Swamp Dogg: The Cream Interview

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Swamp Dogg's 1970 full-length, Total Destruction to Your Mind, updated soul music with post-psychedelic, Southern-fried guitar, and made its destructive point with acerbic lyrics about racism, rednecks, consumerism and the end of the world. Swamp Dogg is the pseudonym — the souldonym, really — of veteran producer, singer and songwriter Jerry Williams Jr., who had achieved a few successes of his own in the '60s while producing hits for the likes of Gene Pitney and Charlie and Inez Foxx. Total Destruction to Your Mind was the work of a dissatisfied man, and a glimpse into one possible future for the soul music Williams had helped to create in the 1960s.

Along with 1971's Rat On!, Swamp Dogg's Total Destruction is getting a long-overdue reissue. Alive Naturalsound Records has released spiffy remastered versions of the two albums on CD and vinyl, and it could be that a new generation of music fans will come to appreciate the work of a brilliant, prolific soul auteur. Born in Virginia in 1942, Williams has also had a close connection with Nashville for decades — with co-writer Gary U.S. Bonds, Williams penned a classic country song, "She's All I Got," which went on to be a 1971 hit for Nashville soul singer Freddie North, as well as a smash for country vocalist Johnny Paycheck.

Produced by Williams for Mankind, a Nashville soul label, North's version of "She's All I Got" is true country-soul crossover. Cut in Music City with producer Billy Sherrill after the North version had made the charts, Paycheck's version is stone country. The song has been recorded by around 90 artists, including Conway Twitty, Norma Jean and Floyd Cramer. A decade later, Williams came to Nashville and cut an idiosyncratic country album for Mercury. It didn't see the light of day until Williams himself released it on CD some years later.

A songwriter whose trademark is a blithe aggression that reveals the aggrieved heart and soul of an incurable idealist and romantic, Williams has released a bewildering array of recordings in his nearly 60-year career. Before he adopted his Swamp Dogg moniker, Williams hit in 1966 with "Baby, You're My Everything," a mid-tempo tune that isn't as sentimental as the title may suggest. As Swamp Dogg, Williams has recorded with such musicians as guitarist Jesse Carr and bassist Robert Popwell, along with Mississippi singer and drummer George Soulé, Miami guitar legend Willie "Little Beaver" Hale and legendary soul-funk-country-disco singer Esther Phillips.

Apart from Total Destruction and Rat On!, Swamp Dogg cut the hard-driving — and superb — 1973 full-length, Gag a Maggott [sic], which integrates sardonic horns into futuristic blues shuffles. On that record's "Please Let Me Kiss You Goodbye," Swamp Dogg sings about a woman who falls for a guy wearing "a little diamond ring and his bell-bottom suit." Other Swamp Dogg songs address the many facets of the male-female dynamic: Cut by both Freddie North and Swamp Dogg himself, "Did I Come Back Too Soon (Or Stay Away Too Long)" is a soul tune that ends with its hapless narrator peeking around his bedroom door as his wife makes it with another woman.

His 1977 track, "Understanding California Women," features a narrator who goes home with a Beverly Hills woman who wears "shorts so tight, they wouldn't let her cheeks breathe," and becomes a kept man. And perhaps most succinctly, his 1976 "Or Forever Hold Your Peace" is an ingenious country-pop song about a father who has known, quite well, the wife-to-be of his beloved son.

I'm a fan — I drove from Memphis to Nashville in September 1998 to see Swamp Dogg play a pickup-band show at Nashville's now-defunct Sutler. His two sets that year appear to have been the only Nashville dates in his long career, although he's done a lot of recording here. His great air-raid siren voice is intact, and he's still recording: recent records include a Christmas collection and a set of rock 'n' roll oldies. If anyone working in popular music has enlarged soul music's thematic and musical scope, it's Williams. We caught up with the master musician at his California home.

Jerry, we understand you're living in Southern California these days.

Yeah, I've been living out here for about 40 years. They can stick Northern California up their ass. That's like being in New York.

You've also spent time in Nashville.

It's cool, and it's cold, in Nashville. But I was sayin' it's cold, 'cause I've been there in the winter, stayin' with a couple of friends of mine down there, and boy, he got ready to take me to the airport one morning, and he had to get hot water and put it on the door handle so he could open the son-of-a-bitch.

Tell us about the new reissues of your first two Swamp Dogg records. They're amazing, and sound fresh after 40 years.

