As evidenced by a recently-inaugurated reissue series, the larger-than-life character—and first-rate songwriter—born Jerry Williams, Jr. had substance, personality, and above all, soul.
BY CARL HANNI
The world of soul, funk and R&B is heavily populated with major characters and outsize personalities, which is hardly surprising: they are entertainers, after all. Popular music is also one of the few realms where eccentric behavior can be celebrated as opposed to shunned. Yesterday’s high school outcast or town weirdo can be tomorrow’s chart topper or night club headliner, given the right set of circumstances.
R&B and funk seems to be particularly populated with willful eccentrics and those whose fires burn especially bright. Think Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Andre Williams, Blowfly, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Rufus Thomas and yea, you also better think Swamp Dogg, aka Jerry Williams, Jr. In March Alive Natural Sound reissued Dogg’s first two full length classics, Total Destruction To Your Mind (1970) and Rat On! (1971); he had previously recorded some sides under the name his parents called him growing up. Dogg is a first class character, from the whack cover art on his records, to his hilariously surreal and self congratulatory liner notes to his all-over-the-place lyrical musings. Fortunately the man has substance, not just personality, and both of these are red hot platters of burning Southern Soul.
Both discs were recorded at a high water mark for Southern Soul, Total Destruction… at Capricorn Studios in Macon, GA, and Rat On! at Quinvy Studio in Muscle Shoals, AL. And both use the world class musicians available in those studios, including drummers Johnny Sandlin and Jaspur Guarino, bass player Robert Popwell, guitarist Jesse Carr, keyboard player Paul Hornsby and various horn players and back up singers. These cats lay down a swampy soul groove to equal most anything at the time, all bathed in the wondrously warm analog sound of the era. Swamp Dogg wrote or co-wrote most of the material, produced and arranged everything, plays piano and “everything else of any importance” as he so modestly puts it. And of course he sings it all in his strong, Southern dipped voice, comfortable in the mid and especially higher registers.
Williams/Dogg’s outsized personality infuses most everything with a touch of the surreal, from the see-it-to-believe-it photo on the cover of Total Destruction… to the cheeky liner notes (he name checks Gene Autry, Moms Mabley, Phil Walden, Snow White, Jerry Wexler and Wally Roker in one sentence), and then on to the music, even the straight up soul numbers. How about we just lay a few song titles out there? We’ve got “Dust Your Head Color Red,” “Sal-A-Faster,” “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe,” “Redneck” (by Joe South), “Synthetic World,” “Total Destruction To Your Mind” and six others from the first record, and “Predicament #2,” “That Ain’t My Wife,” “God Bless America For What,” and seven more on the more straight-ahead second. It’s important to know that these aren’t novelty songs in any way at all, and Dogg’s isn’t a jokey performer, per se: sure, some of them are funny, others are topically pissed off, but most are straight up soul numbers that could have been on the radio at the time. He may be a bit off-the-wall, but there’s always an underlying sense of integrity to what he’s doing, at least as far as these two releases go.
Most importantly, they really are great songs, from start to finish on both records. Check “Total Destruction…,” “Remember, I Said Tomorrow,” “Creeping Away,” “Mama’s Baby, “Daddy’s Maybe,” “Do You Believe,” “Do Our Thing Together,” and really just about anything here and you’ll find the vintage goods, sounding as good today as they the day they were laid down.
The third Alive Natural Sound installment turned up recently, 1973’s Gag a Maggot, which picked right up where its two predecessors left off, a wide territory that spans the distance between the surreal and the soulful. The beauty of Swamp Dogg is that he scores both coming and going: he’s both a hilariously in-your-face character with a wicked, deeply off-the-wall sense of humor, and a terrific soul singer and songwriter. He also benefited from recording in some of the great southern studios which were stacked with world class house musicians. Gag a Maggot was cut in Miami, and benefits immeasurably from the smooth, funky guitar playing of Willie Hale, aka Little Beaver, one of the great blues/soul fusion guitar players of the era. The band (Little Beaver, bass player Ron Bogdon, drummer Ivan Olander, some horns and Williams on piano) cooks up tight, tasty southern soul grooves than bridge the gap between gospel, soul and country.
Gag a Maggot features nine Dogg/Williams originals, several co-written with one S. McKinney, a decent version of “Midnight Hour,” and a throw away version “Honky Tonk Women,” one of two bonus tracks not on the original LP. As always, the songs titles tell a lot of the story: “Wife Sitter,” “Choking to Death (From the Ties that Bind),” “I Couldn’t Pay For What I Got Last Night,” “Plastered to the Wall (Higher Than the Ceiling)” and a live version of his nasty slow blues classic “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe,” the other extra track. The material flows effortlessly from raunchy to topical to sweet, a nice trick if you can pull it off.
But seriously, the record is worth the price of admission for the recently penned liner notes alone, both in the insert and the CD sleeve. Williams has not lost a step over the decades since these tracks were cut: “Henry (Stone, southern soul industry maven) wasn’t like other industry heads. He fucked you and made you love it. You’d wake up the next day and ask ‘what was that and what else can I do to contribute to the cause?’ Henry used a condom, some gel and fatback grease. You almost apologized for being unresponsive.”
Or “I’ve been told that I was light years ahead of myself with my music. Well I’ve finally caught the fuck up. My trip was so long that when I got back, vinyl was back and the president was black. I must have been frozen in ice for several decades. People now telling me how great I am and I’m a genius. Hell I was great back then, but I was the only one who knew it or gave a good goddamn.” Elsewhere he name checks Nixon and Bernie Madoff back to back, and drops something about a ‘faggot great dane.’ Man, this guy just does not have a filter. Which, of course, is a large part of the charm of the persona known as Swamp Dogg, which, one suspects, is essentially a larger version of Jerry Williams, Jr.
Whatever it is, it works, and we’re all a little stranger and better off for it.
FYI, Dogg is still kicking it. There’s a nice NPR piece here:
SWAMP DOGG 2013 TOUR DATES:
Sept 12 @ Triple Door – Seattle, WA
Sept 14 @ Dante’s – Portland, OR
October 3-5 @ The Ponderosa Stomp – New Orleans, LA
Oct 26 @ Bar Pink – San Diego, CA
Oct 31 @ The Kessler – Dallas, TX Nov 1-2 @ Continental Club – Austin TX