Remembering the Swamp Fox

Tony Joe White ca. 1970

Tony Joe White burst onto the national music scene in 1969 with “Polk Salad Annie,” a top 10 hit inspired by Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” drawing on his real life experiences in rural Louisiana. Over the course of an uncompromising six decade career, Tony Joe kept it down home in both minimal bluesy recordings and gutsy live performances on guitar/harmonica and whomper stomper – his name for a Gibson distortion pedal.

His 1967 composition “Rainy Night in Georgia” was included on his second album Continued in 1969 only at his wife’s behest. Six weeks later, Atlantic Records super producer Jerry Wexler shipped White a new rendition by Brook Benton. As White put it in an interview with STB founder Ric Stewart in 2002, “It was like hearing the perfect voice sing those words back to me. I must have played it a 50  times in a row…” It shot to #1 in the R&B chart and #4 on the Pop chart in 1970 and Tony Joe was suddenly on top of the business.

Tony Joe White and STB founder Ric Stewart after an interview at the Warfield Theater in 2002.

Tony Joe White went on to record 16 studio records in a career packed with one great song after another. On September 28, 2018, White released Bad Mouthin’ (his first all-blues album) on Yep Rock Records, just a one month before his demise at age 75 from a heart attack.  The Oak Grove, LA native’s songs were often picked for covers by musical luminaries such as Tina Turner, Joe Cocker and Elvis Presley. Presley cut three Tony Joe White tracks and the two bonded. White related that Elvis would sometimes find him during sessions at Stax asking how to play some ‘bluesy licks.’ “He’d probably forget them in 10 minutes, but I’d show him anyway.” As the King was reinventing his sound in the early 1970’s, his stage shows featured “Polk Salad Annie” replete with Kung Fu stage moves.

White’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” from 1969 album Black And White, was covered by Dusty Springfield on her definitive work, Dusty In Memphis. His appearance duetting on Johnny Cash’s TV show in 1970 was loose, full of laughs and captured the Man in Black’s appreciation for the Swamp Fox. For a moment, everyone wanted to be Tony Joe!

The respect from on high was to continue albeit after decades of a low profile solo career. On his long-awaited final release Chuck Berry covered Tony Joe’s “3/4 Time (Enchiladas).” The rock and roll pioneer described Tony Joe White to Rolling Stone in 2017 as “vastly underrated,” especially such songs as “Polk Salad Annie,” “Rainy Night in Georgia,” and “The Train I’m On.”

With the top talent offering such effusive praise, imitation and admiration, it’s inevitable that more fans will connect with White’s brand of authenticity. Quite possibly the greatest songwriter that not everyone knows, Tony Joe White’s unfiltered take on swamp rock and funky country blues already stands the test of time.

 

Community Partnership

Thanks once again to the New Orleans Jazz Festival & Foundation, Inc for a community partnership grant that will help build the archives of oral histories. These archives are part of the budding exclusive content collection serviced by Save the Blues and the Blues Center, a future interactive museum in downtown New Orleans.

Catch glimpses of the Blues Center in the interview series with founder Ric Stewart at bluescenters.com.

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Jontavious Willis in Blues Center Interview #1 remastered

Jontavious Willis at Summerstage in Central Park

The Georgian blues phenom sits down for the inaugural Blues Center interview. In this expanded edition Jontavious talks about his mentor Taj Mahal, going down to Louisiana to get a mojo hand and Fats Domino’s update to “Junker’s Blues” with “The Fat Man.” Newly added concert footage from his appearances in New York City add to this mess o’ blues. Oh, and he can play county blues like a much older bluesman.

Blues Center Trailer – Peter Case talks Bruce Springsteen

Introducing the Blues Center! Ric Stewart previews the channel and BCI #9 with Peter Case. Bruce Springsteen praised Peter Case’s work in Rolling Stone Magazine and took the time to meet him as he toured New Jersey. Ric interviewed Peter in 1996 and includes some of that footage to illustrate an hilarious story about meeting the Boss.

 

This video made possible in part by a Community Partnership grant from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

Mason Ruffner – Blues Center Interview #6

Mason drops by Pinecohn Studios to talk Bob Dylan, Daniel Lanois, Buddy Holly, Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana. He lays down some of his signature tremolo-stained blues riffs. Live footage from French Quarter Fest highlights an amazing biography of huge accomplishments. Mason discusses his band’s role on Dylan’s “Series of Dreams” and his ongoing collaboration with Carlos Santana. He tries to recollect shooting a music video on top of The World Trade Center in 1987.

