Mention the name of Tony Joe White to most anyone here in the USA and you’ll probably get the one of the following reactions: “Huh?” “Who’s that?” or “Didn’t he get traded to St. Louis for a couple of draft picks?” Mention the name of Tony Joe White to the musical cognoscenti the rest of the world over and you will get rave reviews and nothing but praise for the man and his songs.
Born into a musical family in Oak Grove, Louisiana in 1943, Tony Joe White was the youngest of seven children. An older brother turned Tony on to the sounds of Lightnin’ Hopkins and the rest as they say is history. Turning away from his main love at the time, baseball, TJ picked up a guitar and instead immersed himself in the sounds of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’, and early rock ‘n’ roll. The early 1960′s found him honing his chops in an endless string of jukes and beer joints across Texas and Louisiana as Tony & the Mojo’s and later as Tony & the Twilights.
Local recognition elevated him to the proverbial “big fish in a small pond” status in and around the chittlin’ circuit scenes of the Deep South and Southwest but national recognition was elusive. After moving to Nashville in the 60′s, TJW got his big break and was signed to Monument Records. His first couple of singles stiffed and his most recent was not doing that great either. Then he got a call one from a French DJ that one of his songs “Soul Francisco” was getting substantial airplay in Paris, of all places!
The flood gates opened after that and Lady Luck lifted her skirt for Tony Joe. He broke wide open in Europe, the UK and the Phillipines. Meanwhile back in Corpus Christi, TX, Tony had a hot selling regional single that was about to run its due course when it was picked up on by some dee-jay from L.A who broke the single on the left coast.
That single was of course, “Polk Salad Annie,” Tonys signature tune. Numerous artists including Elvis (E was a big fan of Tony’s, covering three of his tunes), Ray Charles, Otis Rush, Brook Benton, Dusty Springfield and Tom Jones have done covers of his tunes. The swampy funk of TJW’s layed down a virtual blue (s)print for CCR’s “Bayou Country” LP. As “Polk Salad Annie” got busy on the charts for Tony, he hit the road. Tours with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf and Sly & The Family Stone brought him wider recognition here and abroad. TJW has been touring Europe, Australia and the rest of the so called civilized world going virtually non-stop for the last 30 years plus. He has always retained cult status here in the US, but where he might draw 300 in NYC, he’ll draw 4,000 + in Paris.
Tony Joe is very much the minimalist. He tours with just his guitar, affectionately known as “The Whomper Stomper” & his drummer ‘Boom Boom’ (Marc Cohen). His live shows range from merely genius to riot inducing. I’ve been lucky enough to see him twice, once in N’ Awlins at the 1st Ponderosa Stomp (see Eric Olsen’s entry on the P.Stomp for mo’ info) & last year as the opening act for Joe Cocker at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas. Way down yonder in N.O, he had even the most jaded of hipsters dancing & drinking like it was gonna be outlawed the next day. His set was peppered with classy R & B covers (Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back” & J.L. Hookers “Boom Boom” to name a couple I remember) and originals such as his beautiful ballad “Rainy Night In Georgia” and of course, an extended work out on “Polk Salad Annie.”
His inability to be pigeonholed to one genre of music has always been his largest detriment stateside. His music encompasses Soul, Blues, Country, Rock & Gospel. The music industry, having never figured out how to market him to any particular group of buyers, basically wrote him off after his brief burst of popularity in the late 60′s/early 70′s. He has perservered on his own though, by constantly touring overseas and releasing new music. Keep on rockin’ TJW. Chomp, chomp chomp.