Photo by John Wooler, Pointblank
"If you know the extension of the party with whom you wish to speak, dial it and stop wasting our time! If you have money due us, owed us, or just for us, please wait until this message is over and SCREAM your name! We may be listening!" -Swamp Dogg's answering machine, February 1997
Interview by Richie Unterberger (September 1998)
As is apparent from the above comic diatribe, Swamp Dogg is not a man to take himself or the music business too seriously. You've got to have a sense of humor, one imagines, to keep plugging away in the music business for more than thirty years without anything resembling an across-the-board smash. Even in the rock and R&B underground, Swamp Dogg remains, in keeping with his nickname, a somewhat murky figure. He's not easily pigeonholed as either a rock singer or soul singer; he's not nearly aggressive or weird enough for the cutting-edge tastemakers of alternative rock and hardcore rap, yet way too weird for pop radio. He also finds himself in the odd situation of drawing a cult consisting of mostly white listeners, although his music is soaked in African-American R&B and soul.
Before the 1970's, Swamp Dogg was Jerry Williams, journeyman soul singer, songwriter, and producer. Should the formidable cross-licensing obstacles be surmounted, someone no doubt could put together a hell of a compilation of his sixties efforts, which saw him work with second-tier soul acts like Gary U.S. Bonds, Patti LaBelle, the Exciters, and Charlie & Inez Foxx. There were also singles under his own name, like the elegiac ballad "Baby You're My Everything." But he really didn't find his voice until changing his name to Swamp Dogg and releasing albums in the early seventies that married the increased social consciousness of funk to a uniquely comic sensibility and raunchy sexual enthusiasm.
Like a strange combination of Sly Stone's progressive funk with Frank Zappa's lyrical absurdism, he's continued grinding out records for a rather astonishing variety of labels, usually heard by only a few. These are often deceptively normal sounding until you get to lyrics about a wedding ceremony in which the singer's son is about to get married to someone the father knows all too well, and song titles like "I've Never Been to Africa (And It's Your Fault)." The U.S. government was concerned enough about his anti-Vietnam War activities to place him on the famed Nixon enemies list for a while. His notoriety and oddity has sometimes overshadowed his continued vocal talents; soul with a pop sensibility and a high, pleading edge, he's sparked reasonable comparisons to Jackie Wilson, Van Morrison, and Percy Sledge.
This interview was conducted for a chapter in UNKNOWN LEGENDS OF ROCK'N'ROLL, a volume examining sixty cult rock artists, published by Miller Freeman.
Q: You were involved in a lot of records in the '60's, in the performing, producing, and songwriting end as Jerry Williams. But these weren't nearly as unique as the stuff you put out when you took the name Swamp Dogg in the '70's.
S: I was thinking along those lines when I was doing my productions and cutting my soul records; actually starting in 1960, was my first nationally released records. At that time, I was in with the norm. I was being what everybody wanted, felt they needed. I was just trying to help supply the demand. But while I was out there watching what was going on, it hit me that I wasn't nearly as good as those people at the top of the ladder who were supplying the demand. And my songs were just as good, but I didn't feel that I had as much heart in my songs as they had in theirs. Because when I sang about being wonderful, I didn't really believe it. 'Cause I've never been caught up in a "I'm a great lookin' guy, and when I walk onstage, the bitches fall out." I never believed no shit like that. And I had good reason not to believe it, because it never fucking happened.
I was very disappointed with where I was going with something that I loved more than anything in the fucking world. So I just took a chance and bet on myself. And I said, I've got to change everything, and I've got to be drastic in this change. If you knew me, you'd know that it took a lot for me to make up my mind. Because I've always been crazy about my name-Jerry Williams Jr., I love my name, I love my father, I loved carrying my father's name. And to have to change it to something just to catch your ear was a heavy decision for me. But I did it. And that enabled me to jump into some music that I wanted to, some lyrics that I wanted to do.
My music really didn't change too much. You could hear the same structure in the '60's as I did in the '70's, in the '80's, and I'm doing now. The same basic chord structure, the same basic grooves, just dressed a little. Put some ragged jeans on the song, and some sneakers instead of Florsheim shoes. That's why it evolved to that point. I had a hell of a lot of influences that I've wanted to fuse, like Sly Stone and Amos Milburn. I wanted to see what the two would song like together, have a boogie thing running under kind of a funk-rock.
