Singer-songwriter Tony Joe White, a prolific tunesmith whose swamp-soaked 1968 pop hit “Polk Salad Annie,” reflected his Louisiana upbringing, died yesterday, Wednesday, October 24th, of natural causes at his home in Leipers Fork, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. He was 75.
White, who had a Top Ten record with “Polk Salad Annie,” also saw it popularized by Elvis Presley. He was also perhaps best known as the writer of the deeply atmospheric and soulful “Rainy Night in Georgia,” a Number Four pop hit for Brook Benton in 1970 and covered by a number of other acts including Hank Williams Jr., B.J. Thomas, Shelby Lynne, and as a duet by Conway Twitty and Sam Moore.
White’s compositions reached an entirely new audience worldwide in 1989 when Tina Turner covered his song “Steamy Windows.” It became a hit in several countries and was also cut by country singer John Anderson, included on his double-platinum 1992 LP Seminole Wind. The tune would resurface in 1997 on Kenny Chesney’s album I Will Stand. Others who recorded White’s songs include Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, Tim McGraw, Dusty Springfield and Ray Charles. A solo artist who signed to Nashville’s Monument Records in 1967, White’s distinctively gritty vocals and vivid storytelling were present right through to his most recent album, the blues-based Bad Mouthin‘, released last month on Yep Roc Records.
White was born July 24th, 1943, the youngest of seven children raised on a cotton farm about 20 miles from the nearest town, Oak Grove, Louisiana. He played solo gigs at high-school dances and, after adding a drummer, moved on to nightclubs along the Texas and Louisiana “crawfish circuit.” In 1966, he recorded for a local label in Corpus Christi. After moving to Nashville, where musician Billy Swan produced his material for Monument Records, he cut his 1969 debut LP, Black and White, which incorporated country, blues, and Cajun sounds among its tracks. After three albums he shifted to the Warner Bros. label with the legendary Peter Asher producing his first LP there. White also appeared in the 1974 film version of Catch My Soul, a rock opera based on Shakespeare’s Othello.
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After concentrating on songwriting for several years, he returned to major-label recording with 1991’s Closer to the Truth, for Polydor. Much of his later material was recorded for his own label, Swamp Records, but he released his final three albums via Yep Roc. In 2014, he was introduced to a new audience thanks to Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, who championed White and performed with him on the Late Show With David Letterman.
White is survived by his wife, Leann, three children and several grandchildren.