A unique era of American music has ended, and one of the most influential arbiters of Southern sounds has gone to sit beside the great bayou in the sky. Tony Joe White, known for such well-recognized songs as “Polk Salad Annie,” “Rainy Night in Georgia,” as well as the songwriter on many other important hits, and being widely-influential among his musician peers, has passed away. He died suddenly of a heart attack Wednesday afternoon (10-24), despite showing no signs of illness leading up to his death. He was 75-years-old.
One of seven children growing up on a cotton farm in Oak Grove, Louisiana, Tony Joe White began performing locally and regionally during high school, and signed to Monument Records in Hendersonville, Tennessee in 1967. That is where he would take his strong influences from back home in Louisiana, and pioneer a sound that came to be known as swamp rock. Tony Joe would also become wildly influential and respected in the blues and country music, specifically the country funk sound that would become seminal to the 70’s country sound.
The influence of Tony Joe White’s work can be heard in the songs and sound of many artists of the era, directly and indirectly. He wrote songs covered by Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Tina Turner, and others. The name “Tony Joe White” became synonymous with a vibe that everyone tried to emulate, but few could duplicate. He was a denizen of cool, and a master collaborator of multiple strains of roots music. This led to White’s services as a producer becoming in high demand over his career as well.
Possibly White’s most coveted work was his 1969 debut album Black and White produced by Billy Swan in Nashville. Along with including his Tony Joe’s version of “Polk Salad Annie,” which later become a live staple for Elvis, it put White on the popular music map, and allowed him to tour with such diverse acts as Credence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, and Steppenwolf.
Though he never enjoyed much chart success himself (“Polk Salad Annie” was his only ‘hit’, going #8 on the charts), Tony Joe White was incredibly prolific, releasing sixteen studio albums, four live albums, and a total of 29 singles. White had just released his latest record on Yep Roc called Bad Mouthin’ on September 28. The occasion also saw him make his debut on the Grand Ole Opry on the same night.
Tony Joe White passed away at his home in Lieper’s Fork, Tennessee, near Nashville. “He wasn’t ill at all,” says his son, Jody White. “He just had a heart attack…there was no pain or suffering.”
Tony Joe White is survived by his wife Leann, children Michelle, Jim Bob and Jody, and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.