As far as I can tell, Tony Joe White only played Lincoln once — on Sept. 17, 1987.
While that date likely doesn’t ring any bells, what happened two days later should. It was Farm Aid III.
Zoo Bar owner Larry Boehmer wanted to do something special to precede the big show at Memorial Stadium, so he booked the man known as the Swamp Fox for the Thursday before Farm Aid.
The show drew a packed house, including a lot of musicians in town a couple days early for their Farm Aid shows. That number included James Burton, the legendary guitarist for Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley, who was playing with, of all people, John Denver.
I apologized to Burton years later for going full fanboy on him that night, blathering like an idiot about how great he was, etc. Burton, of course, didn’t remember that. But he said he’d have been flattered that anyone recognized him.
Based on reports that made it into the papers that weekend, the gravelly voiced White and his band played an entertaining set of what the French dubbed “swamp rock,” the revved-up, bluesy music that drew on John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Elvis.
Of course, he did his biggest hits, or more precisely the biggest hits he’d written: “Polk Salad Annie,” which Presley did after Tony Joe’s version sold a million copies, and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which was recorded by more than 100 artists, most notably Brook Benton.
When I talked to White the week before the show, he said he didn’t mind that others had giant hits with his songs.
“To me, it feels as good as if I had a hit on it myself,” he said. “I didn’t even like ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ when I wrote it because I was into rockin’, swampin’ out and I didn’t really want no ballad.”
It also, he admitted, didn’t hurt that the hit versions of his songs brought in plenty of “mailbox money.”
I got to hang out with White for a while that night, both before and after the show. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but he left a lasting impression — a true swamp rockin’ character from Louisiana.
Those were the only times I spoke with White, who died of a heart attack on Oct. 24 at age 75. He continued to write and record, when he could get a company to put out his albums, throughout his life. His last album, “Bad Mouthin,'" which brought him back to the blues, was released in September.
White’s songs were recorded by Ray Charles, Tanya Tucker, Waylon Jennings, John Anderson, Kenny Chesney and Tina Turner, among many others.
White contributed on four songs and played guitar on Turner’s 1989 “Foreign Affair” album. And he told the Associated Press one of his great stories about meeting Turner.
“She turned around and looked at me and started hysterically laughing and couldn’t get her breath,” he said. “She was doubling over and I thought, are my pants unzipped or something? Finally, she got her breath and came over to me and gave me a big hug and said, ‘I’m sorry, man. Ever since "Polk Salad Annie" I always thought you were a black man.’”
I've been a fan of White’s music from the time I heard “Polk Salad Annie.” But I’ll never forget him for another, far different reason.
He gave me some of the best advice for a writer I’ve ever received.
White said he was only able to write six or eight songs a year, waiting for inspiration to strike to write “a really good one.”
Since he had no way of knowing when that inspiration would come, he kept small notebooks and pens “everywhere”: in the kitchen, the bedroom, all of his cars, in his pockets ... you get the idea. That way, he always had something on which to scribble down a lyric or a chord progression or whatever else came to him.
“It’s a matter of serving as a receiving station,” he said.
There are notebooks everywhere in my house, in my car, on my desk, in the bag I carry to work each day and, right now, my jacket pocket. You never know when that flash of inspiration, or a call that needs to be taken down will come in. And if you don’t write it down right away, it’s gone as instantly as it arrived.
Each time I scrawl out a line that will turn up in a review or story the next day or pull over the car for a quick interview, I think of and thank Tony Joe.
Rock on, Swamp Fox.