Tony Joe White — “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”: Brace for the Obscure (60s rock)! — December 28, 2021

301) Tony Joe White — “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”

Such a powerful song from TJW’s first album in ‘69, appropriately titled Black and White.

“Willie and Laura Mae Jones” has been recorded dozens of times by a wide range of artists, from Mel Torme and Waylon Jennings, to Bettye Swan and Shelby Lynne. Interestingly, about a half-dozen versions were cut in 1969 alone. Perhaps the best known is by Dusty Springfield from her classic “Dusty in Memphis.” That’s right: A song about two African-American sharecroppers, sung by a white British woman, who sounds Southern.

“Willie and Laura Mae” reminds us — in such a beautifully understated way — of the bonds of affection and shared experiences that can develop between people of different races and ethnicities, but also of how easily such bonds can be torn apart by changed timing and circumstances — “This is another place and another time.” I just think back to the Sunnis and Shiites of Iraq and the Serbs, Croatians and Muslims of Bosnia, who lived door by door in friendship and then . . . .

TJW was an American original who wrote “Polk Salad Annie,” the song that Elvis loved most to perform in his final years. John Bush writes in All Music Guide that:

One of the most iconic figures in swamp rock, Tony Joe White was a songwriter, guitarist, and singer whose gritty, soulful music wove together elements of blues, country, and rock into a unique and powerful reflection of his Southern roots. As a songwriter, White wrote . . . “Polk Salad Annie,” which Elvis Presley made a staple of his Vegas-era live shows, among many others. As a recording artist, [he] was an uncompromising performer and often battled his record companies for control of his work, but his high standards meant the bulk of his albums reflected the honest, deeply rootsy spirit of his songs. . . . Born . . . in Goodwill, Louisiana, White was born into a part-Cherokee family. . . .

Jim Newsom, also in All Music Guide, says that:

When “Polk Salad Annie” blared from transistor radio speakers in the summer of 1969, the first thought was of Creedence Clearwater Revival, for Tony Joe White’s swamp rock bore more than a passing resemblance . . . . But White was the real thing — he really was from the bayou country of Louisiana, while Fogerty’s bayou country was conjured up in Berkeley, CA. Plus, White had a mellow baritone voice that sounded like it had been dredged up from the bottom of the Delta. Besides “Annie,” side one of [Black and White] includes several other White originals. The best of these [include] “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” a song about race relations with an arrangement similar to “Ballad of Billie Joe,” [and with which] Dusty Springfield had a minor hit [reaching #78 in July ‘69.]

I love Dusty Springfield to death, but her rendition doesn’t do it for me. For a great cover version, listen to Clarence Carter’s (see #296).

Here is Dusty Springfield’s version:

Here is Clarence Carter’s:

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