The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world

The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world

Interview: Tony Joe White

 

By Shane Pinnegar


 

It’s not every day you get to talk to a legend, and every time I do, I am mindful of the old adage that meeting your heroes will invariably lead to disappointment. On this occasion the only disappointment to be had was with a phone line that wasn’t working properly and a phone card out of credit – once we leapt those minor hurdles, and that unmistakeable, deep voice boomed a “Hello” down the line from Tennessee where this Louisiana native now lives, everything was sweet.


Tony Joe White is "The Swamp Fox". The man who wrote ‘Polk Salad Annie’, ‘Even Trolls Love Rock n Roll’, ‘Rainy Night in Georgie’ and ‘Roosevelt & Ira Lee’. Elvis even covered a few of his tunes! This is the man who walked into publisher Bob Beckham's office in the 1967 with his guitar, prompting the guy behind the big desk to say “Son, if you can HUM in tune, you're a star”! Tony Joe White is a legend, and as you shall discover reading this interview, he is also a lovely, gracious guy.

 

 

SP: This is Shane from The RockPit in Perth, Western Australia - how are you?

 

Tony Joe White: Oh man, you live in Perth?

 

SP: Yup.

 

Tony Joe White: How you doing man?

 

SP: We’re doing really good, we’re really looking forward to your tour.

 

Tony Joe White: Yeah, I’m looking forward to getting down there again, it’s been a while since I have been over there.

 

SP: You keep coming back though, there must be some appeal there?

 

Tony Joe White: Well there’s lots of appeal there because I love Australia and the people, it’s like going home to Louisiana or down south and playing. It’s like, the people, they dig it, they let you know and you know they make you feel good that you’ve come to tour.

 

SP: Excellent, well we’re really looking forward to it. I’ve never managed to catch you live before now so it’s gonna be a highlight for me.

 

Tony Joe White: It’ll be good man, just me and my drummer, it’s… we just get out, it’s almost like back porch, and listening to somebody play on your back porch it’s, you know, not a big show, not a bunch of people on stage and we just play, and it’s just soulful.

 

SP: Yeah I read that you don’t have a set list, you just basically feed off the audience.

 

Tony Joe White: Yup, I do. I don’t have a set list and usually the audience, they have their own set list when they come to see me.

 

SP: (laughs) So, there must be some songs that you’re expected to play every night, you know, ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ and ‘Polk Salad Annie’ and such?

 

Tony Joe White: Yeah, you would have to do, HAVE to do those two for sure and probably go back to ‘Roosevelt And Ira Lee’ and things like that but I’ll play some off of the new album, some of the new tunes off of that, but other than that we just kinda move along and do what we want to do, it’s so good because the people always kind of move me along through the night. Should be moving.

 

SP: Well that’s testament to the quality of your music Tony Joe.

 

 

Tony Joe White: Well, you know what I think it is man, it’s like, the realness of the whole thing. It’s like, it really stuns people when you come out and it’s just you, and I come out on stage just by myself and maybe play two songs, get some requests or whatever, and then just drums and then crank the guitar up a little bit and here we go. I think the people like the idea of someone that can just kick it in and be real with the music.

 

SP: Absolutely, you know, pop music nowadays is just so artificial. To hear someone play real soulful music…

 

Tony Joe White: I’ve been really lucky all my life, I can play just me and my guitar and my foot, or on stage or on a Coca Cola Box and stuff and that’s where I started out and it’s not much more than I’ve got now except I do have a good drummer to come with me.

 

SP: You have lived quite an extraordinary life, and you’re coming up to fifty years in the business, so in 2011 – how’s life treating you?

 

Tony Joe White: It’s really good on account of, I’ve just finished touring Europe, I’ve been over there for about five and a half weeks, been home for about eight days and it was one of those beautiful tours: everything sold out everywhere in all the countries and it was just so great man to see people still caring about these songs and caring about my guitar and seeing what’s happening to me and you know, I’d say it’s all really, really good.

 

SP: That’s a lovely way to be. Reviews of your latest album - which incidentally is fantastic - but the reviews have all been unanimously glowing rave reviews, it kind of puts paid to any suggestions that sixty seven is retirement age doesn’t it?

 

Tony Joe White: Yeah, it’s kind of like this album has a real spot of magic to it, you know, it’s like, I just wrote some of the songs, you know, within the last year, year and a half and then my wife wrote a couple, and we just went into Moe’s Studio here and had bass, drums and I would just play a little piece of each song and tell Jodie or whoever is running the control board, I says “Hit record and lets see what comes out of this”. Everybody had to play what they felt about the song from their heart within by listening to twenty seconds of the song, you know.

 

SP: Wow, and I read most of it was first takes as well?

 

Tony Joe White: I know, for some people it would probably spook ‘em out, but I have two good players who know how to play with me on stage and how to do stuff, it was just set and record and it was really good.

 

SP: Fantastic. So the album really puts the spotlight on your voice, I mean the arrangements are very sparse in some respects and that sort of that ties in with the lyrical themes which are quite nostalgic and wistful. How do you feel your voice has matured over the last almost fifty years singing professionally?

 

Tony Joe White: Well, I think, believe it or not, my voice has dropped down probably another half octave or more and so, to me, it sounds like when I’m talking to you right now. When I sing on this album it’s like, you know, nothing added to it, and nothing whacked around, it was just like what came out of us. I was actually almost when, when we recorded this album, in my studio here, I was almost like a bystander, just sitting in my chair with my guitar and the drummer in the next room and I could see everybody but the bass player and they was just kind of watching where I was going, listening to it, putting their own hearts into it, it was like, man, you can’t ask for no more than that.

