"Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the 20th century."

(Leonard Bernstein)


"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."

(George Klein)


"For a dead man, Elvis Presley is awfully noisy."

(Professor Gilbert B. Rodman)


"History has him as this good old country boy, Elvis is about as country as Bono!"

(Jerry Schilling)






Tony Joe White Interview

Tony Joe White writer of 'Polk Salad Annie' & swamp-musician talks in depth with EIN

Tony Joe White first hit the charts in 1969 with his Top Ten smash ‘Polk Salad Annie’. This introduced the world to his own style of Louisiana ‘swamp music’.

Three of Tony Joe’s classic songs were recorded by Elvis, while over a hundred artists have covered his unforgettable ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’. Tony Joe has just released a great new CD ‘The Heroines’ and still tours regularly. His brilliant performances sure are funky and feature songs populated with fascinating characters. While, at the same time, his guitar and ‘whomper stomper’ help lay down a fine swampy groove.

Tony Joe White regularly tours Australia so don’t miss out next time he comes to town.

EIN’s Piers Beagley met Tony Joe White for a chat over wine & cigarettes.

EIN - You are quite a regular visitor to Australia.

Tony Joe White– It’s been 2 years since my last visit but I think this is my seventh trip through the years. The first time, you know, was back in the Polk Salad Annie days but I come over here pretty well every year to play Byron Bay & places. It’s funny but Australian people are kinda’ like Louisiana folk you know!

EIN – We were over your way last year for the 25th Anniversary and met a lot of Elvis’ musicians that you also played with.

TJW – Yeah, in fact Norbert Putnam & David Briggs were with me on ‘Polk Salad Annie’ when we first cut it. They were, like, 'swampers' from Alabama who happened to be up in Nashville at the time doing a lot of Country music. When I came into town all of a sudden they all got a chance to swamp out a little bit!

EIN - You have played with a fantastic array of musicians over the years.

TJW - Oh Yeah. I’ve been especially lucky and played with a lot of musician heroes of mine

EIN – A lot of those were Memphis-based musicians, yet didn’t you live in Texas originally before coming to Memphis?

TJW – I lived in Corpus Christi (Texas) for 12 years. I left Louisiana when I was just out of high school and went on down to Corpus where I started writing. I was about 19 or twenty years old. That was where things started to move because until then, in the clubs, I was doing John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hawkins and Elvis tunes every night. They were my heroes but then, when I started writing, it all turned into the swamp feel.

EIN – I have an original 45 of yours ‘Groupie Girl’ from 1970 which was a big hit in England but I believe that you were even more successful in France initially.

TJW – I got so many requests for that song that I need to learn it again! But in France it was 'Soul Francisco’ that took off first, even before ‘Polk’. I was still playing in a club in Corpus Christi for 10 dollars a night, just me and my guitar & a wooden box as a drum. My manager comes in and says “Hey Tony Joe, you got some interviews in France to do as you’ve got yourself a top 5 record there”.

It seemed as far a way as Mars to me. It’s funny because there weren’t many English speaking records on the charts there in those days so it just had to be the feel of the record. They felt like the music was coming out of my heart & my soul and the French just seemed to connect. I remember playing huge theatres with 2,000 people and just me and my guitar and singing 'The High Sheriff' – They didn’t know what I’m sayin’ but they were all feelin’ it and just dancin’ & clapping. It was great.

EIN – There was a period where you seemed to concentrate on your song writing, so do you prefer the writing or performing?

TJW – Well the writing is always a thing that just comes along. A guitar lick sneaks up on me or something – I never know when it is going to come. After I’ve been out on the road for a while I just go back into the woods and build me a little campfire and get my guitar out and wait for the things to come or not come – who knows?

EIN - The list of people who have recorded your songs is amazing & you seem so prolific. It doesn’t seem that you can have ever had that writers block period that songwriters often do?

TJW – I’ve never thought about it. I’ve never considered that I was trying to write. It would be a terrible thing to be a briefcase writer where you had to write a song a day or whatever. It would freak me out. With me it just happens when it does.

EIN – What is the song that has been the biggest success for you, perhaps ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’?

