Remembering Tony Joe White

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

When Tony Joe White died on Wednesday, October 24, he had only weeks earlier sat down for one of his final interviews with American Songwriter about his life and his new album, Bad Mouthin’. Offering this writer a blue Solo cup of tap water and a chair in his small rural Tennessee barn studio, White was approachable, humble, soft-spoken, and exactly what everyone who knew him said he was: completely real. Onstage and off, his mojo, and his genuine, effortlessly-projected sense of cool, couldn’t be faked. Many artists try different types of music, production, even wardrobe, trying to stay relevant and employed. But White was secure in his own skin, regardless of whatever success came with being that way. And when the idea of searching for one’s identity was mentioned, he seemed almost puzzled by the notion of being anyone except who he was.

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“I’ve never really given that much thought,” he bemusedly drawled while looking at the wall, where a painting of a Gretsch guitar, done by his friend Michael McDonald, was hanging. “Before I go on stage I’ve got butterflies, until I hit the first lick, and then it’s down home. It’s given to you, and this thing’s been given to me from Above, I’m sure of that. When words come by me, or a guitar lick comes by me, and I sit down by the fire, or go sit down by the river … I really try to do it the best way possible that I can. I had such a good start with ‘Polk Salad Annie’ and ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ that I had a little ladder to start with, so over the years I’ve been able to stay with the music. Play in Europe, Australia, then come home, rest awhile, start a fire and have some ideas poppin’ up. Come down, I mean. So I’m really blessed and I try to stay with it.”

White was, indeed, best-known for writing and singing “Polk Salad Annie,” and for being the author of the Brook Benton soul classic “Rainy Night in Georgia,” as well as having songs recorded by Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney and others. He was known for great words, understated melodies, and an unmistakable voice and singing style that were totally his. But White always maintained that he was a bluesman above all.  I’ve always thought of myself as a blues musician,” he said, “because the blues is real, and I like to keep it real.”

On Bad Mouthin’, he covered blues classics by some of his heroes, and redid one of his own older tunes with the title track, a song he wrote in 1966 and recorded for a small label in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he was playing for $15 a night until Nashville got wind of him. He covered songs like the Big Joe Williams classic “Baby Please Don’t Go,” John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” and “Awful Dreams,” a song by the man who started it all for White, Lightnin’ Hopkins.

One of seven children from a Louisiana cotton farm, White lived in a home where there was always music, but he didn’t get into actually playing until he heard the sounds of that one man. “Everybody else played, and I mostly sat and listened to them. My dad could play a little blues and so could my brother, but they mostly listened to country and gospel. Then my brother brought home a Lightnin’ Hopkins album … I heard his singin’ and his guitar, and his foot tappin’, just him,” he said, stomping his own foot for emphasis. “How pure is that? I started borrowin’ my dad’s guitar, playin’ this and playin’ that. That’s why I did this album, because I loved that music.”

Elvis Presley recorded “Polk Salad Annie” as well as two other White titles and the men became fast friends, with White commemorating that friendship by recording “Heartbreak Hotel” for Bad Mouthin’. “Elvis treated me really good, and he really loved blues,” White said. “He flew me and my wife out to Las Vegas, where he was doin’ ‘Polk Salad Annie’ on every show, every night. It was just dreamy-like, because he was another hero like Lightnin’. Here was Elvis doin’ one of my songs, and I’d been doin’ his in the clubs in Texas. We’d talk about everything — how polk salad tasted when you cooked it, like mustard greens, collard greens. We talked about guitars, and I showed him some licks. I saw him in the back of a limousine on tour, and he was singin’ a verse of ‘Rainy Night In Georgia,’ and his producer called and said that was gonna be his next cut. Then the next time I saw him was in the newspaper. Elvis was no longer with us. So I told my son Jody, who produced Bad Mouthin’, there’s one song I wanna do to pay Elvis back, wherever he is. Because his version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was one of the bluesiest things in the world.”

Thanks for all the great music, Tony. Here’s betting you and Elvis are duetting right now.

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