Tony Joe White - his life

The first hit single

Tony Joe's first single was 'Ten More Miles To Louisiana' / 'Georgia Pines'. It was recorded in December 1966 and produced by Ray Stevens. The title song sounded like a mixture between the Beatles and Herman's Hermits - it was lightyears away from the famous swamp-rock sound of later years. It took almost two more years until the second single ('Watching The Trains Go By' and 'Old Man Willis') was recorded in October 1968, but it also failed. It is interesting to note that actually 'Polk Salad Annie' was the successor of 'Old Man Willis' - and not the other way round as one could guess from the popularity of 'Polk Salad Annie' and also from the order in which the two songs appear on long-play albums. Tony Joe White's third single ('I Protest' / 'A Man Can Only Stand Just So Much Pain') was recorded three months later in January 1968 and comes much closer to the famous swamp-rock sound - but it didn't do too well either.

After those first few singles went unnoticed, 'Soul Francisco' broke in - of all places - Paris, France. On August 1, 1968, Monument got a cable from overseas (from Disques Barclay in France) requesting a rush shipment of Tony Joe White records, bios and photos. A few days later the radio station Monte Carlo, Monaco played "Soul Francisco" and during the next 30 minutes received more than 100 phone calls from listeners wanting to hear it again. Fans in Belgium were soon clamoring for Tony Joe White appearances at their discotheques. Radio stations in Germany, Spain, Japan and the Philippines picked up the tune, too.

Tony Joe White received a request from one of the foremost disk jockies in France - Pierre Lattes - to call him - with the result that France-Inter (the national French radio network) aired a 30 minute live, Houston-to-Paris interview.

"I often wonder about that. Why did it start in Paris? Especially in those days - they didn't understand English at all. But I would watch these people talk and dance around when I was playing over there. They were just dancing their hearts out. I kew they couldn't understand what I was singing, but they felt what I was singing. I used to see guys and women dressed up like some of the characters in my songs, even in rural France and places way out in the woods. There's a lot of swampy people over there."

Meanwhile, Tony Joe had been promoting his "Polk Salad Annie" single in the clubs around Corpus Christi, where he lived at that time. The record, which had been out for nine months (since December of 1968), had been written of by Monument as a dud.

"They had done given up on it, but we kept getting all these people in Texas coming to the clubs and buying the record. So we would send up to Nashville saying, 'Send us a thousand more this week.' They would send us these 'Do Not Sell' examples, so we would have to sit down and mark out the 'Do Not Sell' and then send them to the record stores. All these stores in South Texas kept calling our house saying, 'We need more.' So we just kept hanging on. And finally a guy in L.A. picked it up and got it across. Otherwise, 'Polk' could have been lost forever."

The single entered the U.S. charts in July 1969, climbing into the pop top 10 by early fall. It topped on place eight and was the biggest hit Tony Joe White ever had.

Here are the exact top 10 placings of 'Polk Salad Annie':
August, 9th: place 9
August, 16th: place 8
August, 23rd: place 8
August, 30th: place 8

The next years

Critics named Tony Joe's music "swamp rock". White was not the only exponent of swamp music, but he's the one who took it to the world.

Swamp music comes from that part of country music which originated in the lowlands of the South, the area where black and white people used to work side by side in the fields. It is remarkably different from the mountain influences of country music, which retained something of the old English folk song approach.

And of course, lowlands country music was more into the blues than were the mountain musicians. Thus swamp music has found equal following among both white and colored people.

"Polk Salad" was followed by "Roosevelt And Ira Lee" and "Save Your Sugar For Me" - both minor hits of 1969-70. "Groupy Girl" entered the english top 20.

Tony Joe White toured with Steppenwolf, Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival and other big rock acts of the 70's. He played in France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and England.

Three records for Monument (1968-70) and three more for Warner Bros. (1971-73) are now all collectibles, for Tony Joe White has attained the status of a true cult figure.

In 1969 Tony Joe lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, with his wife Le Ann and two kids, but he dearly missed the swamp country.

"I got a brother back there and we go fishing together. Every now and then, I go back down there and get some soul food for song ideas. I thing you gotta have been raised in swamp country to really get in there and funk it up. It is very truthful and you can't fake it."

In 1973 Tony Joe White appeared in his first (and so far only) movie. The musical 'Catch My Soul' was directed by Patrick McGoohan and produced in the UK by Richard Rosenbloom and Jack Good. The cast included Richie Havens, Season Hubley, Susan Tyrrell, Bonnie Bramlett, Lance LeGault, Delaney Bramlett and Family Lotus.

Basically 'Catch My Soul' is a rock-opera adaption of Shakespeare's Othello, with Havens as sanctimonious preacher and LeGault as his Iago. Tony Joe White played and sung four and composed seven songs for this musical.

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