Saturday, 3 November 2018

Farewell, Tony Joe White - here are 12 slices of your very own brand of swamp magic

(Worth listening to just for the way he manages to make "voluptuous" sound so, well, voluptuous.) "High Sheriff of Calhoun Parish" (or, if you prefer, "Hah Chef of Calhoun Paish") was the stand-out track on...

...the first Tony Joe White album I bought, 1970's Tony Joe, which was his third long-form offering. The LP failed to chart in America, and only managed to crawl to No. 60 in the UK charts, where his one and only hit single, "Groupy Girl", had soared to No. 22 earlier that year (his only Top 40 US hit had been "Polk Salad Annie", which reached No. 8 in 1969). So why did the Louisiana swamper with the unfeasibly lush sideburns rate an obit in today's Telegraph? Largely, one suspects, because of covers of his songs by more mainstream artists - Brook Benton took "Rainy Night in Georgia" to No. 4 in the US charts, "Polk Salad Annie" was a centrepiece of Elvis Presley's live act for several years, and Tina Turner took "Steamy Windows" into the charts in 1989.

There's no surprise - or shame - in the fact that other artists enjoyed greater success with White's material than he did himself (personally, I haven't heard a single cover that I prefer to the original): he was (to borrow a term I heard bandied about at Radio 2 in the '80s) simply too "ethnic" - i.e. too bluesy, swampy, rural, authentic - too impenetrably and ever-so-slightly worryingly "other" to sustain a mainstream career as a performer. It wasn't that Tony Joe didn't try - some of his late '70s stuff included embarrassing experiments with disco, and his '80s recordings took on the glossy, clean, digital sheen typical of that era - but I suspect the royalties from other artists' hit covers eased the pain somewhat. Besides, he gave the impression of not being all that fired up about being a star in any case.

In the early '70s, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band and Tony Joe White were my go-to acts for rootsy authenticity: they were all, in their different ways, producing Americana by blending a number of musical traditions - country, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll, blues, rhythm 'n' blues, rockabilly and cajun, whatever - and somehow coming up with gloriously authentic songs devoid of pastiche or parody. A bunch of blue-collar Californians, a bunch of Canadians (with an Arkansan in tow), and a guy from the heart of the Bayou were keeping it real, rootsy and down home by refreshing the musical traditions they were drawing on. Which was more than fine by me.

Here, in a terrific 30-minute In Concert programme recorded by the BBC,  Tony Joe performs his most famous number, "Polk Salad Annie" - without a silly white cape or any wanky kung-fu moves:

There are several good live performances of the poignant "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" available on YouTube - but, as I always miss the violins and horns, here's the studio version:

"Tunica Motel" was one of the best tracks on the 1991 album "Closer to the Truth":

"Rico", from 2002, is one of the most beautiful things he ever recorded - it's so wistful, it dang near brings a tear to the eye::

I felt quite pleased with myself about ten years' ago when I came up with a solo acoustic guitar number called "Chunkums" - it was only while choosing tracks for this post that I realised  I'd pinched its choppy attack from Tony Joe's 1970 album track, "Widow Wimberley":

The backing on 1969's "Roosevelt and Ira Lee" sounds so much like Creedence Clearwater Revival, it's not hard to imagine John Fogerty's roaring voice in place of Tony Joe's:

Next, the charming "Catawalling Alley in Nice" from 1993 - not necessarily a song title I'd have expected Tony Joe to come up with when I first made his acquaintance (just to be clear, he isn't singing about a "catawalling Alice" as the YouTube poster seems to imagine):

"Taking the Midnight Train" is a goodie from 1973:

I'll end with a solo number, Stockholm Blues - another track from the 1970 album, Tony Joe:

Oh, dammit - let's make it a baker's dozen with the moody "Ain't Going Down This Time", yet another track from Closer to the Truth:

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