It's technically a matter of opinion, of course, but anyone who compares Elvis Presley's 1970 recording of Tony Joe White's 1969 swamp-soul hit "Polk Salad Annie," with all due respect, ought to concede that the King needs to give it up to the Swamp Fox. Elvis plowed through a word-for-word, beat-for-beat rendition of the song like he was reading from the script. White's deep, cloudy baritone imbued the song -- just an anecdote about a girl from back home -- with otherworldly groove. It's the voice that gets you -- low, dangerous and lazy, even on a hard-driving song like "Polk Salad Annie," and dark as the bayou on a moonless night. White's blues are hard-hitting and grind ahead like a locomotive. His acoustic ballads, as on the stellar and spare 2001 Beginings, are aching and hushed. But it's that humid bass that growls or whispers its way through every track -- even brilliantly absurd ones like the odd narrative called "Even Trolls Love Rock 'n' Roll" -- that puts the stamp on it, the etched-in-stone signature that few contemporary Americana artists have.
White appeared out of the Louisiana swamplands with "Polk Salad Annie," which shot into the Billboard Top Ten. He followed that up in 1970 with "Rainy Night In Georgia," the classic hit he penned for singer Brook Benton. Throughout most of the '80s and '90s, he toured with rootsy acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival --Êbuilding status as a cult audience and musicians' favorite, but not achieving breakout commercial success as a performer. As a writer, though, his efforts were consistently picked up and recorded by artists from Ray Charles, Joe Cocker and Etta James to John Mayall and Tim McGraw. He also dipped his hand into jingle-writing, contributing music to commercials for Levi's and oddly, McDonald's. After writing four songs for Tina Turner's multi-platinum album Foreign Affairs in the early '90s, his friendship with Turner's manager brought him to Europe, where the public -- especially the French -- embraced the Louisiana swamp rat as a legend and produced the award-winning documentary on White, Searching for Tony Joe.
Last year, White released Uncovered -- the raw, rough-hewn results of a series of late-night sessions at his studio south of Nashville. It co-starred an impressive cast of guest stars and old friends, and was the brainchild of his son, producer and manager Jody White. The effect is classic Tony Joe White, with some subtly menacing blues, as on the opening solo track "Run for Cover," which features a toned-down Memphis horn section, or, "Did Somebody Make A Fool Of You," with a cameo from Eric Clapton. Then there's gentler, sometimes romantic ruminations like "Not One Bad Thought," with vocals and guitar from Mark Knopfler, who lowers and roughens up his voice noticeably to match up with Tony Joe. J.J. Cale also cowrote and appeared on a track; so did blue-eyed soul singer Michael McDonald. And White revisits his hit "Rainy Night In Georgia" with masterful ease. But the real treat on the record is "Shakin' The Blues," a posthumously released duet with old friend Waylon Jennings, who wrote the track.
In 2005, White showed up for a guest spot on Jennings' son Shooter's sophomore album, the witty, Dixie-fried rocker Electric Rodeo. The song, "Alligator Chomp" was classic Tony Joe White -- ominous, chanting narration for a fable about battle and strife among the (nonhuman) inhabitants of the swamp, and sounding deadly serious.
Tony Joe White comes to New Orleans fresh off of a five-week tour of Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
- Tony Joe White's growling swamp pop has drawn a cult following but most people know his work from songs covered by other artists.