Archive for March 1st, 2007

The Sound of Tony Joe White

March 1, 2007


Tony Joe White


Listen – Soul Francisco MP3″

Listen – Don’t Steal My Love MP3″

Listen – Who’s Making Love MP3″

Listen – Whompt Out On You MP3″

Listen – Wichita Lineman MP3″

Greetings all.

I come to you this mid-week, drained, mentally and physically, finding it difficult to decide whether or not I should sit down and write, or instead take to my bed for a few extra hours slumber (guess which one I picked…).
I’m just in one of those “oh shit I can’t seem to get a handle on time” places where no matter how fast I work, or how little I drag my feet I don’t seem to be able to buy back more than a few minutes, and those seem to get quickly absorbed into the greater flow.
This has a lot to do with the fact that my wife and I have two small children, and if you know anything about that, you know that they (the kids) require a significant investment of time, and that’s only to get the little things done, i.e. sleep, food, clothing, potty (see…I’m 44 and I’m back to saying potty) and stuff like that.
Once that’s out of the way, and you’ve deposited another 9 or so hours in the shitter (having gone to work that day) any sane person, despite the often overpowering urge to close your eyes and nod off, invests what little time remains into spending quality time (a dreadfully overused – yet apt – phrase) with their spouse and children. This requires that you forget about all of the “utility” time you’ve already invested, take a few deep, cleansing breaths and realize how valuable a thing it is to have your family around you. This isn’t always easy to do (depending on the extent to which your nerves are already shredded) but it is absolutely essential. Without it, nothing else you attempt to do will bring you much enjoyment, unless you’re some kind of unfeeling prick who’s immune to feelings of regret.
So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do tonight (not always successfully), and here I am, praying for the kind of intellectual second wind that often arrives when the fog of fatigue begins to set in.
It helps some in this case that I’ve been mulling over this post for a few weeks now, rolling a couple of facts and some loosely sketched ideas around in my brain hoping that when I finally rolled the dice they’d come up with something coherent and interesting.
That said, I come to you from faraway lands bringing news of Tony Joe White.
Depending on how deep you’ve dug, or how old you are (and the ears with which you may or may not have listened to the radio), you may or may not already know who Tony Joe White was/is. You don’t have to have spent too much time with the oldies station on before the funky sounds of ‘Polk Salad Annie’ roll over your lobes and into your brain. It was a top ten hit in 1969, and was subsequently covered by Elvis. As far as the charts go, that was pretty much the end of Tony Joe White’s direct contributions to same (note the use of the word direct, which will be clarified before long).
That tune, as potent a distillation of “swamp” as has ever oozed out of a million of tiny transistor radio speakers was/is one of those records that could be classified as soul, and probably is by anyone who cares who isn’t also an obsessed collector of same who lies awake at night, sweating up their pillows troubled by the fact that the ironically named Mr. White was by all appearances, how do you say, Caucasian (though in fact was only partially so, but his non-caucasian-osity was Native American, which unless you’ve played in Redbone (and sometimes not even then) rarely qualifies one for certifiable soulfulness, at least in the musical sense).
‘Polk Salad Annie’ was delivered in such a way that the casual listener might have assumed that he was not in fact white, with the less casual, more focused observer digging that although TJW may have been a peckerwood, he was a deeply soulful one who had clearly grokked the Southern rural experience in that grey – no pun intended – area where the differences between the races were much smaller than the similarities and like the orphan puppy that is raised by sympathetic cats, is no longer truly aware of his origins.
I’m not sure if I ever really thought that White was black, because even back when I first heard his music (which for years was restricted solely to ‘Polk Salad Annie’) I was pretty sure that what I was hearing was a white southerner in love with black sounds (much like Charlie Rich, Dan Penn, Jerry Lee Lewis et al).
