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Michael Jefferson
8.23.08, 2:34 PM
“Polk Salad Annie, the gators got your granny…chomp…chomp…chomp…Everybody said it was a shame, ‘cause her mama was workin’ on a chain gang… A wretched, spiteful, straight razor totin’ woman...”
(From “Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White -- 1968)

http://www.Coffeerooms.com/onmusic/One%20Hot%20July.jpgTony Joe White is best be known as a bayou-based songwriter who’s penned hits for other artists, including Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, Beth Orton, and Christine McVie. Unlike his counterpart John Fogerty, who wrote about the bayou without having been there, Tony Joe grew up in the backwoods town of Oak Grove, Louisiana. His songs, populated by gators, witches, preachers, share croppers, hussies, and flim-flam men, resound with down home authenticity. I’m not talking about music made by cross-eyed banjo pickin’ inbreds sharing the same set of teeth. Oh no, Tony Joe’s music is everything that’s good about the South. Its Saturday afternoon baseball games, pullin’ catfish out of the fishin’ hole, and sumptuous pot luck dinners with the family.

Tony Joe was the seventh child of a family of seven children, the equivalent of being the seventh son of a seventh son (meaning he’s lucky despite being born into abject poverty). A baseball jock in high school, Tony Joe caught the music bug from his brother, Charles, who introduced him to the music of John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins and other delta bluesmen. White formed a series of groups, including “Tony Joe and the Mojo Men,” touring the Deep South while developing his catchy, rhythmic guitar playing. Stomping on his wah-wah pedal and hanging onto his bass notes, White developed what he called his “whomper stomper” effect.

Credit Bobbie Gentry, the raven haired Chickasaw County vixen who penned and performed the classic potboiler “Ode to Billie Joe,” with inspiring White to become a composer. When he heard “Ode to Billie Joe,” the southern soap opera struck a chord with White, who said to himself, “I know guys like Billie Joe. I can write a song like that.”

One of White’s early compositions, “Soul Francisco,” became immensely popular in the unlikely locale of Paris, France where Tony Joe became a cult hero and was dubbed “The Swamp Fox,” due to his swarthy looks. “Soul Francisco” also caught on in Monte Carlo, Germany, Japan, and Belgium, turning White into an international star before he became a celebrity at home.

His first single, released in December 1966, was “Ten More Miles to Louisiana” b/w “Georgia Pines.” The 45 was produced by Ray Stevens, who was about to become a country/pop Top 40 star in his own right with a string of off beat comedy tunes (“Guitarzan,” “The Streak”) and airwave dominating message songs (“Everything Is Beautiful,” “Mr. Businessman”). White’s follow up, “Watching the Trains Go By” b/w “Old Man Willis,” wasn’t released for two years, and although it went nowhere, the hobo travelogue “Watching the Trains Go By” showed that White’s talents as a storyteller were improving.



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