Swamp rock is a misleading term that has come to include myriad sub-genres that are seemingly disparate. What do Bobbie Gentry and Lynyrd Skynyrd plus the superlative Allman Brothers, for example, have in common other than their southern roots? Nonetheless, it is a convenient music industry designation and in recent years the UK has witnessed a resurgence in interest in the music of the south imbued with blues, rock and soul influences and the two Soul Jazz record compilations were a step in the right direction and BBC have even in recent months devoted a three-part series to the music of the southern states. One artist featured in an interview was Tony Joe White and Real Gone have done a sterling job of putting together the three LPs that White cut for Warner Bros back in the early 1970s. Of course White had already established a reputation as a singer-songwriter of some calibre by then and as a leader had scored a hit on Monument records with ‘Pork Salad Annie’. What is less well-known is that Tony Joe White is the original writer and performer of ‘A rainy night in Georgia’ that so many significant artists have covered from Ray Charles through to a dub-soaked reggae interpretation from Lee Perry’s production stable in George Faith, and then an early 1980s UK soulful pop hit from Randy Crawford.
The first self-titled album, dating from 1971, starts off as it means to continue with some stunning evocative music and a title that conjures up a dozen potential stories on its own, ‘They caught the devil and put him in jail in Eudora, Arkansas’. As a whole, it is a diverse affair and very soulful in parts since White enlisted the support of the Memphis Horns and this is the full six-piece ensemble in its full glory. For a marked contrast in emphasis, the extended monologue intro to ‘The Change’, which impressively changes gear as it progresses, features an impassioned delivery from the singer. Political changes were already afoot and White was neither afraid to allude to them nor to voice his own allegiances as on ‘Black Panther swamps’ which is an uptempo blues-rock tinged piece that Janis Joplin might have been proud of. White has always been capable of achieving great subtlety in his delivery and ‘Traveling Bone’ is a wonderful Memphis soul-blues number. On the second album, ‘The train I’m on’, the singer-songwriter in White’s craft comes to the fore and the album is divided up between the second part of CD1 and the first part of CD2. It was recorded at Muscles Shoals in Alabama where Aretha Franklin and many others cut some of their finest southern soul sides. A more sensitive aspect to White’s music is revealed on ‘The family’ which has echoes of ‘A rainy night in Georgia’ while the melodic opener, ‘I’ve got a thing about you baby’, is a largely pared-down affair with White on acoustic guitar (elsewhere his harmonica playing is featured extensively) and some lovely vocal harmonies from Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes (the trio would later find fame as a soulful and classy disco pairing when that genre came to prominence) and some minor chord changes on electric piano from Harry Beckett. The album’s title track is, perhaps, this writer’s favourite and is a mainly solo nugget. Several songs betray the influence of the early 1970s Stax label with White arguably strongly influenced by the music of the Staple Singers. This is most likely the case on the groove-laden ‘As the crow flies’ or on the superb ‘300 pounds of hungry’. White’s inventive songwriting talents are once again evident the acoustic guitar-led ‘Sidewalk hobo’ and even more so on ‘The gospel singer’ with a stunning ‘Halellujah’ chorus. Could Leonard Cohen have heard this at some point and incorporated the gospel tinges into his repertoire? The third and final album, ‘Homemade ice cream’ from 1973 repeats the stylistic diversity, but is never formulaic for all that with swamp blues permeating the creatively titled, ‘Saturday night in Oak Grove Louisiana’, ‘Backward preacher man’ and ending on a musical high with ‘Did somebody make a fool out of you’. Full marks to Real Gone for truly first-rate inner sleeve notes where the reprinted album cover details are clearly legible and the photo graphics are clear and as large as possible within the obvious constrictions. Full recording date details make for a comprehensive package and the first port of call for any fan of southern blues with a deeply soulful edge. An early contender for re-issue for the year.