Tony Joe White, 1943–2018
The songwriter who created swamp rock
White was born in Goodwill, La., “the heart of bayou country,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), and grew up working on his father’s farm, harvesting cotton and corn. He took up guitar at age 15 after an older brother brought home an album by bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. “After that,” he said, “I never really did think about doing nothing else.” He worked blue-collar jobs by day and played honky-tonks across the South at night—places, he said, where chicken wire protected singers when “the beer would get to flying.” White started writing his own songs after hearing Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 chart-topper “Ode to Billie Joe,” said the Nashville Tennessean. Within a few weeks he’d written “Polk Salad Annie,” which reached No. 8 on the Billboard chart and would become part of Elvis Presley’s live show, and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” a 1970 hit for Brook Benton.
His career slowed in the ’70s, said The Times (U.K.), “not that White was unduly concerned.” He retreated to rural Arkansas, where he spent his time breeding horses and fishing, but experienced a revival after Tina Turner covered four of his songs on her 1989 album Foreign Affair. It sold 6 million copies, and the single “Steamy Windows,” written by White, became an international hit. He signed a new recording contract and was soon recording and touring the world again. “But what I really dig,” he said in one of his last interviews, “is just sitting on the back porch and watching the weather.” ■