Tony Joe White obituary

US singer and songwriter best known for Rainy Night in Georgia who described his southern style of music as ‘kind of swampy’

Tony Joe White, who has died from a heart attack aged 75, grew up in rural Louisiana and was nicknamed “the Swamp Fox” due to his ability to write songs that conveyed the humidity, idiosyncrasies and tensions of the US south.

The best known of these was Rainy Night in Georgia, which gained global recognition not through his own version but via a cover in 1970 from Brook Benton, followed by a number of other popular interpretations over the years, by artists from Ray Charles to Randy Crawford and Rod Stewart.

In fact his swamp songs proved surprisingly universal, and were recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley and Tina Turner to Dusty Springfield and Rory Gallagher. When his career was flagging in the 1980s, Turner brought his song Steamy Windows to wider attention as a Top 20 hit in various countries, and also used three of his other compositions on her highly successful 1989 album, Foreign Affair.

White was born into a farming family, the seventh son of Virgie (nee Andrews) and Charlie White, in Oak Grove, a small town in north-eastern Louisiana, and he grew up harvesting cotton and corn. A keen interest in music, especially the blues his African-American neighbours played, found White, upon graduating from high school, playing Texan honky-tonks where he recalled “the beer bottles would get to flying”.

In 1967 he was working as a dump truck driver for the local authority in Marietta, Georgia, and while doing so heard Bobbie Gentry’s groundbreaking 1967 hit Ode to Billie Joe. This inspired him to write songs about southern life and one of the first was Polk Salad Annie, a wry rocker about “a girl that I swear to the world/ would make the alligators look tame”.

White guessed he had something and, in late 1967, drove to Nashville. There he parked up and walked into the first music publisher’s office he came across. They asked him what kind of music he made and he replied, “well, it’s kind of swampy”. Directed across the road to Combine Music, the publisher of Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson, its head, Bob Beckham, recognised in White a maverick talent. Beckham suggested that Monument Records, the label that had made Roy Orbison famous, should sign White – and they did.

Tony Joe White performing in Amsterdam in 1991. He became more popular in Europe than in his native US.
Tony Joe White performing in Amsterdam in 1991. He became more popular in Europe than in his native US. Photograph: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

While his 45s initially failed to chart in the US – although Soul Francisco was a hit in France – White was certain that Polk Salad Annie had potential, as southern audiences loved the song. For almost a year the single’s momentum built as local radio stations played it, but it took a major Los Angeles radio station to add it to their playlist for White to get his break – Polk Salad Annie reached No 8 on the US pop charts in July 1969, his only US Top 40 hit. Presley, recognising a kindred spirit, began performing it in concert. White capitalised by releasing his debut album, Black and White, in 1969.

He quickly followed with ... Continued (1969) and Tony Joe (1970), albums that showcased his drawling delivery and natural talents as a storyteller. Yet from now on it would be other singers who scored with White songs: Benton’s recording of Rainy Night became a huge international hit, and the song is now a contemporary standard.

In 1970 White had his sole UK Top 40 hit when Groupie Girl got to No 22, and he made his debut in Britain that year at the Isle of Wight festival in front of a huge, enthusiastic audience. Thereafter he regularly appeared in the UK, his laconic personality treating each performance, no matter how grand the venue, as if he were playing on his back porch.

White’s talent and handsome features meant many saw him as a potential superstar, and Warner Brothers signed him, pairing him with top producers (Peter Asher, Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler) for three excellent albums. Yet the albums failed to sell – in the US they were too white for black radio, too black for white radio – and White found himself in a conundrum. He released only one more album that decade, and two in the 80s. None of them was successful.

However, in 1988 Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits asked White if he had any songs that might suit Turner. She went on to include four of White’s originals on Foreign Affair, the title track of which was also a White composition. The album, on which White played guitar and harmonica, sold more than six million copies and Roger Davies, Turner’s manager, signed White to his management stable. He immediately got him a recording contract with Polydor’s European arm, then raised his profile by getting him to contribute songs to, and perform with, musicians such as Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker.

Although now more popular in Europe – especially France – than the US, White continued to live in Nashville, to tour widely (always accompanied only by a drummer) and to release albums of strong new material. In 2014 he performed at the Glastonbury festival, and subsequent interest saw the release of a double CD compilation, Swamp Fox: The Definite Collection 1968-1973 (2015). His final album, Bad Mouthin’, was released this year and found White interpreting the blues songs that had inspired him as a youth.

He is survived by his wife, Leann, whom he married in 1964, and by their three children, Jody, Jim Bob and Michelle.

• Tony Joe White, singer and songwriter, born 23 July 1943; died 24 October 2018


Garth Cartwright

The GuardianTramp

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