 

SP: It seems to me a very sixties way of recording, that you’ve got faith in the music and faith in the people you’re working with?

 

Tony Joe White: It was, it was like everybody went with the idea of ‘less is best’, and no big hard snares, no big rolls, just grooves - you know, lets just keep powering on, and after we did the first two, we stayed pretty well with that the whole way through it.

 

 

SP: Well it’s a beautiful album, congratulations it’s fantastic.

 

Tony Joe White: Thankyou sir.

 

SP: Your fan base, it just seems to have such a huge cross section, there’s blues people, rock people, hard rock people, country people, everyone just raves about Tony Joe White. That reminds me a little of Johnny Cash, you know, he wasn’t just a country artist, he was admired right across the spectrum of music, so what do you listen to at home that fuels your musical knowledge for want of a better word?

 

Tony Joe White: Well you know what, I’m just listening to relax and sit back and have a cold beer and listen, I’ll go all the way from Lightning Hopkins to John Lee Hooker to Sade to The Gypsy Kings to… oh man I’ve got so many hero’s you know, Knopfler, Clapton, all them boys, I love ‘em…

 

Tony Joe White: Listening to their stuff, cause we was all kind of bought up in the same guitar region and when I listen, I just listen to something that kicks me back, and makes me just kind of let go for a few minutes.

 

SP: Talking about diversity, a lot of your songs have been interpreted by other artists - do you have a favourite cover version of one of your tunes?

 

Tony Joe White: You know I would still have to go back to Brooke Benton on ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’, him and Randy Crawford, it’d be hard to pick them all, you know, just to say, but I would have to go back to Brooke though, because he was the first one who I ever heard recorded one of my songs. First time I heard that I went ‘God’ and he sent it to me and I said ‘Man, so that’s how it should go?’.

 

SP: (laughs) And how did you feel, way, way, way back in 1970 when Elvis recorded ‘Polk Salad Annie’?

 

Tony Joe White: Well it was real cool because in the early days, like in late 60’s, ’69, ’68, somewhere around there, you know in the clubs in Louisiana and Texas I was doing a lot of Elvis tunes on stage, even, you know, had my hair combed like Elvis, stuff like that and I was doing a lot of John Lee Hooker, Lighning Hopkins, Muddy Waters that kind of thing, so great man, all of a sudden to see there’s no boundaries on music, you know, and here’s Elvis doing my tune.

 

Tony Joe White: Oh yeah, so he flew us out to Las Vegas that week, they recorded it live and we hung out in the dressing room each night after the show and got to watch the whole thing so it was a beautiful happening for me because he was a real big hero.

 

SP: Oh - you got to meet him and everything, that’s fantastic!

 

Tony Joe White: Oh yeah, yeah we hung out a few times in Las Vegas and then in Memphis a year or two later, he did a couple more of my songs and he always treated me really good and always really loved guitar you know. He loved to get back in the dressing room and he’d always have an acoustic guitar back there and he would say “Show me a couple of blues licks” you know, and I’d show him one or two licks and we’d sit and play guitar on the bed, but he always treated me really cool.

 

SP: But it’s so nice to hear you talk about that and talk about the man and talk about the music, you know, I’ve interviewed people in the past when you’ve talked about something like that and they’ve gone “Oh yeah, such and such did this and it made a lot of money”

 

Tony Joe White: Well, that particular thing was, as far as money, like, it was good I guess, you know, you look at all of it, but the main thing was, he done one of your tunes, you know – [in fact] he done three of my tunes. But to think all the nights I sung his songs on stage, and then all of a sudden it turns round like that, it shows you how far music can reach around every which way, you know, there’s no boundaries.

 

 

SP: Absolutely, and you know, just the thought of sitting in a dressing room trading blues licks with The King - magic.

 

Tony Joe White: Yeah, he was cool… he couldn’t play very good guitar - but he didn’t have to!

 

SP: (laughs) If you could have been involved in the creation of any piece of music throughout time, what would it have been?

 

Tony Joe White: God, that’s a hard question right there. I would, it would be hard to say because I’ve been with people, Tina Turner [Turner made one of Tony Joe's songs, 'Steamy Windows' into a big hit], and playing in the studio with them and stuff, it’s like Elvis playing, people like that, but if I just had to say a song, I would think that I would’ve loved to have been in the studio when Procol Harum did ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’.

 

SP: Nice, very cool. And finally, we ask everyone we interview one last question and what for you, Tony Joe is the meaning of life?

 

Tony Joe White: I think the meaning of life is like, the title of the new album ‘The Shine’ is, the picture on the front of that album is, the photographer who just, you know, was a friend who came in the little antiques shop one afternoon and in the store I was just kind of doing a little sit in, you know, and just met a drummer and he took that shot and he caught me doing what I ought to be doing, so, so I would think that if, if you could do ‘The Shine’, if you could get caught doing what you ought to be doing, then that might be it.

 

 

SP: Nice one. Thank you so much for your time Tony Joe, it’s been a pleasure and we’re just absolutely looking forward to seeing you live.

 

Tony Joe White: Alright man, I’m looking forward to getting down under

 

SP: Well, I’m taking my fiancé, it’s a week before our wedding so that’s going to be a little pre wedding treat for us.

 

Tony Joe White: Oh, cool man. Very good.

 

SP: So if you’re taking requests from the audience we’ll be yelling out for ‘Even Trolls’.

 

Tony Joe White: You got it.

 

SP: Thank you so much for your time, have a great day.

 

Tony Joe White: Awesome.

 

Thanks to Rachel Haniford for transcribing this interview (in record time!)

 

You can read my review of Tony Joe’s recent album “THE SHINE” HERE