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Tony Joe White

A Conversation with Tony Joe White (continued)

PM: Let's talk about "Rainy Night." It's funny how, with songs like that, there's no way, of course, a person can know that he or she is writing a song that will literally stand the test of time in a way so few things will.

TJW: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I almost didn't put that song on my album when I was cutting that thing back in them days. And my wife kept saying, "No, God, you got to do that." And I was kind of more into the swamp rocking, and really hard driving stuff.

PM: Right.

TJW: So anyway, I laid it down. If it hadn't been for her and Donnie Fritz wanting a copy of it, then Jerry Wexler would have never heard it, and I would have never got to hear how it should have been sung in the first place, with Brook. [Brook Benton had the huge hit with the song, in March of 1970.]

PM: Oh, my God. I mean, it just sends chills up your spine to hear a story like that.

TJW: So after hearing him sing it, I played it about sixty times in a row. They sent me a copy of it. And I went, "God, man, I got to learn this song. This is good."


TJW: It was like hearing it brand new.

PM: Ahh. [Enjoy a clip of Brook Benton doing "Rainy Night" here.]


Tony, what kind of a house and a home did you grow up in, and how did music take root in your life as a young person?

TJW: Well, our house is what they called a shotgun house. It's just a wooden frame with a tin roof. And it has a front porch and a back porch. And they call it shotgun because you can shoot through the front door and go all the way out the back end.

PM: [laughs]

TJW: And the bedroom is kind of on the side. On a forty-acre farm down by a place called Boeuf River in Louisiana swamps, cotton farm.

PM: Wow. And what kind of a home was it? What kind of a family unit were you part of?

TJW: Well, my dad, like I said, was a cotton farmer. My brother was the oldest. We had five girls in between us. I was the youngest. And him and my mother and all the girls and my brother all played guitar or piano during all them days.

PM: Wow.

TJW: And I remember just sitting around digging it. And I never did try to participate or do anything with the music too much, I would just listen to them. And then Charles, my brother, brought home an album by Lightin' Hopkins when I was fifteen. And I'd been used to hearing this gospel and kind of country stuff, folk tune types. And then I heard that, and man, I started kind of sneaking Dad's guitar into my bedroom at night and learning those licks and playing it. So the blues thing is what hit first.

PM: Right. Because when I hear your playing, I think, well, there must be a lot of Lightin' or a lot of John Lee Hooker or both in this man's background.


TJW: Yeah, yeah. John Lee, Muddy Waters, all kinds of stuff we was listening to back there by that river. Probably this day and time, it'd be an odd scene to see a bunch of fourteen, fifteen year-old kids, at all the house parties and the high school dance and everything, all we played was blues.

PM: Oh, man. I wonder if your parents had any idea they were raising somebody who in time would become a national treasure.

TJW: [laughs] To show you an example of it, I came home from Texas, and "Polk Salad Annie" was probably about number ten in the nation, and really rocking everywhere. And my dad was sitting on the couch. He had a Prince Albert cigarette in his mouth and was playing his old guitar, just sitting there. And I walked in the house, and you know, the greetings, and all that, and he said, "Hey, I've been hearing you singing on the radio some." I said, "Yeah. It's going all right." And he said, "Well, look, you got a wife and baby now, and I'm just wondering what you're fixin' to do for a livin'."


TJW: So that was the "national treasure," right there.

PM: That'd give you an indication of how aware they were.

TJW: Yeah. He had no idea, because he never made anything off music. He played it all his life. I mean, maybe somebody'd pass a hat or something, but it just freaked him out when I said, "This is what I do, Dad." And he said, "You get paid for that?"


TJW: I said, "Yeah, man."

PM: Oh, that's amazing.

Tony Joe White


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