TONY JOE WHITE: THE SWAMP FOX
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Tony Joe White is an American treasure. In 1969, Tony Joe came bursting out of the swamplands of Louisiana with his classic, “Polk Salad Annie,” a Top 10 Hit, followed in 1970, by Brook Benton’s soulful rendition of White’s timeless classic, “Rainy Night In Georgia.” Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s Tony Joe White toured with some of the biggest artists of the decade including Creedence Clearwater Revival and James Taylor. The 1990s began with a bang, as Tina Turner recorded four of his songs for her multi-platinum selling Foreign Affairs album. While there was a certain “mystique” surrounding White in the United States, it was in Europe where he gained legendary status. During the 90’s he spent two years touring Europe with Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker, among others. French audiences eagerly embraced White as the "Swamp Fox" and in 1998, he became the subject of a French produced documentary: Tony Joe White-The Man From Down South. Throughout the years, White has had songs recorded by dozens of major artists including Elvis, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Etta James, Hank, Jr., Tim McGraw, John Mayall and Waylon Jennings, (who recorded numerous White covers-including the ’99 release, “Closing In On The Fire”). He has written and performed jingles for McDonalds and Levi’s 501 Blues and been featured on movie soundtracks for Millennium, Selena and Hotspot. SWAMPLAND.COM spoke with White about his friends, his music and his new album, The Heroines.
I have been wanting to speak with you for quite some time, but with the new Heroines album out the time is just right. The album is great.
Oh, my son Jody got in there and surprised everyone with his ears and ideas and did a great job.
It’s a smooth thing. I want to go back and ask just a few questions about your past, nothing incriminating, (Laughs)....
Let’s stay out of the swamps (Laughs)....
Just for the people that might not know, please tell us where you were born and raised.
It’s a place called Goodwill, Louisiana on the northeast end near Arkansas, Mississippi, in that Delta corner. We had a cotton farm.
When did you first become interested in music?
Well my folks, mom and dad, five sisters and one brother - they all played guitar and piano. I was the youngest and he was the oldest and the girls were in between us. Someone was playing something every day when we got through with work and picking cotton. Someone was always playing music, Daddy on guitar. I heard it all my life but didn’t really get into it. Then one day when I was about 16 my brother brought an album home by Lightnin’ Hopkins. I heard that old blues man with his one guitar and that microphone close to his foot and anyway we all got into it. We were heavily into the blues growing up in our teens in that area.
Do you remember the first song that you ever wrote?
Yeah, it seems like I wrote a song called “Someday.” After I left Louisiana, I was down playing in clubs in Kingsville, Texas. I remember a song called “Someday” that I had written then.
Your biggest claim to fame was “Polk Salad Annie.” How high did that chart in the States?
It was number 3 in America and then worldwide, into Europe and Australia. I had a record right before “Poke” that happened and it made number 2 in Paris, France. At that time I was playing in a night club in Texas but had this huge record going overseas. I had never been anywhere. I went over there and did some interviews and toured with a guitar.
What was that song?
It was called “Soul Francisco” and it was about the hippie movement at that time and it was on my first album. It was during the flower children days. All of a sudden the guitar and voice clicked and people were buying my records. When I got home from touring at that time “Poke” had kicked in here in America. It was out for about 7-8 months and it looked like it wasn’t going to happen with a record company. So I was back playing at the nightclub in Texas because you are always playing somewhere and you can’t sit around and watch a record. We must have been selling 1000 records a week in that nightclub of Poke. The record company would mail them to us and we would buy them and try to sell them at that club. They said that they thought they would try to go with something else. I told them that they could do that but that we were selling lots of those records at that small club. Then a station picked it up in L.A. and put it on the big list, you know what I mean. Then it made it to finally #3 in America and then it got followed up with “Rainy Night in Georgia”. All of the sudden I was moving.
That was a good one-two punch.
Yeah, I think both of those songs had been written in one week. I had moved to Corpus Cristi by then and I had heard Bobbie Gentry sing “Ode To Billy Joe” and I thought, I am Billy Joe man, and I know that life. I wanted to write about something that I knew about and was real. Poke was real because I had eaten a bunch of it when I was growing up and rainy nights were real because I had driven a truck when I got right out of high school. That’s how those two songs came about and it is pretty amazing that they have stuck around.
Didn’t Elvis sing “Poke Salad Annie?”
Yeah, he did come out with it in ‘72, ‘73 somewhere around there. His producer called me and I was living in Memphis by then. He phoned me and said he wanted to fly me and my wife to Las Vegas and watch him do it and record it live onstage. Elvis had been right in that little scene too, with Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker and all of us kids down on the river. Then we had all that blues going. Elvis had been a big hero of ours. We combed our hair like him and I did his songs onstage and the whole thing was just happening. Then they were flying us to Las Vegas- it was like a dream.
Did you get to spend some time with him and get to know him?
