A “celebration of life” was scheduled to be held in Nashville this week for recording artist Tony Joe White, the country bluesman and hit songwriter behind such hits as “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
With a prolific recording and performing career spanning more than 50 years, White’s songs traversed many genres, including blues, rock, country, R&B, and Americana, which is an incredible testament to his versatility as well as to his roots.
White, 75, originally from Louisiana, had a hit in 1969 with “Polk Salad Annie” and his songs were covered by Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Ray Charles, and countless others. His newest album, Bad Mouthin’, was released in September.
In his five decades as a singersongwriter, White was best known for his swamp rock style mixing blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll, which earned him the nickname the Swamp Fox, especially with his fans overseas. With his deep growling voice, his song about the Southern greens wasn’t an immediate hit, but months after its release it eventually became a pop hit.
White told The Associated Press in 2006 that in the late ‘60s many people thought he was singing about something else.
“Back then, people thought polk salad was grass,” White said. “They’d bring me bags of grass backstage and say, ‘Hey, we brought you a little polk.’”
Presley often covered the song in the 1970s and performed it with relish, waving his arms over his head and dancing throughout the song. He would later record more of White’s songs, including “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby.”
Raised on a cotton farm in Goodwill, Louisiana, about 20 miles west of the Mississippi River, he became infatuated with the hypnotic sound of Lightnin’ Hopkins and has often cited hearing the song “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry as his inspiration for songwriting.
After the success of “Polk Salad Annie,” R&B artist Brook Benton had a hit in 1970 with White’s song “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which also became a song often covered by other artists.
Jennings and White also wrote “Trouble Man,” which Jennings recorded in 1989. White worked with Turner on her critically acclaimed and popular “Foreign Affair” album in 1989, contributing four songs and playing guitar and harmonica.
White said also in 2006 that Turner was taken aback when they first met.
“She turned around and looked at me and started hysterically laughing and couldn’t get her breath,” he recalled. “She was doubling over and I thought, ‘Are my pants unzipped or something?’ Finally she got her breath and came over to me and gave me a big hug and said, ‘I’m sorry, man. Ever since ‘Polk Salad Annie’ I always thought you were a black man.’”
Turner recorded his song “Steamy Windows,” which was later recorded by John Anderson and Kenny Chesney.
Tanya Tucker, who recorded his song “Gospel Singer,” said in a statement that White’s writing and voice were both raw and pure.
“A big part of the South is quiet now with his passing,” she said. “Reckon God wanted a little polk salad!”
Shooter Jennings, Waylon’s son, wrote on Twitter that his father would often record White’s songs or have White play on his records.
“He was always the Swamp King living in a modern world,” Jennings wrote. “His shows and his style were one of a kind and untouched by anybody else.”
Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Leann White; children, Jim Bob (Rhonda) White of Fox, Arkansas, Michelle White of Los Angeles, and Jody (Meg) White of Nashville.
A private family burial was held in Polk Salad Valley Ranch in Arkansas. Memorials may be made to Tony Joe White Songwriting Foundation, P.O. Box 1292, Franklin, TN, 37065.
The Celebration of Life Service for family and friends was to be held on October 31 in Nashville.
Compiled from Mountain Eagle and Associated Press reports.