This video made possible in part by a Community Partnership grant from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

Deacon John – Blues Center Interview #5

New Orleans R&B bandleader and session guitarist extraordinaire, Deacon John Moore, recounts the back story of Allen Toussaint and Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” Deake shares a few laughs and some tasty slide guitar maneuvers.

This video made possible in part by a Community Partnership grant from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

Stanton Moore – Blues Center Interview #4

Stanton Moore drops by Pinecohn Studios to talk blues and how he joined the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars and Galactic. A very busy drummer, Stanton plays regularly with Charlie Hunter, Will Bernard and Tom Morello. Episode #4 features footage Ric Stewart shot in 1996 of Stanton with the Klezmers, a band he still joins! Rare candid moments of his Stanton Moore Trio are also included. Stanton talks about heavy metal, the source of his dynamic attack and great shows in BCI#4. Subscribe to the Blues Center YouTube Channel to catch all the interviews!

This video made possible in part by a Community Partnership grant from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

Little Freddie King – Blues Center Interview #3

New Orleans bluesman Little Freddie King in the Blues Center Interview #3. King, a cousin of Lightning Hopkins, mastered his blues style as a teenager working at the docks with fellow Delta players. Now 77, his experience with the strings comes through in BCI #3 shot at Pinecohn Studios. Catch all of the interview series by subscribing to the Blues Center on Youtube!

This video made possible in part by a Community Partnership grant from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

Led Zeppelin’s New Orleans Connection

Led Zeppelin in 1977, photo by Jim Summaria

From their phoenix-like rise from the Yardbirds’ ashes in 1968 until the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, Led Zeppelin ruled from atop Mt. Olympus as gods of rock. The British quartet of singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and Bonham defined heavy metal while dabbling widely in folk, psychedelia and pop styles. In the days before MTV and the internet, large parts of a band’s history fell below the radar. So, while Zep’s blues background may be well known, its relationship with New Orleans and 1976 track “Royal Orleans” could do with a recap.

The Royal Orleans Hotel

Infamous for their ability to party, Led Zeppelin naturally fell in love New Orleans, making it a hub for regional tours. The song depicts the aftermath of a 1973 show at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium. “Royal Orleans” and references the French Quarter hotel (now called The Omni Royal Orleans) at which the band stayed during their frequent trips to New Orleans. The lyrics harken back to a chaotic evening on Bourbon Street in May of 1973.

Rumor has it that John Paul Jones took a woman up from the hotel bar to his room, unaware that “she” was a transvestite. Subsequently, someone fell asleep while smoking and caused the room to go up in flames. John Paul Jones rejected parts of the story but relented that the room did catch fire, as firemen tore down the doors and took axes to the quaint hotel space. The lyrics joked:

New Orleans queens
Sure know how to schmooze it
Maybe for some that seems alright
When I step out, strut down with my sugar
She’d best not talk like Barry White

The band continued to enjoy the city for years to come. However, in 1977 shortly before a show at the Superdome, Robert Plant got the life-shattering news of his 5 year-old son Karac’s death from an infection. Led Zeppelin never played in the USA again with their original lineup. In the intervening 4 decades, both Page and Plant have returned to the blues for inspiration as they have often been spotted in local clubs and shops. In 1998, Page and Plant released a blues rock update called Walking into Clarksdale.

Atlantic Records promo man and Memphian, Phillip Rauls vouched for the Led Zeppelin’s blues fixation. “They always wanted to talk about blues music and Memphis music…” The remaining band members have only reunited a few times since the death of John Bonham. In 2007, they resurrected their mammoth sound to commemorate the record executive who signed them, Ahmet Ertegun with a full-length show. That lineup with heir apparent extraordinaire on skins, Jason Bonham (John’s son), might have carried on and made a bank. However, Plant has stuck to his solo career with great success including 3 grammy wins in 2008 for the T-Bone Burnette-produced Raising Sand with Allison Krauss. Page meanwhile has kept Led Zeppelin’s catalog in tip-top shape by overseeing a complete reissue series (each with a bonus album of studio and live tracks) released in 2015. The smoke from the heady days of the 1970’s may have cleared, but Led Zeppelin’s passion for New Orleans and the blues did not fade away.