"Polk Salad Annie" and "Rainy Night in Georgia" songwriter Tony Joe White died suddenly late Wednesday afternoon at his home in Leiper's Fork, according to his family.
"He wasn’t ill at all," said his son, Jody White. "He just had a heart attack. ... There was no pain or suffering."
White was 75 years old, and known for his deep, growling voice and potent "swamp rock" sound, which incorporated elements of blues, rock, country and R&B. Over the last half-century, his songs have been recorded by countless greats, including Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Brook Benton, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings and Tina Turner.
"To me he was just the definition of soulfulness," said his friend, Americana keystone Buddy Miller, who tapped White to play the inaugural "Americana at the Ryman" show in August.
It was White's 1972 record "The Train I'm On," produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, that first captivated Miller: "The songwriting, his singing, everything came together. It was just like the perfect storm of soul in every way ... and we need all the soul we can get these days."
Tony Joe White was born July 23, 1943, near Oak Grove, Louisiana. He was the youngest of seven children and grew up on a cotton farm.
Both of his parents and all of his siblings played music, White told The Tennessean last summer, but he wasn't inspired to pick up an instrument until his teens, when he first heard bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins.
"Up to then, I never played nothing. I just sit and listened," he said. "But man, I started sneaking my dad’s guitar up to my room at night and learning the blues."
He was first inspired to write his own songs after hearing Bobbie Gentry's 1967 chart-topper "Ode to Billie Joe." Drawing on his own life experiences, White penned enduring classics like "Willie and Laura Mae Jones," which Springfield recorded, and "Rainy Night in Georgia," which has been recorded by Benton and more than 100 other artists, all before he turned 30.
In the mid-1960s, White was living in Texas when he decided to come to Nashville. He wound up playing his songs for Bob Beckham of Combine Music, the man who would become his publisher, confidant and mentor. "He was probably the only person in this whole city who would have listened to me, 'cause my things were too far away from what everybody else was doing here," White told The Tennessean in 1983.
He added, "I played him all bluesy stuff. About halfway through the second tune he took me into his recording studio and we stayed there all day just goofing around and playing."
White's debut album, "Black and White," was recorded in Nashville and released on Monument Records in 1969. Its song "Soul Francisco" was a hit in France first, but American audiences eventually warmed to White's rumbling baritone. Nine months after its release as a single, "Polk Salad Annie," the first song on the second side of "Black and White," entered the charts; it peaked at No. 8.
Presley recorded "Polk Salad Annie" and often performed it live. At the same time, Benton's recording of "Rainy Night in Georgia" was zooming up the charts.
"It was just stunning ... it changed my life," White said.
In the 1970s, White toured with acts such as Sly and the Family Stone and Steppenwolf, and in the late '80s, Tina Turner recorded four of his songs for her "Foreign Affair" album, including the title track and "Steamy Windows"; White produced one track and played on the record as well.
Last month White released blues album "Bad Mouthin'," which he recorded on his Leiper's Fork property in a no-frills recording studio that used to be a two-stall horse barn.
The stripped-down record featured covers of songs recorded by Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Big Joe Williams, among others, as well as several originals, including a couple he wrote before "Polk Salad Annie." The album came out Sept. 28. That night, he made his Grand Ole Opry debut.
"The songwriting's been the whole thing that has sustained me," White told The Tennessean in 1983. "Through my whole career, that has kept me going ... but I love to perform even more than I love to write."
Shortly before his death, White recorded several new songs that will hopefully be released in the future, said Jody White.
White is survived by his wife, Leann; children Michelle, Jim Bob and Jody; and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.