Years later, when I gave the rest of his catalogue a listen, I was taken aback, nay flabbergasted (zounds!) when I realized that the greasy, down home, fatback groove of that first big single was probably the slickest thing he ever created. Compared to much of his early oeuvre, ‘Polk Salad Annie’ sounded like the polished work of a roomful of jaded hitmakers who’d been hanging around the top 40 way too long.
TJW’s first album, ‘Black and White’ (telling title that…) was something of a marvel. A concept album – in the loosest sense of the term – it contained a side of TJW originals, and a side of covers.
Take a tune like ‘Soul Francisco’ – which for some strange reason was a big, BIG hit in France* – which sounds like Jethro Bodine got his hands on a raw mixture of viagra and LSD and commandeered a multi-racial rock band at gunpoint. While they vamped as tightly (and as Muscle Shoals funky/greasy) as possible, he jumped up and down around the microphone, screeching, sporting a huge hard-on, rolling his eyes, spilling moonshine on the floor and firing bullets into the ceiling (“I SAID MORE WAH WAH, DANG IT?!?!?”). It’s that wild. Despite the fact that it was probably just another sweaty recording session, the juxtaposition of instrumental looseness and vocal menace carries with it a not so subtle sense of danger. **
If you take a record like ‘Green River’ by CCR, long hailed (and justly so) as the ne plus ultra of swamp rock, and stand it up next to a tune like ‘Don’t Steal My Love’ it sounds like a sham; a rock band from Northern California playing at swamp-Minstrelsy. Tony Joe White (a Texan via Louisiana) sounds as if he crawled up out of the bayou, alligators snapping at his leather pants, an armadillo in each pocked and (apologies to Bo Diddley) a water moccasin for a necktie.
His voice is a marvel; a thick, velvety blanket of wood smoke, delta mud and sex teetering on the border between baritone and bass, and while he’s not always 100% in control of his instrument, when he gets a handle on it, look out.
Though many of the tunes on ‘Black and White’ work this shambolic vibe to varying degrees, a careful listen (as well as exposure to his next few LPs) reveals that White was not some kind of idiot savant with a guitar, but rather a unique and unusual talent who’s wildest recordings were more the result of an extremely loose approach in the studio (not at all out of place in the era that also brought you Blue Cheer and the Stooges). Take a look at the rest of the Monument roster, which included Boots Randolph and Charles Aznavour (and once upon a time Roy Orbison) and you have to wonder what the suits there made of Tony Joe White (at least until the money started rolling in).
When you move on from ‘Soul Francisco’, ‘Don’t Steal My Love’ and ‘Whompt Out On You’ to his funky covers of Johnny Taylor’s ‘Who’s Making Love’ and Slim Harpo’s ‘Scratch My Back’ – which are by degrees more cohesive/coherent – and even further to his positively subtle take on Jimmy Webb’s ‘Wichita Lineman’ it becomes clear that there was a more refined yin working in concert with his raging, bayou yang, and it was only a matter of which of the two sides would win in the stylistic tug of war. White was yet another example of an artist who crossed genres at will in an era when that wasn’t such a big deal.
An even finer point is put on this when you pick up his second Monument LP, ‘…Continued’ and you realize that Tony Joe White is the cat who wrote and recorded the original version of the sublime ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ (a big hit for Brook Benton, and later, oddly enough Hank Williams Jr.). Dusty Springfield had a hit with White’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones.”, and Elvis recorded “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” and “For Ole Times Sake”.
Following his years with Monument – 3 LPs running roughly from 1968 to 1971 – he moved to Warner Brothers for another couple of years/albums before spending the next 30 years bouncing from label to label, with his country side coming to the fore. He still performs and records today, and I just got an e-mail last week that Rhino Handmade is releasing a boxed set of his Monument recordings that includes a disc of live performances, and outtakes. If that’s too rich for your blood (or wallet) much of his work is in print, as well as a couple of greatest hits packages.

*Where he’s still a big star today

**Though I’ve seen a clip of him performing ‘Polk Salad Annie’ on the Johnny Cash Show in ’69 or ’70 and he’s as laid back/sedate as can be.