Tony Joe White lays it down


The name Tony Joe White may not ring a bell, maybe not even his moniker, The Swamp Fox, but chances are you're familiar with a lot of the songs he's written.

Almost half a century ago the bluesman, who grew up as one of seven children on a cotton farm in the swamplands of Louisiana, penned two tunes that have since been covered by scores of musicians.

In 1969 White shot up the US Billboard top 10 with his swampy stomper Polk Salad Annie, which was then picked up by the King, Elvis Presley himself, by Tom Jones, Johnny Hallyday and so many more.

But the most covered song of his oeuvre is Rainy Nights in Georgia, made popular by Brook Benton in 1970. It has been recorded more than 150 times by the likes of Ray Charles, Hank Williams Jr and Rod Stewart.

White has written for and co-operated with hundreds of musicians. One would understand if the Southern songwriter was at times a bit miffed that many of his songs turned into gold as soon as somebody else sang them. But he's not.

"I've always been excited when I hear another artist get on one of my songs, like Tina Turner or Elvis Presley," he says in his slow Southern drawl.

"When someone like that records one of my tunes, I always thought that they did it better than me.

"Just for another human being to pick up on your words, on your playing and most times they want me to come to the studio and play guitar while they're doing it," White says.

Looking back on the many artists who had a go with his materials, he says that the very first time when his A Rainy Night In Georgia was recorded by Benton was a standout moment and recording Turner's Steamy Windows was "one to die for".

But then it's really hard to pick favourites.

"I worked with so many and it is hard to pin them all down but I had a lot of fun with Tina in the studio in Paris, and then New York and then London later."

White acted as Turner's producer for the 1989 album Foreign Affairs, which was recorded in three countries. He played a variety of instruments as well as writing four of the songs.

"She was the most fun in the studio because she would be right in the middle of a song and suddenly she would kick the door open on the singing booth and come out dancing right in front of the drums and me and grab a microphone and finish the song right two steps away from me. When you see somebody getting so far into it, that's exciting," he remembers.

Although his long career has had its ups and downs, White who is turning 70 this year, has never considered giving up writing and performing.

"I still don't seem to have a limit on what I write because the writing just comes to me, to my guitar, and the words come and another guitar comes in later and put down with a rhythm and let it sit for a couple of days and then let it do what it wants to do and usually people as far away as you are pick up on you," he says.

In a couple of weeks White is packing up his guitar again to play four shows in New Zealand and he's really looking forward to it.

"I really like the people," he says, "they come out to the show and they let you know that they're glad you came.

"For some reason the people down there are kind of like the people in my home town in Louisiana. If they like you, they stay with you," he says.

* Tony Joe White with Simone Felice 

March 20 – TSB Theatre, New Plymouth 

March 21 – St James Theatre, Wellington 

March 22 – Hawke’s Bay Opera House, Hastings 

March 23 – Clarence St Theatre,  Hamilton 

March 24 – Powerstation,  Auckland.