Not long after graduating high school, Tony Joe White (1943-2018) moved from rural Louisiana, where he’d been raised on a cotton farm, to Marietta, Ga., where a sister lived, in pursuit of a better life. He played guitar and, from what I gather, had been in and out of bands back home, but it didn’t pay the bills – as it often doesn’t. He found employment as a dump-truck driver with the highway department, and it featured an odd perk: work was always called on account of rain.
Fast-forward a few years, by which point he’s kicking around the music circuit in Texas: He hears Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio, and it seems lifted from his own life, just about, inspiring him to try his hand at writing songs. Among the first out of the gate: “Polk Salad Annie,” which harkens back to his childhood, and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which conjures the rainy nights he experienced in Marietta.
If he’d never written anything else, he would have contributed more to this world than most. “Polk Salad Annie” was covered by Elvis Presley. And “Rainy Night in Georgia”… it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. But no version – not even White’s, which sounds tentative to my ears – equals that of Brook Benton’s masterful single, which went to No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1970. The texture of the veteran R&B singer’s voice was made for White’s melancholic lyrics.
That said, Shelby Lynne included a spellbinding rendition of it (as “Track 12”) on her excellent 2005 Suit Yourself album. The grain of her voice echoes the rain, and I’d place it almost on a par with Benton’s rendition. (White plays on the track with her; they were neighbors for a spell, and friends – he appears in her recent film, Here I Am.)
The great Chuck Jackson released a version not long after Benton on what would be his final Motown album, Teardrops Keep Fallin’ on My Heart:
B.J. Thomas also released a version of it in late 1970 on his Most of All album:
Johnny Rivers also recorded it that year:
Ray Charles covered it on his 1972 album The Genius Hits the Road:
Two years after Ray, Van McCoy (yes, of the “Hustle” fame) and his Soul City Symphony recorded an instrumental version of it for the Love Is the Answer LP. (It’s far more kitsch than cool.)
Otis Rush released his rendition of it in 1976, on his Right Place, Wrong Time album.
In 1981, Randy Crawford included a nice version of it on her Secret Combination album. Although released as a single, it didn’t chart in the U.S.; it did make it to No. 18 in the U.K., however.
Conway Twitty and Sam Moore recorded the classic tune for the 1993 Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation CD.
In 2004, David Ruffin’s rendition – which was recorded in 1970 – was released on the David CD.
And, finally, Aaron Neville – with an ample assist from Chris Botti – covered the song on his Bring It On Home collection of soul classics.
Those are but some of the many versions of the classic tune, of course, and I’m sure I missed some that others think of as must-listens. (About the only person who never recorded it, but should have: Gladys Knight.)