Tony Joe White - his life

Childhood and youth

Tony Joe White was born on July 23, 1943. He was one of seven children raised on a cotton farm near the small town Oak Grove, Louisiana. Situated just west of the Mississippi River, it's a land of cotton fields, where polk salad grows wild and alligators lurk in moss- covered swamps.

"I spent the first 18 years of ma life down there, ma folks raised cotton and corn. There were lotsa times when there weren't too much to eat, and I ain't ashamed to admit that we've often whipped up a mess of polk salad. Tastes alright too ... a bit like spinach."

"I was the youngest. The music in the house was made by my dad and mom, my sisters and my brother - a lot of gospel, a little bit of country. They all played guitar and piano. Even though I was around music every day, I never did get into it. I just didn't care - I was into baseball."

That all changed when Tony Joe was 16. Charles, the oldest of the White children, brought home a Lightnin' Hopkins album and began demonstrating blues guitar to his baby brother.

"That completely turned me around. That's when I started playing and forgot completely about baseball."

As a child he listened not only to local bluesmen and country singers but also to the cajun music of Louisiana, that rare hybrid of traditional musical styles introduced by French settlers at the turn of the century. Doug Kershaw is probably the most popular cajun music singer.

Inspired by the examples of Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Elvis Presley, Tony Joe began performing at school dances. After graduation it was on to night clubs in Louisiana and Texas.

He formed his first band, 'Tony White & His Combo', while still in his teens. The three youngsters (Tony Joe White, 20, Robert McGuffey, 19 and Jim Griffith, 22) played a night club in Kingsville,Tx for an uninterrupted engagement of eight months (six nights a week) in 1964.

This photo was made by J.A Dodd in Kingsville Texas on March 20, 1963. On TJW's left is Jim Griffith and to his right is Robert McGuffey (many thanks to Nichole Taylor for these shots !).

'Tony White & His Combo' was followed by 'Tony Joe And The Mojos' and 'Tony's Twilights'.

From left to right: Maurice (BO) Scarbrough, Tony Joe White, Richard Whitenton.

Reportedly, 'Tony Joe And The Mojos' also recorded some songs on a local label (J-Beck). These were 'Bad Mouth/Someday', 'Sundown Blues/Down The Road I Go' and 'All Night Long/Sick And Tired'.

Tony Joe spent seven years wearily working the small night clubs of the South before deciding to drop his bands, and start singing solo using his own material.

The first recording contract

One morning in 1967 Tony Joe drove to Nashville to play his music to publisher Bob Beckham.

"Memphis was actually closer, but I came right on through it because my brother wanted to see me here, in Nashville. He thought this was a lot more popular place. So I got a room at Miss Bligh's boarding house over on West End - real soulful lady. She said, 'I get a lot of you kind of boys staying here.'

Then I went down to Lower Broadway and everybody there discouraged me. Went back to the room about 'bluesed-out' but when I walked in to see Backham the next day, he looked up at me and said, 'You come all the way up from Texas to play me your songs?' And I said, 'Yeah'. And he said, 'Well, I'll damn well hear 'em.'"

Backham remembers:
"It was around 9:30 in the morning and I'd been at a recording session and then drinking half the night before. My secretary came in and said, 'There's a guy out there who wants to play you some songs. I think you should listen.' I said, 'Oh shit. Okay. Send him in.'"

At first, Beckham barely lifted his eyelids to look at the latest contestant in the Nashville-music sweepstakes. But when he saw the lean hopeful's dark eyes, his own widened.

"I took one look at him and said, 'Son, if you can hum, you're a star.' He just had that look about him."

"I was playing a lot of blues back then," recalls Tony Joe White. "Beckham really got into it. It was a lucky thing, too - I was probably the only human being in Nashville that was playing anything like that, and he was probably the only human being in town who would listen to it."

The lean blues troubadour began to sing and in hours Beckham had him in a studio. Within weeks, Tony Joe White was signed to Monument Records with the then-unknown Billy Swan as his producer.

Tony Joe White - his life / Martin Doppelbauer / November 2000 /