Published Dec 04, 2013Although Jerry Williams Jr. cut his first R&B record at age 12, it wasn't until he created his alter ego, Swamp Dogg, in 1970 that he found his true musical calling. Swamp's first three albums, Total Destruction To Your Mind, Rat On! (with its unforgettable cover art) and Gag A Maggot, combined acid-tinged Southern-fried funk and biting social commentary with a National Lampoon-ish sense of humour that instantly made him the cult hero he remains over 40 years later.
At the same time, Swamp was producing albums for a host of R&B legends, and even co-writing country hits like the often recorded "She's All I Got," which Johnny Paycheck took to the top of the chart in 1971. A significant chunk of this work has recently been reissued by Alive Naturalsound under the banner Swamp Dogg's Soul & Blues Collection, and includes not only his own classic albums, but Doris Duke's deep soul masterpiece I'm A Loser and long-forgotten gems by Irma Thomas, Sandra Phillips, and the mysterious Wolfmoon. Exclaim! got to have a rather salty discussion with the 71-year-old Swamp Dogg about his illustrious career, one that shows no signs of slowing down, as he is currently in the midst of a U.S. tour on the heels of these reissues.
How does it feel to be back on the road right now?
It's something that I've missed for a while. I mean, I didn't pine over it, but every now and then when I thought about it, I missed it. It's added to my happiness. I was already happy. Now I'm even happier.
Do you have a good band with you?
Well, you have to play with pick-up bands because of the economy. People don't want to pay for hotels and plane tickets. I do have a great band, but I use those guys mainly when I go to Europe, the West Indies or South America, because those places pay so good. But here in the States, it's fine, it's fine. I realize I'm not Elton John.
Have you ever played in Canada?
No. I've been to Windsor about six or seven times, but that was as a little boy when I was spending the summers with my aunt in Detroit. The first official vacation my family and I took together was in the early '70s and that was to Niagara Falls. So that was it. Other than [late '50s TV show] Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and all that shit, that's all I know about Canada.
Well, I hope you can at least play a show in Toronto sometime.
I would love to. I'll work in the cold, as long as I ain't working outside!
You were making records for a long time before you started recording as Swamp Dogg. But now do you consider those first three albums a golden period for you?
Yes and no. At the time that I was doing them, I thought I was doing something great and something that had a chance of staying around a while. Well, most of them have, but the best is always yet to come. Total Destruction is considered my top album because it has so much insight; it was so far ahead of its time, message-wise. But I also have some albums coming out, like Cuffed, Collared & Tagged, which was actually my third album. We're having problems with the estate [of Cream Records]. They claim I don't own it, and I have proof that I do. But Alive Records is afraid of getting caught up in a lawsuit, because it just might not be worth the money. Collectors are buying my shit, and after you run out of collectors you've got some new fans and college people and shit. But that might not add up to paying an attorney. I feel that's one of my very, very best albums though.
Were you really feeling in a groove as a songwriter at that time?
Yeah, that's what we were, [writing partners] Gary Bonds, Charlie Whitehead and myself. It was our time. I'll give you an example: It's a rapper's time right now. Lil' Wayne might show up ten years from now and not draw anybody. It'll be someone else's time. Everything I did was what the industry wanted. It was natural, it was not fake or put on. Now, unless I'm cutting me, I have to listen to what's going on and try to find myself a niche. I won't do that to Swamp Dogg, but I'll do that with my other artists I produce because I want them to make money so I can make money. When I cut Swamp Dogg, I don't really make no money. People applaud me for what I did and the nerve it took, but there ain't no way in the world I'd keep my career fucked up like that. But there's so many things I want to say, and only Swamp Dogg can say them. If somebody sent you to me to make an album, I wouldn't write a bunch of songs about the government and Canada's health plan and all that bullshit. We would go into the studio and make a quote-unquote commercial album.
How did you start producing all of those great R&B artists like Solomon Burke and Ruth Brown?
