Swamp Dogg has never performed a lot in public, so when I had a chance to see him at South by Southwest in 1998, I arrived early to make sure I got close enough to the stage to see. After all, he is one of the strangest and most elusive of R&B geniuses.
The Victory Grill is a low-ceilinged, narrow nightclub at the center of Austin’s small but longstanding African-American community. Standing at the far end of the long bar was Swamp Dogg himself, a bowling-ball-shaped bundle of energy at 5’5”, resplendent in a white-knit shirt with gold designs and Elton John-ish rectangular frame glasses.
As he sang into his headset mic, he was in surprisingly good voice for a 56-year-old survivor of the music wars, perhaps because he never overdid the touring. Backed by five horns and a four-man rhythm section, he belted out his mini-dramas of marital infidelity (“Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” and “The Baby’s Mine”) and his psychedelic protest anthems (“Total Destruction to Your Mind” and “Synthetic World”). The evening’s climax, however, was his version of John Prine’s “Sam Stone.”
It began with just Swamp Dogg and two band members singing about the Vietnam veteran who returned from Asia “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.” One by one the instruments joined in until the beat was stomping, the horns were honking, and Swamp Dogg was hollering, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” As the musicians kept vamping, their leader went into a stream-of-consciousness monologue—part-stand-up comedy, part-sermon—about how Vietnam was connected to America’s drug crisis, the war in Kuwait and the homeless as if a cancer growth that won’t go away.
“When I heard ‘Sam Stone’ in 1968, I thought it was one of the greatest storytelling songs I’d ever heard,” says Jerry Williams (Swamp Dogg’s off-stage persona) over the phone from California. “It took the entire Vietnam conflict and wrapped it up in three verses. It’s one of the greatest songs I’ve ever been connected to, but after I’ve sung John’s lyrics, there’s more that I want to explain. If you didn’t get it completely, I’m going to tell you the story of what happened, and what’s still happening.”
Twenty-two years after that show—and 48 years after Swamp Dogg first recorded “Sam Stone”—the singer, now 78, is collaborating with Prine again. The two men sing two duets on the new Swamp Dogg album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, a project that also includes guest appearances from Justin Vernon, Jenny Lewis and Sam Amidon (pre-order it on BandCamp). Like Prine, these indie-pop figures are on board not only out of admiration for Williams’ songwriting but also in recognition that they all share roots in country music.
“I was raised up on country music down in Portsmouth, Virginia,” Williams points out. “It was laid out for us on the main station there, WLOW. Sheriff Tex Davis played country from 6 to midnight. Bob King and Jack Holmes played the blues and R&B from midnight to six; it was all on the same station. We soon learned that country and R&B were basically alike with the exception of who happened to be singing it at the time.
“The songs were the same, but the voices were used differently. The R&B voices were more soulful, and country music seemed to have more crying, more hurt than R&B back then. It’s not a real big difference. If you listen to an old album by Fats Domino or Ray Charles, you hear what a country song would sound like with a black singer. I liked it all.”
This is Swamp Dogg’s second attempt to release a country album. He recorded nine tracks for Mercury Nashville in 1981, featuring Sweetheart of the Rodeo steel guitarist J.D. Maness, but the album went unreleased until 2007 when it was added to a two-fer reissue. Maybe the label was uncomfortable with songs such as “When I Fell (Why Did I Fall in Love with You)” or “He Don’t Like Country Music (And He Hates Little Kids).”
Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, by contrast, was released right on time. This project was produced by Ryan Olson, co-founder of the duo Poliça and a co-writer with Justin Vernon for Bon Iver. A centerpiece of the album is “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got),” a top-10 R&B hit Williams wrote and produced for singer Freddie North in 1971. Nashville producer Billy Sherrill heard the song, changed the arrangement only slightly and had a #2 country hit with Johnny Paycheck singing it.
“I didn’t think the black stations would catch onto it,” Williams recalls, “but they did. Then white stations started playing it, and Billy Sherrill heard it. His version went all the way. The song has a I-IV-V-I chord structure, just like the blues. It’s the voice that makes it country. If you listen to Johnny Paycheck, with his straight-ahead, no-frills singing, you hear the real country.”
The song tells a story similar to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” or Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”: the singer pleads with a flirtatious friend to not steal the singer’s beloved. On this new recording, Vernon plays the clipped guitar, Derrick Lee plays the B-3 organ and Swamp Dogg delivers a terrific vocal, torn between affection for his girlfriend and anxiety over his rival, between R&B purring and country twang.
The song was co-written with Gary Anderson, better known as Gary U.S. Bonds, who’d had five top-10 pop hits in 1960-62—and who’d later have his 1981 comeback album co-produced and co-written by Bruce Springsteen. Anderson, two years older than Williams, lived a block away on Tazwell Street in Portsmouth, and the two became songwriting partners.
“He was a hero down there,” Williams remembers. “Everyone wanted to meet him, but it wasn’t difficult to get with him, because he hung out at his manager’s record shop. We’d talk and eventually he said, ‘I have a couple things I’ve been working on,’ and he’d let me see them. Then we’d walk down to my house, and I’d show him what I was doing. And an alliance was formed.” They went on to co-write a sizable minority of the more than 2,000 songs that Williams claims to have authored.
When Williams first performed at a local talent show, the song he sang was the country hit, Red Foley’s “Peace in the Valley.” Back then he was billed as Little Jerry, and he worked steadily covering country and R&B hits. He released his own single, “HTD Blues,” in 1954 when he was 12. As Little Jerry Williams, he enjoyed a top-40 R&B hit with “Baby You’re My Everything” in 1966, and in 1968 he co-wrote and arranged Gene Pitney’s top-20 pop hit, “She’s a Heartbreaker.”
