothin’.
“There ain’t nothin’ but Country and Western here. That night I went out to a club and talked to the bouncer for a while, and he knew a guy who knew a guy who had a telephone number.
Mind-boggling cheque for $71,000
“I called that number next day, saw music publisher Bob Beckham, and he listened to a couple of my things and said go record on eight-track and let me hear your voice. It started right there and it went along for Polk and the whole album was coming out – his 1969 debut ‘Black and White’ – and it was amazing to make anything, when playing for $10 a night.
“My first real big cheque, I bought a house in Louisiana and Daddy and them left the farm. That house was around $38,000, a big old wooden-framed house. That was the first mind-boggling cheque: $71,000, from Polk and Brook Benton’s Rainy Night In Georgia.
“I was 22 when I bought the house, and still playing the clubs in Texas. Then the tours started coming up and things started happening in Europe. I had a hit record in France, ‘Soul Francisco’.
“So, a lot of things started happening all at once and it was mind boggling for me, but I stayed close to my guitar and just tried to write songs”. And write songs he did. Tina Turner helped Tony bank a few more mind boggling cheques when she cut “Steamy Windows”.
At 75, why a blues album and why now? “Well you know, it started with the blues for me in the early days and I always admired those guys. Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker and people like that.
“I thought, one of these days I’m gonna get a chance to put it on a record and show ‘em how much I liked ‘em. And it all worked out perfect, because I moved my studio from town, from Franklin, and moved it out here to my house and the barn.
“We fixed two rooms up in the barn, with a lot of wood, and a good sound, and it sounds real authentic you know. A little acoustic guitar, little electric here and there, couple of songs with drums and that’s about it”.
The catalyst to the album was Tony’s son Jody, who produced it, finding a reel to reel tape tucked away in a drawer from back in the day, and being blown away by the blues songs on it. The title track was one of them. “Sundown Blues” on there too, both cut in 1966 for a local label in Corpus Christi, Texas.
He is mostly solo with just voice and guitar on this record, a smattering of harmonica. Regular drummer Bryan Owings joins him on some tracks, and bassist Steve Forrest also joins the duo on two numbers.
“Well, I did two songs down by the border in Texas, right by the Mexican border, to see how my voice sounded on the tape – just those two songs back in ’66. When I got back to Corpus Chrsti, I was back in the clubs and writing again, and would come home after gigs, where I had a little four-track tape recorder reel to reel, which had its own microphone.
“It was real old time, man. I’d record these pieces of songs I was working on, laying down guitar and voice. Jody found this tape and said, man, we gotta have these songs on a blues album, so I said, OK, let’s do it”.
Tony’s home these days is a farm about 45 minutes out of Nashville where he and his family have lived for the last 20 years. At Leiper’s Fork near Franklin, which is a historic small rural village with a population of just 650, set in about 1,100 acres.
Tony recalls stepping into the barn on his property after the work was done to create the perfect recording space. Two former horse stalls became the studio. The cement-floor saddle room with unfinished wood panelling had a window unit air conditioning box that had to be turned off for recording. The next stall over had a dirt floor covered with glued composite board.
Tony cancelled the first session, saying he couldn’t sing in there because of the strong smell of the glue from the renovation work. So he filled the stalls with bowls of coffee grounds, cups of rice, dryer sheets and decorative brooms made of bound twigs that were drenched in a cinnamon scent, sold at grocery stores around Halloween.
After that, each song was cut live in one or two takes. Since Mr White plays good and loud, they put his 1951 Fender Deluxe amplifier in the back of his Land Rover, so its tones wouldn’t interfere with the vocals and percussion tracks.
Aside from the classics he penned for Elvis and Brook Benton, plus Tina Turner’s hits “Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent for the Blues”, Tony is also responsible for Dusty Springfield’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”, Eric Clapton’s “Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You”, Willie Nelson’s “God’s Problem Child”, Kenny Chesney’s version of “Steamy Windows” and Robert Cray’s covers of “Don’t Steal My Love” and “Aspen, Colorado”.
Did he feel any extra pressure to come up with more hits? “I never give any thought to a song being pressure or having to write one, because I never did look at it that way. I am not a Detroit Assembly line songwriter, so I wait until something comes to me on my guitar or a word or two; and I go down by the river, build a fire, carry my guitar, have a couple of cold beers and just sit down and mess with the guitar.