Yeah, we hung out for about 3-4 days out there in the dressing rooms and stuff. And then we hung out in Memphis and saw him down there at Stax and he treated me real good. He liked guitar and he would get me to show him some of the blues licks and stuff like that. He always seemed to really want to play. He could bang and make a few chords, but he really liked those bluesy things.
You were talking about “Rainy Night in Georgia.” One of my favorite versions of that was Brook Benton and Conway Twitty on that country / blues album, do you remember?
No, that was Sam Moore singing on that.
He did a fine job on that too.
Oh, yeah, it was chill bump time again, with Conway’s voice and everything just killed me on that album.
I remember playing that one song over and over.
Yeah, they did it up.
I know that you have toured with all sorts of people. Who comes to mind if I ask about favorite people you have toured with?
That’s kind of hard, like naming your favorite song. I have always had a great time with Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton. People that you really love their music and you’re glad to be out there with them. Then on the country side, Waylon Jennings was great and we went lots of miles together.
Wow, he was great.
He was and still is.
I was going to ask you about Tina Turner, because I know she has recorded lots of your songs. How did your relationship with her come about?
It started with a demo I had done in my studio here and a song that my wife and I had written called “Undercover Agent For The Blues.” It has me and my guitar, bass, and drums. I may have put a tiny bit of organ on the back. It was very simplistic. At that time Roger Davis was managing Tina and they were in LA. I heard that Mark Knopfler played it for her because him and I had been friends for a long time so I had sent him a copy of it. Then Roger called me and said that Tina wanted to record that song and that she wanted me to play guitar on it and wanted it to sound just like the old demo. Which was an old analog 16-track with hissing and everything. (Laughs) But is sounded cool. So I flew out there and met Roger and we went over and saw Tina and she was doing a commercial at Chevrolet, some car dealership thing, and we walked into her dressing room and she was getting her make-up on. Roger and I were standing there and she looked at me and started rolling and laughing. She was just dying laughing and couldn’t get her breath. I was standing there looking at the floor and just thought maybe my pants were unzipped or something, you know? It was weird. She just couldn’t quit. Finally she walked over to give me a big hug and said that she was sorry for laughing but that she thought ever since “Poke Salad Annie” that I was a black man. (Laughs). We hit it off from that minute like brothers and sisters. We flew to New York where they were going to record and did “Undercover Agent for the Blues” using just organ, bass, drums and me on the guitar. Tina was singing and doing it live. It was amazing to see her in the studio because she moves in the studio just like she does on the stage. She is dancing and moving and then all of a sudden in the middle of the song on the instrumental part she kicks the singing booth door open and struts out into the big room where me and the drums are, and grabs the microphone off the cymbals and finishes the song almost down on her knees like a show. I am thinking, I hope they have that tape rolling, man. So anyway, it came out perfect and she came over and told me that there was a song on that tape that she really liked called “Steamy Windows” and that she really wanted to cut it. So I was thinking that this must be a dream. Not only playing guitar for her but having Tina cut some of my songs. Then she cut “Steamy” that day and that night Roger called and said that she had heard two more songs on the tape that she liked and wanted to cut the next day, but that she wanted to fly to Paris to sing “Foreign Affair,” and they ended up naming the album that. I felt that would be a good one for her to start with. We flew to London and cut the tracks. She wanted to sing it in Paris. One take in the studio and it was over with. I think she did every one of those songs in one take. She did four of my songs and it made me float around, man. To me, Tina was right up there with Elvis and Lightnin.’
She is one of the best for sure. Just dynamite. I saw on your website a picture of you and some of the guys from the Jackson Highway studio in Muscle Shoals so I guess you recorded there some?
Yeah, two albums there. The Closer to the Truth album was recorded there.
Did you work with some of the Muscle Shoals musicians down there?
It was always Roger Hawkins on drums and David Hood on bass and Steve Nathan on B-3. Once that was all cranked up you were rolling.
Did you tour with Clapton and Joe Cocker at the same time or was that individual tours?
Separate. With Clapton I only did a few things with him. It wasn’t like my Cocker tour. Joe and I stayed out about 2 months. Clapton was as cool as he could be. He always had this portable pool table in his dressing room and everytime I would go in we would shoot some pool or snooker or whatever it was that he had going. He was always very cool to me. He’s holding one of my songs that he was thinking about recording. It was an old song called, “Taking the Midnight Train.” It was off an earlier album. Clapton and Joe and Creedence all had a good time on tour.
You were out with the original band with Fogerty?
Oh yeah, they had a lot of hits out and we had this so there was a lot going on. It was about 1973 or 1974, right in there, and they had lots of hits out and a couple of things going so we had some huge crowds.
Let’s play a form of word association. I want to name a few folks and get your brief thoughts on each of them. Starting with
She has a soulful voice. We did a short movie together in Santa Fe, New Mexico called Catch My Soul. That was when she was still with Delaney. I went down there to do the soundtrack and ended up playing a part in it. I just played myself and I was a preacher that played guitar. We stayed down there for about three months. The movie is pretty findable They later renamed it The Black Devil. It has Ritchie Havens in it and he plays Othello. It is a bunch of hippies living out in a desert commune and that type of thing.
