×

Tony Joe White, ‘Polk Salad Annie’ Singer, Dies at 75

Swamp-rocker Tony Joe White, a cult-favorite singer/songwriter whose songs were covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Tina Turner, died Wednesday at 75.

White had just released his latest album, “Bad Mouthin’,” on the Yep Rock label Sept. 28 and had made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry that same night.

“He wasn’t ill at all,” his son, Jody White, told the Tennessean. “He just had a heart attack…there was no pain or suffering.” The Louisiana native died at his home in Leipers Fork, Tennessee, outside of Nashville.

White recorded more than 20 albums, beginning in 1969, but had his only serious brush with the charts as a performer with “Polk Salad Annie,” which reached No. 8 in 1969. The song became even better known as a staple of Presley’s repertoire, showing up in Elvis’ live albums and concert movies in the early 70s. Another early composition became an even bigger hit via a popular cover version, as Brook Benton’s version of “Rainy Night in Georgia” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the soul chart in 1970.

The extent to which White was a hero to the music intelligentsia became evident when the Foo Fighters performed “Polk Salad” with White on David Letterman’s program in 2014. That performance (see video, below) drove the talk show host to a rare level of effusiveness. “Oh my God!” exclaimed Letterman. “Holy cow! Man alive. I tell you something, this is just between us, if I was this guy, you could all kiss my ass — and I mean that. That was delightful. My God!”

Others who recorded White’s songs included Tina Turner (who included four on her 1989 “Foreign Affair” album), Ray Charles, Kenny Chesney, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield, Shelby Lynne, Nancy Wilson, Etta James, Isaac Hayes, Hank Williams Jr., Los Lonely Boys, John Anderson, Joe Bonamassa and Carmen McRae. Common and Kanye West both sampled his song “Stud-Spider.” HIs song “I’ve Got a Thing About You, Baby” was also covered by Presley and showed up on the 2016 album that combined Elvis’ vocals with new arrangements from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

His September release, his first full-on blues album, had received generally good reviews, with American Songwriter saying it “resonates with the dark, ominous, rootsy authenticity Tony Joe White has always exuded” and noting that his “dusky baritone voice, laconic delivery, shadowy harmonica and snakelike guitar were never more than a few chords away from a bluesman’s approach.” He was a favorite among Americana enthusiasts in the UK, where Uncut magazine hailed the latest album as a “haunting late-career contemplation.”

White had canceled tour dates in Australia for October after the Opry date, with a promoter announcing, “After a recent show at Nashville’s legendary Ryman, the great man was almost unable to walk after suffering severe pain in his calves and had to be helped off the stage while in extreme pain. Since then the discovery of a bulging disk in his back has meant an immediate end to future engagements that involve significant travel until physical therapy can hopefully reinstate him to a healthy state for travel.”

His last Los Angeles appearance was just over two months ago, when the Grammy Museum hosted an “evening with” performance and Q&A.

He’d previously appeared at the Grammy Museum in 2016, when the Los Angeles Times recounted some of the stories he told from the stage. One of them involved meeting Tina Turner in 1989, when she was devoting a good portion of her album to his material. “I walked into her dressing room, and she was putting on her makeup, and she looked into the mirror and just started laughing,” White said. “It went on for quite a long time. Finally she said, ‘And all this time, I thought you were black!'”

White is survived by his wife, Leann, his children Michelle, Jim Bob and Jody (who produced several of his latter-day recordings), and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Popular on Variety

More Music

  • Maya Thurman Hawke at the Premiere

    Maya Hawke Debuts Two Singles Ahead of Album Release

    Fresh off her Manson cult role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Maya Hawke is turning to music. The “Stranger Things” star released two new singles Friday, “To Love a Boy” and “Stay Open,” both of which will appear on her yet-to-be-titled upcoming album. Hawke wrote the lyrics and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jesse [...]

  • Woodstock Festival of Arts and Music

    As Woodstock Turns 50, the Fest's 10 Most Sacred Music Moments (Watch)

    Cars were left abandoned along the New York Interstate. Electrical and speaker systems fuzzed and popped. Amps blew then went silent. The rain was endless as the mud sank deep and rank. Young children ran naked and dazed through crowds of strangers. Food was scarce. Water, unclean. Looking back, Woodstock seems a more apocalyptic, than [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]

  • NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST

    Jay-Z to Acquire Ownership Stake in NFL Team (Report)

    Jay-Z will soon acquire a “significant ownership interest” in an NFL team, TMZ reported on Friday. The team was not disclosed, but a source told the site the deal will happen in the “near future,” adding that the billionaire rapper “wants to continue to be a change agent for the NFL.” Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, [...]

  • (L-R) NELL WILLIAMS as Eliza, VIVEIK

    How 'Blinded by the Light' Brought Bruce Springsteen's Music to the Screen for a Song

    Blinded by the Light co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha knows firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in Kenya when the country was a British colony, she grew up part of the Indian/Asian diaspora who made their way from East Africa to London. For that reason, the 59-year-old’s movies has always dealt with the [...]

  • Blake Shelton, Trace AdkinsCMA Music Festival

    Blake Shelton Takes a Shot at 'Old Town Road' in New Single

    Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins have just released a duet, “Hell Right,” that seems to have a beef with “Old Town Road.” But is it a light-hearted, maybe even affectionate slam — or should anyone read culture-war significance into the two country stars expressing a preference for Hank Williams Jr. over Lil Nas X, the breakout [...]

  • Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven

    Department of Justice Backs Led Zeppelin in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Copyright Case

    The U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on the next big music copyright case on the horizon following the Katy Perry “Dark Horse” decision, and taken Led Zeppelin’s side in the long-running copyright dispute that pits the writers of the group’s anthem “Stairway to Heaven” against the publishers of the earlier song “Taurus” by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content