Tony Joe White Interview
Tony Joe White writer of 'Polk Salad Annie' & swamp-musician talks in depth with EIN
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’.
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.
Piers Beagley met Tony Joe White for a chat over wine & cigarettes.
- 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
- You have played with a fantastic array of musicians over
- 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”.
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?
- 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
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
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
- 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
TJW – His version of that kills me. I especially like seeing him
in that live movie with him on stage really cutting up on
EIN – Was that time in Las Vegas the only time you hung out with
- Oh no, I was down there in Memphis for those Stax sessions
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?”
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.
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.
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
TJW – You boys take care of yourself, it’s been cool.
- Copyright Elvis Information Network 2003.
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more info about Tony Joe White and a chance to buy his new
CD please go to www.tonyjoewhite.com
Joe White was interviewed in Sydney 2003 by the dynamic duo,
Piers Beagley & Ed Gibbs
Click here for EIN's interview with James Burton
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Click here for EIN's interview with Memphis Horns Wayne Jackson