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.