Josh White Jr. Biography
Made Debut at Age Four, Became Known for Campus Appearances
Blues vocalist, guitarist, actor
The son of one of the most famous performers the blues tradition ever produced, Josh White Jr. has patterned his music after his father's and has devoted part of his musical life to carrying on his father's legacy. Yet he has never been simply a Josh White imitator. He has used various media to communicate his message, appearing on television, in films, in clubs, and on stage, making recordings, and very often appearing at schools and local festivals. In all these situations, White's aim has been not to replicate his father's music but rather to explore his unique approach to the blues.
Josh White Sr. was born in 1915 and grew up like many of the other Southern pioneers of the blues. He played blues guitar himself, but he also served as a guide for several famous blind blues musicians, including Blind Lemon Jefferson. Recuperating from a hand injury, he learned to sing and act, and in the 1930s he became one of the first musicians to take the blues north and east to an urban and racially integrated audience. He popularized such American standards as "House of the Rising Sun," and, appearing at the White House before President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, he used his music to speak out against racial discrimination when few other black musicians were doing so. It was into this milieu that Josh White Jr. was born on November 30, 1940, in New York.
Made Debut at Age
The youngster was immediately initiated into the performing world, taking the stage with his father at New York's Café Society nightclub in a miniature version of his father's onstage wardrobe. He was four years old. "I just went along with the program," White told the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call. "It was just the thing to do, to wear the suits and put my foot up on the stool like he did—people thought it was cute." For five years, this father-and-son show toured theaters around the northeast. By the time nine-year-old Josh Jr. won a role in a Broadway play called How Long til Summer?, he was a seasoned theatrical veteran. He won a special Tony award for Best Child Actor in 1949.
Attending the Professional Children's School in New York, White continued his theatrical career. He appeared in a half-dozen different plays between 1949 and 1960 and added more than 50 television guest-star slots to his resume during that period. His recording career began with the See Saw album on the Decca label in 1956.
By the early 1960s, White's child-star novelty had begun to wear off, and the general lack of opportunity for African-American actors was staring him in the face. At the same time, however, the 1960s boom in folk music was getting underway with huge outdoor festivals at which surviving members of the early Southern blues scene were invited to perform. White began to focus more on music. He recorded albums for the major Mercury and United Artists labels in the 1960s, mixing blues with pop fare. "I am so fortunate to have the sort of apprenticeship that I did," he told the Lincoln Journal Star. "I learned from [my father] what it is to be a good solo performer. When you're a solo performer, it's all on you." Unlike other show-business families, father and son remained close until the death of Josh White Sr. in 1969.
Became Known for
White lived in New York with his first wife, Jackie, in the 1960s. They had two children, Joshua "Buddah" White III, born in 1963, and Jason, born six years later (neither became a musician). White performed in major concert venues, but after the death of his wife in 1971 he cut back on touring. He continued to appear at college and university events, however, topping more than 2,000 campus concert bills between 1963 and the early 1980s. In many ways, Josh White Jr. was the African-American voice of the campus folk-music revival.
Moving to Detroit in 1976, White remarried two years later; he and his wife Sara would eventually preside over a combined total of 13 grandchildren. He continued to record, and he became a staple of the late-night television talk show circuit. In 1979 he starred in the first of several Public Broadcasting System concert specials, "Ramblin' with Josh White Jr." He sometimes toured with 1960s folk icon Tom Paxton, appearing with him and blues singer Odetta in the Soundstage: Just Folks PBS special in 1980.
In the early 1980s, White became interested in exploring his father's career artistically. Although the senior White had been one of the best-known blues musicians in the country in the 1930s, his fame had declined somewhat as white rock and roll listeners became interested in hard-core country blues musicians who had spent their entire lives in the rural South. White decided to return to the theatrical stage, this time as both performer and author. He and his friend Mayon Weeks warmed up with a small show called One for Me, One for You, and in 1983 he teamed up with another friend, Peter Link, to create the one-man show Josh: The Man and His Music, which dramatized his father's career and revived some of his best-known songs and performances.
Civil Rights Role
That show proved a roaring success, and White revived it in national tours every few years after its creation. The senior White, he told the Allentown Morning Call, was "someone our whole country should know about." He stressed his father's pioneering role in the struggle for racial equality. "Very few black performers in the '30s and '40s spoke about racial injustice for fear of reprisal," he told the Peoria, Illinois, Journal Star. "My dad and [actor] Paul Robeson, they both felt, 'If not us, who? If not now, when?'"
By the late 1990s, his efforts to ensure the recognition of his father's legacy bore fruit as the United States Postal Service included Josh White Sr. along with Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Sonny Terry in a stamp series honoring folk and blues pioneers. In 2000, blues author and musician Elijah Wald wrote a biography of the elder White, entitled Josh White: Society Blues. White and Wald toured together to promote the book's release.
Yet White continued to maintain an independent musical identity. His concerts included a variety of material ranging on occasion from Frank Sinatra's romantic ballad "One for My Baby" to the Garth Brooks country anthem "We Shall Be Free." He began writing songs for what his Web site terms "single-digit people" and developed a flourishing career giving concerts for children in the 1990s and early 2000s. His concerts for all ages reflected the idealistic values of the folk revival that had nurtured his music in the 1960s, and he told the Columbus Dispatch that he performed "songs that help people take pride in themselves." In 2002 he became the first artist asked and allowed to sing at the Ground Zero site that commemorated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in his hometown of New York.
See Saw, Decca, 1956.
Do You Close Your Eyes, Mercury, 1962.
(with Beverly White) Good & Drunk & Goozey, Sonnet, 1963.
I'm on My Own Way, Mercury, 1964.
The Josh White Jr. Album, United Artists, 1967.
One Step Further, United Artists, 1968.
Josh White Jr., Vanguard, 1978.
Delia's Gone, FFMM, 1983.
Jazz, Ballads & Blues, Rykodisc, 1986.
In Tribute to Josh White: House of the Rising Son, Silverwolf, 1999.
Cortelia Clark, Silverwolf, 2000.
Live, Silverwolf, 2003.
The Guitar of Josh White (instructional video), 1998.
It Starts with a Book …AND YOU (instructional video for children), Vince Deur Productions.
Boston Herald, November 18, 2000, p. 25.
Columbus Dispatch, February 27, 1992, p. 11.
Journal Star (Peoria, IL), February 23, 2001, p. B6.
Lincoln (NE) Journal Star, October 3, 2003, p. 17.
Morning Call (Allentown, PA), June 19, 1987, p. D1.
Reader (Chicago, IL), February 16, 2001, p. S3.
Washington Post, April 18, 1982, p. H3.
"Josh White Jr.," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 13, 2005).
"Josh White Jr.: Biography," Josh White Jr., www.joshwhitejr.com/bio.html (March 13, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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