Number one, like I said, it was my time. People wanted to be associated with me. Right after I cut "Baby You're My Everything" as Jerry Williams and that became a hit, I went on to work with Gene Pitney and Inez & Charlie Foxx, and a bunch of them. Everybody wanted one of my songs, or some of my songs. So, they actually reached out for me.
I hadn't heard Doris Duke's I'm A Loser until now, and it's an amazing record, mostly in the way you were able to write those songs from a woman's perspective. That must be a special album for you as well, true?
It is. It was a concept album. I love writing loser songs, and songs about infidelity. I get off on it because I get pictures in my mind of some guy getting caught and getting bashed in the head by his wife. When I'm writing them, they're actually funny. Then there's a song like "Ghost of Myself" on that album. Picture: Here's the bitch wandering around, and she's not part of anything anymore. She's just floating, like a poltergeist and shit. Life's still going on and all he left her was a ghost of her fucking self. He damn near killed her, mentally. She still goes to work and everything, but she doesn't have any high expectations anymore. "If another man would come along, I couldn't give him a sincere smile." In other words, he's taken everything she had that she could work with as a woman to appeal to a man. And this guy took it, and he's somewhere else having a ball.
That was the song Duane Allman played on, right? I heard the story that he just dropped by the studio as you were cutting the track.
Yeah. It would be like I come by your house when you're making demos and you said, "Hey man, you want to play piano on this?" Duane would say, "Hey man, you guys mind if I sat in?" He would be trying to come down off his high and he wasn't ready to go to bed. This was around four, five, six o'clock in the morning. They would just have gotten back to town, and when you come to Macon, Georgia — goddamn, you're fucking nowhere. Capricorn Studios was the only thing happening.
Those must have been exciting times, being around the Allman Brothers and so many other great musicians then. Did it feel like a close-knit group?
Oh yeah. I wasn't on Capricorn Records though. I produced a lot of Capricorn acts. I produced Arthur Conley and Wet Willie, and two or three others. It was fine, even though [Capricorn president] Phil Walden and I never got along 100 percent. There were always a few percentages missing. But he never did fuck with me in the studio. He was always real cool about what I was cutting, what I was doing, how I was doing it. The only time he got funky was when it was time to pay. "Did I promise you that much? Oh, I couldn't have." And he was serious. I just talked to Jim Hawkins, who engineered all the stuff at Capricorn. I just talked to him yesterday, and he's got a state of the art studio in Athens, Georgia. We're gonna do some work with the old guys we can pull together, like Johnny Sandlin, who was the most creative drummer I've ever worked with. The bad part about it is he really didn't want to be a drummer. He wanted to be a producer. So, we'll get him and Robert Popwell on bass, who I know has had wrist surgery and open heart surgery and I don't know what else. I know the notes are in his head but he ain't executing them the way he can execute. I'm not one to talk though. I'm gonna let other people determine where the fuck I am. I still think I'm at the top of my game, but more than likely I'm not [laughs]. I do have a new album coming out at the end of March called The White Man Made Me Do It.
What do you think about the new retro-soul music being made nowadays?
Yeah, Sharon Jones and all that. I like it. I like it a lot.
Lee Fields is another artist who's part of that revival. He's someone you worked with in the '70s and he's been making some great records recently.
Lee's a good friend of mine, and I hadn't seen him in years until we played the North Sea Festival in Rotterdam together a few years ago. He invited me to a show he was doing in L.A. about six months ago but I couldn't go. But he's kicking ass all over the world and I love what he's doing. His thing has a club feel to it—disco isn't the word anymore—which still is not bad. If you're selling records, fuck it.
The album you produced for Irma Thomas, In Between Tears, is a real gem too. But then there's the story of the two of you running into each other years later, and she didn't remember you at all.