Well, first of all, the first one [Total Destruction to Your Mind], I didn't even have a clue. I wasn't even Swamp Dogg. It was just Jerry Williams in the studio, with a bunch of songs he liked, and I had a good crew: I had [drummer] Johnny Sandlin, [pianist] Paul Hornsby, Pete Carr and Robert Popwell. We just had a bunch of great musicians, and all of 'em were exuding ideas. Sometimes, there comes a time when a producer wants to try his ideas first, before he listens to people. In that case, although I was the producer, I didn't go in there as a producer. I went in there as a guy who wanted all the help he could get in making a hit record. I'm gonna give you an example: on "Total Destruction to Your Mind," right at the end, Johnny Sandlin is rollin' the drums — "shik-a-took-a, shik-a-took-a" — and I didn't like it. But everybody in the studio liked it. So I said, "Well, then, let's roll with it." And that's what we did. There are times when you're just not ready to make a good decision.

As Swamp Dogg, you could write about forbidden, off-limits subjects? Was that the idea?

Yeah, yeah, right. It was, uh, I wouldn't go so far as to say "forbidden." I've got people who come up to me and say — especially black people — "That [Total Destruction track] 'Redneck,' man, did you think you'd get in trouble with that?" I said, "That was written by a white boy [Joe South]! I didn't write it; he wrote it. So why should anybody be mad at me? I'm just repeatin' what he said."

So you were always looking for great songs back then.

Yeah. I'm still that way. I've got two songs recorded that I did Sunday. Only the rhythm section, and a pilot vocal, that I did for the new album that I'm coming out with. I might be finished with this new album in the next, I don't know, two, three months. 'Cause every piece of material in there has to mean something, and it's got to be Swamp Dogg. I found I had not lost Swamp Dogg since the first three albums. But I had misplaced the shit out of him.

In what way?

In other words, I had put Swamp Dogg somewhere so far behind, even when I restarted, I couldn't find him. And it took me different ways, musically. I'm speaking to resolve this in my mind, and find him and bring him back.

So you were committed to pushing boundaries with Swamp Dogg, and that wasn't happening any more?

That's the word: committed. Yeah. I had lost a lot of commitment. In one stage of my life, I thought I was greater than I was. In another stage of my life, I felt inferior to everybody. You know, that's a see-saw kinda thing. But neither one of them has positive outcomes. So I had to work on myself, mentally. Not just my music, but my everyday life. I feel real good about where I am at this moment.

Did it have something to do with your definition of success?

That could be part of it. But I was also lookin' for something even greater. It's like high-definition television. I was expecting much, much more when these motherfuckers came to my house and put in all those boxes and shit, and I got this big, wide screen. And I turned it on and I said, "It's the same shit. It's just a little brighter."

I saw you play in 1998 in Nashville — I believe you did two sets.

Were you at that one place I played? What was it called?

The Sutler.

So you were one of the six people, huh?

Yeah. Had you played Nashville before, Swamp?

Never. Never. I tell you what I used to do. Whenever I was in Nashville, at the time, the hotel to stay in was Shoney's. It was nice and really clean, had everything — everybody was stayin' there. I used to walk across the street, and there was a club over there. I forget the name of the club, but I used to go over to that club and go up and sing. I'd sing maybe one song, two songs. And I would get standing ovations. But I wasn't tryin' to sing country. I was just singin' what I sing. But naturally, the music was country, because it was a country band. That was the only times I really did anything in Nashville. I recorded in Nashville.

I really like the work you did with Freddie North on the Mankind label.

He already had a soul album he had produced. But Mankind, that was my label, to put all my stuff on, anything I picked up that I liked.

Tell me about writing "She's All I Got," which is a country standard.

Well, we actually were just in my basement. At that time, I lived in Queens, and Gary had most of the words written out on a piece of paper he'd been carryin' around in his pocket for God knows how long. We used to try to get together at least four times a week, and write. All we could do is write. We didn't have anybody to write for. He brought that out, and when he read me the words, a melody came to mind immediately. The music came to mind immediately. We switched a couple of words, just a few, and that was the song.

Now, when I went to cut Freddie North, I pulled it out and played it. He liked it. Nobody was, like, knocked overboard by it, you know. It was like singin' "Three Blind Mice" — in the arrangement, the song didn't go anywhere. And that wasn't because of Freddie. I felt like we hadn't given him a vehicle that would go anywhere. He was going around and around the block. That's when I decided to put that tail end on it, where you just slow down, and you've got nothing but that little groove, and then it goes, "Kiss the ground in the summertime, and make the flowers grow." That was what sold that record. And then the girls come in like a gospel thing.

Tell me about meeting Freddie North.

When I started the label, they kinda left it up to Freddie as to what he thought of the idea of bringin' me and my label aboard. [North, whose real name is Freddie Carpenter, was born in Nashville in 1939. He recorded throughout the '60s, and was national promotions director for Nashboro Records when Williams started Mankind as a Nashboro subsidiary.] Freddie, who didn't know me but had heard some of my production, had nothing but good things to say. That's what got me in. He could've kept me out, easily. That runs rampant among lots of musicians and producers, of all colors. They know they're good, but they'll do what they can to keep you out, if they can. That was the first thing that gave me the utmost respect for him. And [Nashboro executive] Bud Howell said, "Now, here's what I want you to do. Freddie here thinks he can sing. I want you to produce a record on him, if you come on board." I said, "No problem."

