Earlier this year Tony Joe White played a show in Auckland – he’s a regular visitor to our shores, I’ve seen him a bunch of times. I was offered an interview – and agreed – because I’d spoken to him one other time and really enjoyed it. I mean here’s a guy who wrote Rainy Night In Georgia (so many great versions – including of course the Brook Benton one). Here’s a guy who hung out with Elvis Presley…etc…
But that interview never happened. We were to be connected and the line went dead. No one there, no idea what happened. The plan was to have another go a week later or whatever, the publicist never came back. No worries, it happens. It’s always annoying, but it happens. I was looking forward to another chat particularly because his most recent album is very good. But I’ve dug up the interview from a decade ago or so…it’s 20 years since I first saw him play. But I’ve gone on to see him a handful of times. Anyway, if you’re interested here’s the time I did get to have a chat with TJW.
Tony Joe White, aka “The Swamp Fox”. I first saw him play in 1997 and was blown away by the performance. He sat on a stool with his drummer (“Boom Boom”) for back up and blasted through a series of hits, blending audience requests with improvisation. Someone asked him for a particular song, I can’t remember what it was but I can remember White saying, “oh, I haven’t played that in a long time. I’ll see if I can remember how it goes”. It never felt scripted when he spoke. It felt real. I believed that he honestly hadn’t played that song in years. That was confirmed when he started it and then stopped to change his harmonica, realising he was in the wrong key.
Speaking with Tony Joe White that authenticity, earnestness, sincerity shines through. He’s laidback, laconic in his delivery – but never lost for words as he works his way through explaining a unique career in popular music.
“All I can say is I’m very lucky man”, White tells me in his thick Louisiana drawl. “I mean I’ve been lucky to follow my own instincts, my own path and that’s because of the writing – which is what I love. I really dig playing too of course, but writing is what keeps me going, keeps me ticking…”
Tony Joe White’s “luck”, as he refers to it, is in crafting monumental songs like Polk Salad Annie, Steamy Windows (a gift to Tina Turner) and especially Rainy Night In Georgia.
Nowadays White records when he wants to – the pressure off, record labels are dealt with after, rather than beforehand and his live sets are based around whatever he feels like playing; not the latest album, leading off with the current chart hit. To confirm that Tony Joe White is living the musician’s dream when I am first connected with him on the telephone and I ask my standard introduction question of what time it is for him and he says, “well, it’s about 7.00 o’clock in the P.M. and I’ve, ah, been fishin’ and I, ah, had a few beers and now I’m just sitting outside my place, down by a wee swamp, just relaxin’ and thinkin’ ‘bout havin’ a coupla more drinks and maybe playin’ some geetar”. You think, at first, he’s sending his persona up – but he’s not.
This is the life. And it’s his life. And it’s real.
Rainy Night In Georgia has been covered by over 140 people – first of all it was a hit for Brook Benton. Polk Salad Annie was one of several songs covered by Elvis Presley (“he was a nice guy, a lotta fun”) and many of White’s songs have been covered by heroes of his as well as lesser known musical acts. He has no answer as to what makes his songs appealing but is sure, instantly, why and how he came to write them:
“I was tryin’ to write songs and they say you should jus write what ya know, so I figured ‘well, what do I know?’ and then I realised that I know about that ole Polk Salad plant and I know about rainy nights in Georgia and, ah, uh-huh, yeah, it’s really like that, I guess, ain’t nothin’ simpler than that. Those were some things I know ‘bout, so I wrote ‘em”.
The success of those songs – and others – has provided White with income and allowed him to make choices, to have variety. He continues, “I’d get bored if I had to play the same song the same way each night, but I’m eternally grateful that I don’t need to go out there and play the singles and push the albums, I get to play what I want”. That doesn’t mean you won’t hear the hits. “Oh I love to play those old songs still. I’ll play some new things that I’m working on, I’ll play old stuff, a song like Polk or Rainy Night? Sure thing. That never gets boring. Never. Because I get to play it in so many different ways, I get to re-imagine it every night that I play it, sometimes loud, sometimes soft, playing around with it each time…what more could you want?”
Tony Joe White continues to play shows backed by only a drummer – but for this tour he’ll have Jeff Hale (drums) and Tyson Rogers (keyboards). “I like a smaller sound, intimate, I’ve played with full bands, but I like it to be me and one or two other musicians – that’s all I need. That and the songs and the audience. For this tour you’ll enjoy the addition of Tyson he’s doing some neat things but it’s still real, ah, intimate, still really close and personal”.
I ask White if he’s kept up with the retro blues/rock movement that spawned bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys and if he figures they owe any debt to his sound.
“We was in Australia a while ago and ah The White Stripes were playing and the girl [Meg White] comes up to me after our show and was like ‘we do what you do, we play with just guitar and drums’ and I was like ‘oh, good, well I hope that works out okay for ya’ and”, he pauses to choke out a chuckle, “I get back home and find out they’re ah kinda a big deal already”.
In recent years White has become very happy with the ways things are:
“I still love playing – and will never stop. People say they will do it until they die and I am one of those people. But the writing is still really important to me, that’s something I have to do. It’ll start with a little guitar lick that’ll, ah, maybe swim around in my head for a few days, or weeks and ah…fishin’ is good. Going fishing is good for songwriting and I’ll think about this lick and then I’ll return home and play it a few times or maybe I’ll have a phrase to sing and I’ll sing it over and create more lyrics from there”.
In many ways the process has not changed since he penned Rainy Night.
And of all the covers of White’s songs he is still most pleased and proud of Brook Benton’s take on Rainy Night In Georgia. “That was the one man, to me, that was it. That and Elvis – Elvis did a few of my songs, but seeing Elvis do Polk Salad was definitely something. And of course Tina Turner too. You want to talk about heroes, it don’t get much better than writing a song and producing music for Tina Turner. Have you heard her?” He laughs heartily and then continues despite my lack of protest, “c’mon man, Tina Turner, she really is it. She’s one of the great singers of all time, she is rock’n’roll and blues and soul…so to have her singing so many of my songs and, ah, especially Steamy Windows, yeah, that’s pretty special. Still”.