Right now I'd be running around. I just saw a hell of an oldies show the other night. But I'd be running around singing "Baby You're My Everything" and "I'm the Lover Man" on these fucking oldies shows and not liking it. I know I wouldn't like it. It's almost like your life is over, and there's a little piece of earth where you could have another chance on. But it's good for those... a lot of people love it. And you've got some acts out here making more money now than they did then. And God bless 'em. They got a chance to at least reap some of the harvest. But I wouldn't like doing it.
I must say that most every deal I had except my first two in 1960 and '61, I went in with a finished piece of product. I was cutting my records first, and then going in. I didn't stay with one company no longer than one record, because if it didn't happen, I was on someplace else, and I didn't never feel like the companies were fucking me, although maybe they were. But I never felt like the companies were fucking me. You know how some people- they walked away from the business because the company didn't pay them or some shit, or something had happened. That wasn't my way.
Most of the stuff I did in the early '60's, I wrote it in the late '50's. What I was writing in the '60's was a lot of songs about being gay. Now I'm not gay, although there ain't shit wrong with being gay. But we would write a whole bunch of songs about gay people. I've still got one of them- "The Two of Us." Gary U.S. Bonds and I wrote it. And we were writing several songs- we wrote about ten songs like that. It was like, we wrote a lot of songs that I guess we'd have to say was just for our own enjoyment. I hadn't thought about recording them at that time. We would do songs like, we would do tributes to people who were alive, but we did 'em like they were dead. We thought this was funny, I know that it's sick. But we were doing a lot of sick shit. But this was just for our own enjoyment.
Later in the '60's, we started writing some acid-type lyrics. But there was no call for it. People'd say, we don't want this shit. What is this shit? I put one of them on my first album, Total Destruction, a thing called "Dust Your Head Color Red." I had started writing some songs that nobody, nobody, wanted to record. Including Jerry Williams or Gary Bonds or anybody else in our little circle, or outside our circle. That was another reason Swamp Dogg was right on time when he arrived. 'Cause he would sing any fucking thing! Swamp Dogg would give it a fucking try.
Q: So were some of the songs on the first Swamp Dogg records actually written in the 1960's?
S: We had a few songs before the '70's, yeah. Total Destruction was written in '68, because I cut the album, like the latter part of '69, it came out in '70. We had a line in Total Destruction called "let's find out how to test the grass, now watch them get the law passed"- well hell, grass has just been semi-legalized through the last election. But we were anticipating it, shit, 27 years ago.
The idea was to stop the war and all that shit, and everybody come together, love each other around the world. It was very idealistic, I guess, but that's the way I thinking. I still think that fucking way. Nothing that heavy. What was happening was heavy. But my thoughts weren't that heavy. My thoughts--what I was thinking was right before my eyes. I could see it. So I really didn't have to give it that much thought. I'd just write about it. Because it bothered me one way or the other, so I wrote about it.
Q: Your voice often sounds like Van Morrison, especially on those early records.
S: Yeah, but not to the point that I was trying to sound like him. I never tried to sound like anybody. I've had people say that I sound a little like Jackie Wilson on a lot of my stuff. I mean, I really fucking wish I could sing 10% as well as Jackie Wilson. I'd be a fucking superstar right now. The last Van Morrison album came out about a year ago. When I listened to it, I finally could hear what the people were saying about me sounding like Van Morrison. Then I often wondered (and this is no ego thing) if maybe Van Morrison ever heard some of my shit and liked some. But I guess nobody would really want to think that, since he is who he is, and I am who I'm not.
Q: Your relationship with Elektra Records didn't seem to be a smooth one.
S: I was with Jane Fonda, and they just didn't have no eyes for that shit at all. We were out protesting the war and all that, and they said, 'fuck you, we don't need this.' It was alright for MC5 to come on stage and pull their pants down and shit and stuff like that. It was a very strange fucking company. When they signed me, they had one black act on the label. And when they signed me, they released that act. It was like one to a customer. That was the Voices of East Harlem they had. They let them go and signed me. They didn't want no more black acts. They told me that. 'Cause I asked. I was really improper. They said 'no, we don't need any.'
I sat in the lobby one day, talking to Jim Morrison. This is in '71. And they wouldn't let either one of us come in. We were both there to see Jac Holzman, and they didn't want Jim back there, and they didn't want me back there. When they saw us talking together, it really was fucked up. He's high, and I'm crazy. But we both got to see him.
Q: How did you end up getting involved with Free the Army? [Free The Army was a mixed-media entourage, also including Fonda, Dick Gregory, and Donald Sutherland, formed in opposition to the Vietnam War.]