So we signed the papers and passed the money 'round and everything, and then Freddie came out to New York — by that time I'd moved to Long Island — and we worked on the material. [I interviewed North last year, and asked him about working with Williams on the Friend album. North said, "One day, he was gonna drive from over in Jersey to the city. I go outside and get in the car, in the back, and he and his wife were in the front. He starts the car up and he sits there for a minute — we got our seat belts on. All of a sudden, he slapped it into gear and floored that thing, and took off from a standstill. He was gone. And when we would go into the studio, that's the exact procedure he would take, right there."]

Were you surprised at the success of "She's All I Got"?

Yeah, I really was, because first of all, I don't even think I wanted to put that record out as the first single. But they did, and everybody heard it, except me.

Do you have a favorite version?

There's about 90 covers. Johnny Paycheck for sure. Him and Freddie. I kinda like Floyd Cramer's instrumental of it. Sheb Wooley, he did a version. He got in touch with us and said he was gonna do it, and he wanted half the publishing. So I told him to go suck out my ass. Like I'm gonna give him half on the publishing on a song that is nominated for a Grammy and shit, just for him to go in and community-ize it. There is no such word, but I think I like that — community-ize the fuckin' song. But he did it anyway.

Freddie North told me his version of "She's All I Got" sold 900,000 copies.

It sold a million-one. What happened, when it got up to 900,000, I made a deal with the Armed Forces for 100,000. And they took 'em. Because of the exposure that came from that, another hundred thousand was sold.

What do you think of the term, "country-soul"?

If you take away the horns from most of my recording, you've really got somewhat of a country version. Like Mickey Newbury's "She Just Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye" and even "God Bless America for What," they're country. I am country. I was raised up on country music. The only black music I heard was on jukeboxes in service stations and places like that. The first talent show I ever appeared on, I came in second place. I sang "Peace in the Valley" by Red Foley. Everybody in the house was into country, but they were also into Louis Jordan and that kind of shit.

Your 1971 album with Z.Z. Hill, The Brand New Z.Z. Hill, was designed as a kind of blues opera. Tell me about working on that.

Yeah, that was the idea — a blues opera. I wrote the opera to be in three parts, and the other side was supposed to be designed for the fans that Z.Z. already had. I wasn't crazy enough to jump out there — like, "Fats Domino at the Met," I wasn't gonna do no shit like that. The way we edited the opera, for singles, his audience went crazy. They loved it.

You've always been ahead of your time, and such an innovator, Jerry.

It embarrasses me when people say shit like that. Other people have said it like that, and there are so many other producers and writers I that I envy and admire, and who I feel are so much better than I am. I don't take myself real seriously, although I'm very serious when I write and produce.

Tell us about your 1981 Nashville-recorded country album, which is legendary.

It's on The Excellent Sides of Swamp Dogg, Vol. 5. Steve Popovich was over at Mercury Nashville. He and I had been friends since the '60s. I had this idea of an outrageous black country singer, with the cape and all of that shit. It was close to what maybe Little Richard would've done, or did. But mine was gonna be purely country. I got to Nashville, and cut it, because, at that time, if it wasn't cut in Nashville, it wasn't country. I went into the studio there and cut it. When I got back to Mercury with it, my man Steve was goin' crazy. But then all of a sudden, it cooled. It was right around the time those old boys had "Elmira." What was the name of the group?

You mean "Elvira"? The Oak Ridge Boys.

Yeah, "Elvira." They were hotter than cayenne pepper. Whoever was at the top, over Steve, they were, like, afraid to fuck with it, although they had given the go-ahead at first. Like any of us, we say, "Yeah," and on the way home, you start thinkin' about that. You say, "Shit, I can't do no shit like that." So I understood it, you know.

I love your song, "Understanding California Women," about a guy who takes up with a kind of new-age woman. How did you write that?

I looked at it as what I had seen happen out here in California. Guys would meet a woman, and she's got the means and the money and everything, and they'd take him in. They'd carry the guy home — hey, he's living good. But she wouldn't give him no money, you know, and then, one day, it was over, and he didn't have shit. I guess she let him take the clothes.

You also worked with Esther Phillips on a song titled "The Love We Got Ain't Worth Two Dead Flies." What was that like?

When I went with Takoma Records, I wanted to do a female thing with somebody, whoever was available, who had a name. So when she met me, she said, "I done heard about you, Swamp Dogg. I know you're clean and you don't do this, and you don't do that. But I do, and you better go get me some."

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