Interview with Musician Tony Joe White

April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

The "Swamp Fox" at his finest.

Tony Joe White may be the coolest man alive.

The “Swamp Fox” hails from Oak Grove, Louisiana and is most well known for songs he wrote that would later become hits for other artists, among them, “Polk Salad Annie,” which was a chart-topper for Elvis. White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” went to #4 on the pop singles chart for Brook Benton in 1970, and was later recorded by Ray Charles, among many others.

The originator of a style of music know as “Swamp Rock”, White created a  combination of Cajun music, blues and traditional rock ’n’ roll. Though the sound it is most often associated with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tony Joe White lays claim to the genre’s roots and is always quick to point out, when asked about CCR,  “there weren’t no alligators in Berkeley anyway.”

This is music keenly defined by Tony Joe’s deep crooner’s voice and his funk-meets-country style of guitar picking. Outside of Hendrix, White has one of the most unique wha-wha pedals in rock.

“We were playing in Corpus Christi, Texas,” he remembers, “and my drummer’s father at the time owned a music store and he came down to the show and said that the way I was tapping my foot – I might as well put this pedal under it.”

“They called it a ‘Gibson Boomerang’. So we hooked it up and started playing on it and people got up and started doing this weird dance and I thought ‘damn, this things gotta stay with us.’ I’m still using the same one today. I call it a Whomper Stomper. I just keep re-building the thing when it breaks.”

By the 1980s, White was even dabbling in rap music. The tracks on his 1980 album “The Real Thang,”  might prove him to be the first Southern rapper. To hear him explain it – it seems like just another part of the feel of his sound.

“We even had a little rap back on “Polk Salad Annie” ya know, so it wasn’t nothin’ new to me. Somebody just suggested we give it a try and we did. And I got two or three new tunes like that with a little talking in it. I’ll always have that.”

Of course, being cool always starts with modesty, but you get the sense from talking with the man that he knows you expect a certain something extra from him.  When asked about the fishing near his home outside of Memphis, Tennesee, Tony Joe explains, “Man, it’s too hot right now. Ya know, fish are like me—they’re just waitin’ for something cool to come along.”

And when he’s pressed about the secret to being so cool White just laughs and says, “Well, there ain’t nothing wrong with being cool. But honestly I wouldn’t really know how to be cool. I know how to be quiet, but I think they say that about me ’cause the music’s got this slide to it. I’m always just gliding along. Maybe that’s part of it.”

Whatever it is, there is something wholly unique and original about the music of Tony Joe.

Here’s a list of where to start:

Swamp Music – the Complete Monument Recordings – Rhino Records has done most of the work for you, compiling all three of White’s earliest records with loads of extras and outtakes that have never been heard before. On his first album “Black and White,” White’s voice is as deep and murky as the swamp he was raised on and “Polk Salad Annie” is a classic in every sense of the word. White’s second and third records “Continued” and “Tony Joe” are included in the box as well and feature standout tracks like “Roosevelt and Ira Lee,” a song about two cats looking for food on the edge of a swamp, and “Groupy Girl,” about a groupie who can’t spell.

Tony Joe White – White’s S/T fourth album found Tony Joe on the brink of success. Having had a hit with “Polk Salad Annie” and with “Rainy Night in Georgia” climbing the charts, White and his new label, Warner Brothers, had plans to capitalize on White’s talent and originality. Although the album did not produce any hits, the combination of producer Peter Asher, The Memphis Horns and White’s soulful voice created an album that might be his most solid overall. It was reissued for the first time in 2002, but like everything else it sounds best on vinyl and ain’t too hard to find.

The Real Thang – Man, the ’80s were weird. The same Tony Joe who wrote songs about cutting your hair out of respect in the ’60s was now trying his hand at rap. As bizarre as the track “Swamp Rap” is, the real gem here is a song called “Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll.” The story goes that Tony Joe and his band are on the way to a nearby gig and decide to walk. Unfortunately they come across a troll who forces White into a guitar duel in order to cross the bridge. Think “Devil Went Down to Georgia” but replace the devil with a troll.  For the Tony Joe White fanatic only.


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