He is a very soulful man. We did a benefit in Mississippi about four years ago and I was able to spend some time with him and he was trying to get things together and move along. I heard now that he has done that.
He and I are dear friends and lived together in Memphis for awhile. Him and Jessi came through there during Waylon’s rocking days. He was staying up 1-2 days at a time. He came pulling in there in an old Cadillac and he and Jessi were going to stay for awhile. He brought a Stratocaster in a tweed case to me as a gift. He is just so unbelievable. A friend of his had found it and it was in good condition. So I put it in a safe here at the studio and would take it out every now and then for a song. The other day out in Phoenix they had a Waylon Day and Shooter (his son) is playing music now and I told him that I had something I wanted to give him, but he had to come home to get it. I told him that ‘58 Sunburst that his Daddy had given me was for him. He is playing music and getting ready to play Waylon in that movie about Johnny Cash. He is a great musician who is fixing to have a great guitar. It is pretty amazing that it would come around like that again.
He is the man. I just listened to him last night. I have been digging him for years and we have done a couple of shows together. In fact he came to Nashville the year before last and he called me and said “hey, man, why don’t you come to this little theatre that holds about 200 people and jam with me.” Then he wanted me to bring a tiny amplifier... I asked him why? He said bring something tiny because he was playing real quiet on stage. I had this little, tiny Fender amp and it had one little ten in it. J.J. had this little Peavy that you could almost put in your back pocket. (Laughs) He is playing on that little thing and his drummer is playing on a snare turned bottom side up’ards with a brush and his girlfriend is playing an electric guitar but is not plugged up. They were just doing this groove stuff onstage and I joined them and played 3-4 songs and played really quiet. (Laughs)
He may be my favorite guitar player or at least in the top three. We have known each other for a long time- over there in London in the studio hanging out. It started years ago and he gave me a guitar, a beautiful acoustic guitar. He was doing a show with Chet Atkins and he came out to the house and of course we had to build a fire and get outside and crank a couple of acoustics up and have a few cold ones. Knopfler was out under the moon with a fire going and did the song “Brothers In Arms,” which is one of my favorites - it doesn’t get much better than that. Then we went downstairs into my studio and I had this old blonde 330 Gibson that I had used back in the Texas days. He started playing it and would not put it down and he just couldn’t quit playing it. So he got ready to leave the next day and I told him to take that Gibson and put it in the car with him. He said “No,” he didn’t think he could take it. I told him to go ahead and take it and it would be in good hands.
I went out by the campfire the next afternoon and just kind of sitting there by myself and there were guitar licks laying everywhere. (Laughs) Knopfler knows so many licks that they just fall out of his pockets. (Laughs)
Not only did I know him but I was in Australia with him a few months ago at a big outdoor festival. Jody, my son and I went to see him in the trailer in the back and he had this guy with him, a bodyguard and we sat there for about 25 minutes going over tunes that he had done of mine. He did an unreal version of “Rainy Night in Georgia.” I mean it’s up there with Brook Benton’s. He loves 3/4 time. It was kind of a country tune really, and I thought about Waylon when I wrote it and then Ray came out with it and won Country Music Video of the Year with it. Ray says that that song was his life and that I wrote his life right there. I look back on those early days in Texas when Ray came out on that album of all those country hits, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and all that. I will never forget how good that was. I’ve got to renew my CD’s because I have burned them up. I will never forget “Born To Lose” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” all those tunes. The country side was not any stranger to him at all.
Let’s talk about the new album... what inspired you to get together with all these great female singers?
It goes back to my son Jody. He has been working with me for about seven years and doing all the booking and managing. He has now gotten to where he really shines in the studio because he has heard the music all his life. He came up to me last year and asked about doing some duets. He wanted to know who I would want to do duets with, females. I named six off the top of my head. Everyone but Tina was available. I had most of the songs cut already as demos and the one Shelby and I had written was already down. It was
moving so smooth and easy and was just meant to be. We came up with the name The Heroines. Part two will be the Heroes. We can have Joe Cocker and Ray Charles, etc. All of those recordeings, by the way, again, are one takes. Like , Emmylou came in and it was just me and her in the studio and took my voice out in the spots that I wanted hers and it sounded so good. It was in an old antebellum house here and the sound was so great. She sung it 3-4 times and then we went back and used the first one. (laughs)
Was this the first time you recorded with your daughter?
No, I had played guitar on a couple of her albums. The first time on mine though. Then she came up a few months ago and did this unbelievable album here at the same studio in the old place, Jody was producing and I played the guitar, and we had a stand up bass and drums. For Michelle this will be like Tapestry was for Carole King. You know everyone has “the album” - anyway it is that good.We cut it all here except for mine. The Heroines we had to take the 16-track and flew to L.A. and get Lucinda. We went out there and it has all worked good.
The album is great and I am sure it will do well.
It’s on tonyjoewhite.com and it’s available there. It’s on Sanctuary. J.J.Cale is on there and I feel like they really care about the music.