TJW – ‘Rainy Night’ has been covered a lot and ‘Polk’ has been covered a bit but I think ‘Rainy Night’ has something over a hundred versions of it. But I could never forget Brook Benton’s version of it. I had just recorded ‘Rainy Night’ for my album in ‘69 but I really wasn’t into it, you know. A bit too slow & cool. Then when I heard Brook Benton’s version I went “Shit, I gotta’ learn that!” - It was so good.

EIN – How did the connection with Elvis & ‘Polk Salad’ come about?

TJW - Elvis’ producer Felton Jervis was a good friend of mine during the early days in Nashville. All of a sudden I released ‘Polk’ and it was a big hit single and then Felton called and invited my wife & me out to Las Vegas to see Elvis perform. He flew us out just to let us see Elvis do it live on stage! He did a good version of it, which of course he recorded for the live album. We hung out with Elvis for 2 or 3 days and just sat back in the dressing room and talked. We played a little guitar together – he really liked music. Elvis said, “Man, I feel like I wrote that song”. I said “You know, the way you do it on stage, it feels like you wrote it”. Elvis always treated me real good.

EIN – What did you think of his version of your ‘For Ol’ Times Sake’?

TJW – His version of that kills me. I especially like seeing him in that live movie with him on stage really cutting up on my songs.

EIN – Was that time in Las Vegas the only time you hung out with Elvis?

TJW - Oh no, I was down there in Memphis for those Stax sessions too.

EIN – When he recorded your songs ‘For Ol’ Times Sake’ & ‘I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby’ in July 1973?

TJW – I was living in Memphis at the time and it was about 4 o’clock in the morning when my phone rings. This German voice says “Mr. White, we are down at Stax records do you have any more songs? We need to do some songs.” I said “Well, who in the hell is this, why you calling me at this time?”

He explained that he was Freddy Bienstock, Elvis’ publisher. I asked if Felton was down there and he said he was. So I got up & ran into my studio and ran off a copy of ‘For Ol’ Times Sake' & ‘I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby’ and one other and went down the studio. I drove all the way to downtown Memphis and was met in this low, dark alleyway by two shady men in hats & coats.

They said in this thick German accent “Did you bring zee tapes?” and I was ushered into this little bitty room! It was so strange & freaky, man. A real seedy part of town and these guys in their 50s or 60s and they had a little reel-to-reel in this dark cubby hole. They sit me down on a chair & they played two bars of ‘For Ol’ Times Sake’ and ‘I Got A Thing’ and they played the third song.

They said “We like the first two. Now you can go!” I said, “Hey man, I’ve driven this far where’s Felton?” They said, “You don’t need Felton. We like these songs. You can go!” But at this point luckily Felton walked in and took me into the studio with me & him and Elvis, so it was cool then. But at that point I realised just how out of contact Elvis had got with the street, to be letting these two old men out there be picking his tunes and stuff.

EIN – Did you ever get sidelined by them wanting a percentage of your publishing like they did with other songwriters?

TJW – No, they were cool then. They only asked for a little bit of the publishing of ‘For Ol’ Times Sake’ but the rest of them they were fine with. Elvis’ management seemed to want to keep a barrier between him and the writers and not only that but life in general. It seemed such a waste to have such a great voice like Elvis’ but then keep him away real life and surrounded by all those. . . . (sycophants)

EIN – Did you see him again after those Stax sessions in 1973?

TJW – Yeah, I did see him again later in 1976 when he’d done got bad, you know, ‘that way’. We said “Hi” but by then it was pretty awful and pretty weird. Sad. I wished he’d stayed around longer because, you know, he had such a great voice.

EIN – It has been a pleasure to meet you and we could talk for ages.

TJW – You boys take care of yourself, it’s been cool.

- Copyright Elvis Information Network 2003.

Click to comment on this interview

For more info about Tony Joe White and a chance to buy his new CD please go to www.tonyjoewhite.com

Tony Joe White was interviewed in Sydney 2003 by the dynamic duo, Piers Beagley & Ed Gibbs

Click here for EIN's interview with James Burton

Click here for EIN's interview with Sweet Inspiration Myrna Smith.

Click here for EIN's interview with Memphis Horns Wayne Jackson


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