Tony Joe White, the singer-songwriter from north Louisiana whose steamy, swampy “Polk Salad Annie” became a top 10 hit, died October 24 at his home in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee.
“He wasn’t ill at all,” White’s son, Jody, told The Tennessean. “He just had a heart attack—there was no pain or suffering.” White was 75.
In addition to his 1969 hit, “Polk Salad Annie,” White’s writing credits include “Rainy Night in Georgia.” In 1970, Brook Benton took the sublime ballad to number one and number four respectively on Billboard’s soul and pop charts. The many other artists who recorded White’s songs include Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Johnny Rivers, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney.
White’s record company, Yep Roc, announced his death. The label released White’s latest album, Bad Mouthin’, on September 28, the same day he made his Grand Ole Opry debut. White recorded several more songs just before his death.
“Tony Joe White was a true American original,” Yep Roc co-founder Glenn Dicker said in a statement. “Everything he did, he did it in his own unique voice.”
White’s childhood and youth in north Louisiana served as material for his songs. Raised on a cotton farm in West Carroll Parish, he came from a musical family. His parents, brother and five sisters sang and played country and gospel music. But youngest child White, born July 23, 1943, didn’t become interested in performing until his older brother brought an album by Texas blues artist Lightnin’ Hopkins home. “It was the start of Tony Joe White,” he told OffBeat last summer. “I started borrowing my dad’s guitar, learning blues licks and stuff.”
Following high school, White performed songs by his heroes Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Elvis Presley in Texas and Louisiana clubs. He composed his first songs in his mid-twenties, while he and his wife, Leann, were living in Corpus Christi. Mississippi singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 slice of Southern life, “Ode to Billie Joe,” inspired him to pen realistic lyrics.
“If there’s anything like a line connecting everything that I’ve done, I would say it’s realness,” White said. “Even my songs that are sweet little love ballads—those are all real, inspired by real love and real life. Being real, being focused on what’s really going on around you, is something I learned early in my life.”
White’s character songs—“Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” “Roosevelt and Ira Lee,” “Old Man Willis” and “Polk Salad Annie”—are based on real people. “I knew two or three Annies down Boeuf River,” he told OffBeat. “They picked cotton. They were good-looking girls and we all went to school together. I had plenty of characters to draw off of.”