“Usually my words come first,” Williams says. “I’m more of a wordsmith than a musician. Most of my titles paint a picture for me, like ‘Memories (Don’t Leave Like People Do)’ from the new album. Or the old song, ‘To the Other Woman I’m the Other Woman.’ Gary saw that on a subway advertisement, and as soon as he told me about it, I heard a story right away, laid right out. We wrote that song in less than an hour, because melodies have always been super easy for me; they come to me from everywhere. I could make them up for days.”
After a while, though, he got tired of being called “Little,” of singing other people’s songs on the chitlin’ circuit and of writing conventional R&B numbers. He wanted to reinvent himself. “I was having anxiety attacks,” he explains. “I needed an alter ego. I needed somebody to speak up for me. Other people took credit for my shit, because it was very easy to push me aside.
“I had these new songs, but when I set out to make a deal, everyone was asking for the name of the artist. I didn’t want to say Little Jerry Williams, because he’d been around too long, even though he’d been on the charts a few times. But he didn’t have the personality I wanted to have. So I said, ‘Dog.’ That was the weirdest thing they’d heard of, so I knew I was on the right track. Eventually that became Swamp Dogg.”
It was spelled that way from the start, back before Snoop Dogg was even born. And to match the new name, Williams came up with a new sound, inspired by Sly Stone, “one of my heroes, because he invented the new music.” To Stone’s groundbreaking fusion of rock, funk and soul, Williams added his off-the-wall lyrics and Southern country roots.
The first Swamp Dogg album, 1970’s Total Destruction to the Mind, was released the same year as Funkadelic, the debut album for a similar-minded act with more of a Northern sound. Swamp Dogg’s debut album yielded a top-40 R&B single, “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe,” but that would be his last real hit. But he soon won a devoted cult following for his protest lyrics, his catchy hooks, his Southern funk and his unforgettable album covers.
The cover of 1971’s Rat On! for example, featured a bearded Swamp Dogg astride a giant white rat. The cover of 1991’s Surfin’ in Harlem depicted the singer in a flour-sack outfit surfing atop the spray from a Manhattan fire hydrant. The cover of 2007’s Resurrection found the performer nailed to a crucifix with an American flag for his loincloth.
As outrageous as Swamp Dogg was in public, Jerry Williams was just as methodical behind the scenes. Swamp Dogg brags about his sexual conquests, but Williams was married to the same women for decades till his beloved Yvonne died in 2003. Once he’s on stage, Swamp Dogg will extemporize on any subject that catches his attention, but behind the scenes Jerry Williams is meticulously crafting the songs and pitching them to producers.
“Having an alter ego helped,” Williams says, “because Swamp Dogg wasn’t afraid of a ‘no.’ I had fortified Swamp Dogg, so you couldn’t hurt him. Swamp Dogg can’t write his name, but Jerry Williams is behind the scenes at all times, writing the songs. Swamp Dogg is more brazen, has more get up and go than Jerry; he’s not afraid to speak his mind. That’s one reason he never became a big artist, only a cult artist. But Jerry is a better friend, a better family person.”
A few years ago, Williams was worried that he’d run out of ideas for his Swamp Dogg persona. Olson, who’d played bass and keys on Swamp Dogg’s previous album, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, offered to produce the country album Williams had always wanted to make. Olson traveled to California and stayed at Williams’s home for a week, going through all of the songwriter’s music: sheet music, cassettes, discs. He played the house’s jukebox, stuffed with nothing but 45s produced and/or written by Williams.
Olson selected the 10 tunes for Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, Williams’s long-hoped-for country album. “For the first time in my life,” Williams confesses, “I let someone else pick the songs and arrange them.” Olson reached out to Prine, Vernon and Lewis to secure their participation. “I hadn’t seen John since 1968,” Williams adds, “but we picked up right where we left off. Justin was a fan, and I was a fan of his, because he made strange-ass music that I liked.”
It’s not a conventional country album. It includes “Family Pain,” a harrowing blues about a family ravaged by crack addiction, their affliction reflected in Vernon’s guitar and Amidon’s fiddle. “A Good Song” sets to music Williams’ philosophy about the porous border between blues and country. “I Lay Awake” is a dramatic piano ballad about a man lying in bed at night, tormented by “pictures in my mind” of the woman who left.
But the most affecting songs are those about his late wife Yvonne. “Billy” depicts the singer visiting his ex-wife’s grave and telling her about their son. The two duets with Prine are stoic meditations on getting old. The gently swinging “Memories” suggests that “in my mind I’m always gonna be with you.” The hymn-like ballad “Please Let Me Go Round Again” finds the two old men wishing they had one more chance to get it right.
“On June 20, John Prine and I will be at the Apollo Theatre in New York,” Williams says. “I haven’t made up my mind who’s going on stage. Is it Swamp Dogg or is it Jerry Williams? Or do I try to put them together? I don’t know who I want to be, and that kind of thing that will fuck you up. This is more of a Jerry Williams record than a Swamp Dogg record. I know I put Swamp Dogg on the cover, but if I put Smokey the Bear on the front cover, but that doesn’t make it a Smokey the Bear album.”
Swamp Dogg and Jerry Williams live inside the same brain, sometimes getting along and sometimes fighting. Out of their unusual relationship have come some of the strangest, most compelling records of the past half century.