“Sooner or later something pops up. But, to sit down and say I am gonna write a song, I’d be really blank. I figure they all come from up high anyway and I just try to treat ’em right when they come by me. I always tried to write what was real and stay with what I knew”.
His favourite cover of any of his songs is most certainly “Rainy Night in Georgia”, and Tony recalls the first time he heard it. “The first time I heard Brook Benton singing ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’, I played it 50-something times on the record player and couldn’t stop. Then Elvis and ‘Polk Salad Annie’, was almost the same way.
“I was out of breath when I listened to Rainy Night. Brook Benton surprised me. I never thought of it being what it turned out to be, lasting this long and that many people doing it”. There have been dozens of covers of that song, by Rod Stewart, Ray Charles, Hank Williams Jr., Randy Crawford, Boz Scaggs, David Ruffin and many more.
Yeah, songs should be what emotions sound like. You cannot get more emotional than that song and the way Brook Benton does it, can you? “Right. That’s exactly right. Again, it is back to something real that I knew about, because when I left High School, I went to Georgia and a place called Marietta as I had a sister living there.
“I stayed with them. I drove a truck for the city, hauling logs in daytime and night-time I’d have the guitar out, working on it. When it rained, I wouldn’t have to go to work and would stay home and play all day, and hang out. Those times came back to me after I moved down to Texas. During that time, Polk Salad and Rainy Night pops up. It was real…”.
Tony uses a battered 1965 Fender Strat’ guitar that has been on most of his records across the last three decades. “I’ve had it 30 something years, and toured with it. It is really beat up but still sounds absolutely as good as it ever was.
I gave it to Mark Knopfler as a thankyou for the guitar he gave me…
“It was second hand. I found it at a guitar show, and it was around $3200, in Hendersonville, near Nashville. I was still playing that blonde Gibson, double-cutaway which I gave to Mark Knopfler. I had never been to a guitar show and someone said I should go look.
“Mark Knopfler had given me a beautiful guitar years before, a Spanish guitar. I had to do something to thank him. When I switched to that 65 Strat’, it stayed right with me. I carry it on the plane with me, it always goes to my room at night. I know I’ll never get a better one”.
Tony says he has never named his guitars like some guitarists do. BB King is probably the most famous, with his Lucille axe. “I can never figure out if they are male or female”. No comment!
Tony last toured here in 2014, when he appeared at Glastonbury Festival. He remembers that vividly, apart from the triumphant show he delivered. “My drummer said, you know just about every festival you play at, it always comes big rain (sic). I said, I know, I am looking for it.
“As soon as I walked off stage at that show, we had barely made it to the van and the tent started floating up with the wind and then the rain. We was on down the road, and I heard the whole thing had imploded all round the stage and everywhere”. The good news…he says he is due here soon for a three week UK tour.
I actually met Tony during the weekend of 4th July 1992, when he was part of the Radio 1 American Music Festival, at Crystal Palace Bowl in London. I was a photographer for the festival and for a couple of magazines that weekend. In front of the stage was a big lake and then the audience were way off at the other side of this lake.
An amazing line-up. John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Buddy Guy, John Hammond, Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Pops Staples, Little Village featuring Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner, and many more artists. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio 1 for five hours on the Saturday, introduced by Johnnie Walker and Andy Kershaw. Tony’s set was superb, and prompted me to go buy his latest album of that time. I did some exclusive shots backstage of some of the stars, including Tony.
Foo Fighters Are fans…
He has collaborated with the likes of Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, JJ Cale and Mark Knopfler, among many. In October 2014, Tony Joe White appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman alongside the Foo Fighters, to perform “Polk Salad Annie” and won huge critical acclaim for his performance.
So with his tough childhood, his personal links to Elvis and a real rags to riches life story, now in his mid-70s, isn’t it about time he committed words to paper and came up with his autobiography? “No, I don’t think so. I wrote a book one time in the early days. Called ‘Buck and Don’. I was Buck and Don was my nephew.
“He was two years younger than me. He stayed on the farm with us every summer, and me and him got into a lot of things along that river. Once I finished that, I was satisfied with books. We sold it just at shows and a lot of mail order with it”.
Final words to Tony; responding to my request to sum himself up for me in just the one sentence: “I would say; kind of low voice and low guitar from the swamps”. Yes siree; keeping it as real as it gets….
- Tony Joe White: Bad Mouthin’, is released on 28th September 2018 on the Yep Roc label.
By Simon Redley
Photos: Joshua Black Wilkins