Jerry Williams is Swamp Dogg, one of the most unsung recording artists and producers in the last half-century. All Music.com had a great description, calling Swamp Dogg “Raunchy, satirical, political, and profane … one of the great cult figures of 20th century American music.” I’d rank Swamp Dogg up there with great soul artists and producers like Curtis Mayfield and Quincy Jones. Really, this guy is that good and his recording output that voluminous. But Swamp Dogg was also more than a bit unconventional when it came to the topics of some of his own songs, not to mention his outrageous and hilarious album covers. Based on his stage name, the funny album covers, and his “I don’t give a shit, I’ll record whatever I like” attitude, I think he got a bum rap as “too weird”, which pigeonholed him and forced his music underground. It was unlikely, for instance, that you’d find Swamp Dogg records for sale in suburban shopping malls in the 1970s or 80s.
But the scarcity of Swamp Dogg albums has been rectified in recent years thanks to compilations of his music released on CD by Kent and Ace Records, as well as reissues on his own label, SDEG (Swamp Dogg Entertainment Group). And just this year there have been several more vintage Swamp Dogg albums reissued on the Alive Records label. All of those recordings show the world what they’ve been missing; an artist with the ability to write catchy tunes, but also songs that addressed political, racial, societal, and environmental issues. Ahead of his time, or too damn timely? The soul version of Frank Zappa? Whatever the case, it’s never too late to discover this amazing artist, a man who is still alive and well and recording music in his seventies. The world needs Swamp Dogg!
My introduction to Swamp Dogg was a vinyl copy of I’m Not Selling Out, I’m Buying In that I discovered in the early 1980s. I couldn’t resist an album cover like this one; the mighty Swamp Dogg, dressed head-to-toe in white (complete with top hat and cane), and standing on top of a table in a boardroom, surrounded by grumpy looking white businessmen. The songs had gloriously goofy titles such as “The Love We Got Ain’t Worth Two Dead Flies”, “Low Friends in High Places”, and “California is Drowning and I Live Down By the River.” From that point on, I was hooked; a Swamp Dogg fan for life.
Williams may have gained initial fame in the soul and R&B, but he acknowledges a debt to country music too. In an interview with NPR he talked about how much country music influenced him in his youth, when he listened to the radio at night: “Black music didn’t start ’til 10 at night until 4 in the morning and I was in bed by then … if you strip my tracks, take away all the horns and guitar licks, what you have is a country song.” In addition to his own recordings, Williams has produced singles and entire albums for the likes of Gary “US” Bonds, Johnny Paycheck, Doris Duke, Irma Thomas, Z.Z. Hill, and Arthur Conley. The album he wrote and produced for Duke, I’m A Loser, is widely considered by “Deep Soul” fans to be one of the very finest albums of that genre ever recorded. Another one of his productions, In Between Tears by Irma Thomas, was finally released on CD earlier this year. This 1973 recording was considered somewhat of a radical departure for the soul singer at the time, offering songs with more lyrical bite than she had previously recorded. I haven’t heard that album yet, but I have a copy on order.
Last month I picked up one of the new reissues, the very first album as Swamp Dogg, 1970’s Total Destruction To Your Mind. If I had to compare his style to anyone, the closest I can think of is Joe Tex, particularly the way that Swamp Dogg fuses elements of melodic yet funky soul and country in his songs. In addition to the original compositions, Swamp Dogg co-wrote three songs with Gary “US” Bonds, recorded two Joe South tunes (including the classic “Redneck”) and also a Bobby Goldsboro song. Seemingly still suffering an identity crisis, Swamp Dogg credited Jerry Williams for the piano parts on the album. Besides his keyboard skills, and organ contributions from Paul Hornsby (any relation to Bruce?), some lively horn arrangements by the Maconites had to the funky groove factor. Many soul fans rate this album as a classic and I think the praise is justified.
Another album that was released on CD this year was the equally adventurous Rat On, first released in 1971. And check out that cover! The album it was recorded at TK Studios in Florida and featured guests such as Betty Wright, Al Kooper, Lonnie Mack and a young employee at TK named Harry Wayne Casey, a guy who would gain fame a few years later as leader of his own band, KC & the Sunshine Band. Rat On included several Swamp Dogg originals, along with covers of songs by Joe South, Mickey Newbury, and even the Bee Gees. The most controversial song on the album was “God Bless America For What?”, a provocative tune that reportedly landed Swamp Dogg on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List.”
It’s All Good, is a 24-track singles collection released by Kent/Ace Records that offers highlights of Swamp Dogg’s career from 1963 to 1989. If you want to immerse yourself in all facets of the Swamp Dogg experience, this is the one to start with. You get a total of 75 minutes of funky soul music, all of it garnished and spiced by Swamp Dogg’s trademark wit and wisdom. Another compilation, the 24-track Blame It On the Dog, was also released by Kent/Ace Records, and is billed as “The Swamp Dogg Anthology” but it consists mostly of artists that Williams produced, performing songs that he wrote, along with a few Swamp Dogg originals. The lineup includes artists such as Z.Z. Hill, Ruth Brown, Pattie Labelle & The Bluebelles, The Drifters, and Gary “US” Bonds.