Tony Joe White, the singer and composer of such swampy classics as “Polk Salad Annie,” “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” and “Old Man Willis,” is coming home to Louisiana for shows in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.
A native of West Carroll Parish, White grew up picking cotton and loving the music his fiddle and guitar-playing family performed on the porch every afternoon.
“There was always music,” White said from his home in Leipers Fork, Tennessee. “I really didn’t pick up on it in the early years. I just sat and listened to it.”
When White was about 15, his older brother brought home an album by Texas blues singer Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“I heard that, man, and it just turned me completely around,” he said. “I started sneaking my dad’s guitar up into my bedroom, learning blues licks.”
White was already hooked on blues when he first heard recordings by a young Memphis singer named Elvis Presley.
“Elvis was kind of bluesy,” White said. “The way he sung, he fit right in with the road I was heading down.”
After high school, White performed in nightclubs throughout Louisiana, Texas and Mississppi. He sang and played songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker and lots of Elvis tunes.
“I even had a Elvis hairdo, man,” he said. “Everybody did back in them days.”
At 19, White tired of singing other people’s songs. Hearing “Ode to Billie Joe,” a Southern-set story song by Chickasaw County, Mississippi, native Bobbie Gentry, was another turning point.
“I heard that song and I said, ‘How real can you get?’ I was Billie Joe. I led the back-in-the-woods life, cotton-picking stuff. So, anyway, I decided I would write about something I knew about, something that was real, inside of me.”
White wrote “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” two of his early hits.
“And then, after those two songs, there was character songs,” he said. “And they were swamp characters, a lot of them. ‘Old Man Willis,’ “Willie and Laura Mae Jones’ and ‘They Caught the Devil and Put Him in Jail in Eudora, Arkansas.’ I was just kind of writing an era.”
White was playing in a Corpus Christi club six nights a week for $10 a night when he drove to Nashville to try his luck in Music City.
“This wouldn’t happen in this day and time — but that first night in Nashville, I went to a club,” White said. “The bouncer at the club knew a guy who knew a guy who had a telephone number of a guy. I called that number the next morning.”
The number got White to Bob Beckham, former child star, a country singer who got a few hits and owner of Combine Records.
“He was probably the only man in the town who would listen to somebody who played and sang like me,” White said. “Bob was a funky guy. He liked to rock and hear bluesy stuff. We hit if off.”
White’s big commercial succcess began in France with “Soul Francisco,” a song from his debut album, “Black & White.” Shortly thereafter in the U.S., “Polk Sallad Annie” and Brook Benton’s recording of “Rainy Night in Georgia” became hits.
“All of a sudden, man, we was rolling right along.”