[Laughs] Yeah, right! But then I read an article, maybe about a year ago, where the writer asked her about me, and she didn't have much to say. All she said was, "He's a genius, but he's a little crazy." I guess that's what she remembers. Then again, maybe she didn't remember me. People come up to me all the time and say, "hey Swamp" or "hey Jerry" — and when they say "hey Jerry" I know them motherfuckers go way back. I'll be looking at them and talking to them, trying to figure out who this nigga is, and after a while I have to say, "Hey man, you just gotta excuse me, I done fucking forgot who you are." Then he'd bring me up to date, and sometimes I still can't remember who they are because they were actually in the company of somebody else I was dealing with, so they considered themselves my buddy.
I have to ask about Wolfmoon [aka Tyrone Thomas] too. I hadn't heard of him until now. What's his story?
He is one of the best singers I've ever produced, or run into. He's got a top range as a tenor, and can go all the way down in the basement of bass. But this motherfucker has no integrity, no compassion, nothing. It's all about him. The first time I recorded him was in the early '60s and he took the masters back to his hometown, Richmond VA, and a guy there named Mr. Wiggles put them out on Wiggle Records or some shit. When I called down there, they threatened to kick my ass. So I left that alone because I'm not a fighter, I'm a writer. Hey, that's a good line, I'm not a fighter, I'm a writer. I gonna use that! You can use it too!
Anyway, recording him was great. Getting along with him, and living with him — because he stayed at my house for a long time — was a nightmare. This motherfucker could piss Jesus off. He'd walk around mumbling curse words under his breath. A few years ago he sent me a video of him singing some new songs, but I didn't watch it because I was afraid I might like it and put another deal together. After each of our other two deals, my ass was bloody. Oh yeah, he'd stick it in ya, boy.
But he's still, I think, one of the greatest singers to ever come along. And this motherfucker could play drums like they were made for him. He played in the Charlie Whitehead Band, he played with Doris Duke on the road, he played for me. Only thing is, his temperament is one of, "I know what I'm doing, you don't have a clue what you're doing. Even though you're paying me, you don't know what the fuck you're doing." I remember I was in Kansas, singing "Mama's Baby, Daddy's Maybe" — singing the shit out of it — and all of a sudden he did a riff and stopped the song. He told me, "People have heard enough of that shit, you're boring the fuck out of them." Well, ain't you a motherfucker. But that's okay. I fired him in Kansas City. And I'm not a bad spirited person. I don't believe in what you call luck, I believe in blessings. They're both the same thing. If you go to church you believe in blessings, and if you don't you believe in luck. Now I've forgotten what the fuck I was talking about.
That's okay. I wanted to ask about another guy you know, Andre Williams. On one of his last albums, there's a song called "Swamp Dogg's Hot Spot," that's a great tribute to you. What can you tell me about Andre?
Well, once you meet Andre, you do not forget Andre. I've got one album out on Andre. I sat down to talk a deal with Alive for it, but they didn't like it because he took a shot at doing a rap/hip-hop album he wanted to call Directly From the Street. I think it's got potential, and I think his audience will love it. It's not that much of a departure from where he is. We did the album and it was fun. He produced most of it. Somebody else producing Andre Williams is like somebody else producing Swamp Dogg — you don't know what's on his mind. But Andre, he's a damn good friend of mine. I like him a lot. If you spent any time with us, you'd end up in the nut house, and not just for the weekend.
Are there any other albums you've done where you thought for sure they'd be smash hits and they weren't?
It would take me about an hour and a half to rattle them all off. When I cut the Commodores, I thought it was gonna be a smash. Lionel Richie, there's another son of a bitch who won't acknowledge me. In his book, he referred to me as "some A&R guy from New York." That's when you start to realize what people really think of you, when that much time goes by. But then, for the longest time, my family thought I was Sam the Sham. I remember driving somewhere with my mother and "Wooly Bully" came on the radio and she said, "Ain't that your song?" She was so proud, and then I had to tell her it wasn't me! [laughs]