S: My attorney at the time, Robert Fitzpatrick, was representing Jane Fonda. And he was representing me. It was almost kind of a pseudo-nepotism. But only because it worked. I was doing something that she was doing also. And my wife Yvonne is a hell of a coordinator. She was brought aboard to help coordinate the concert at the Washington Monument, the gathering at the Washington Monument. She kind of was like working as, kind of like a liaison for Jane, just for that brief period. We also did a documentary at that time, but it never came out, 'cause the documentary turned into more of an artist ego trip. Everybody started showcasing instead of... you could see that it wasn't real. It wasn't like for the... it wasn't a Free The Army thing, it was like watch me and give me a fucking deal. That type of thing. And I'm gonna say, I wasn't a part of that. 'Cause I already had a fucking deal.
I made Nixon's [enemy] list. Ain't that a bitch? I made his fucking list. He had everybody on the fucker. By associating with Jane Fonda, that immediately put me on.
Q: You did a version of "God Bless America" around that time that caused some controversy as well.
S: As a matter of fact, Elektra didn't even put the proper title down on the album. The song is actually called "God Bless America For What?" I switched it, and called it "God Bless America For What?" And they refused to print that. They would not do it. I mean they were very, very fucking straight.
Q: Did anything come of getting onto Nixon's list?
S: I don't know when it stopped. It wasn't too much for them to pick up, because first of all, I wasn't try to help overthrow the government, any of that kind of shit. I was just trying to enlighten people and say what I thought. I had the right to say in a free society. I guess after a while they said, this sonofabitch ain't about too much of nothing, he's silly.
Q: It's real strange that your audience nowadays is mostly white, because your music is so much in the soul and R&B vein.
S: I know it. And my messages are black. Most of 'em. But they're mighty universal messages. But man, I don't really, I really don't know. I can come up with, I can sit here and tell you several things about what I think. Number one, black radio never played me that much. At the time, 1970, it was that underground radio movement. It was secondary pop radio, the areas that I would take off in. Like my record in 1981 on Takoma went to #1 the first week out in Montpelier, Vermont. There ain't no niggers in Montpelier, Vermont, man! We don't be fucking around no ski resorts and shit!
My music basically is for people who don't mind taking a minute to think and that kind of shit. It could be bigger. It's just companies, they can't seem to find that hole for the pigeon. So when actually all you gotta do- I structure my albums in a way that they can be marketed, and merchandised successfully via retail. But the companies don't do it. It takes a few dollars to do it. A couple of them did it, we sold some product. But nothing like I know we could have, and still can.
Q: Which are your favorite records?
S: The one on Fantasy, I like a lot. I like Total Destruction to Your Mind and I like Tagged Apple, that's the one with Sam Stone. Those are my three favorites. The one that's my main favorite hasn't come out. I don't know if it's coming out, when it's coming out, that's a live album I did when I signed with Virgin, who was doing my 25th anniversary album. They put out everything but the goddamn anniversary album. So that was a live album, my first live album, and it's a monster. We did a remake of "Baby You're My Everything." It's a really a live show, with all of the monologues and the jokes and the shit. That's my really favorite, if it ever comes out, in some due time, I think it'll be a hit with a few dollars behind it.
I like most of my albums. The only thing I dislike about a couple of my albums is I didn't like the mixes at the time, and I'd loved to have remixed a couple of them-only a couple of them. But that's it.
Q: What do you think are the most significant ways your music has changed since you first started making records as Swamp Dogg?
S: The songwriting hasn't changed at all. I have become more and more... I was daring early in my songwriting as Swamp Dogg. But people were afraid of it, 'cause I was using some profanities and so forth on records, which now is very normal. But the jocks, that's one thing that scared the black jocks. When they saw Swamp Dogg records, they said, man, you can't put on this goddamn record. That's one fucking cut, but you ain't gotta play it! It's the singing. 'Cause I write all kind of songs. I don't just write one type of song.
Q: What other kinds of songs are you most into writing?
S: Country. I like writing country songs. Mercury was signing me to a country contract, and got cold feet.
Q: Was it because of the songs, or...
S: It was because of the color. And I understood it. This was my friend, he was running Mercury Records at the time in Nashville. And we put this whole thing together. They said, 'yeah, man, I think it's a good idea. Let's go.' And he called me after we'd been through months and said, 'This shit ain't gonna fly upstairs.' I said, 'well, man, I understand it, fuck it.' Which I did. I didn't want him losing a fucking job trying to drag another black into country music. They had Charley Pride, and I guess that was enough. So I did a country album. There are some great country things on there, man.
Q: A lot of your writing is either about politics or sex, sometimes about both. Do you have any preference for one or the other area?
S: It depends on my mood. It really does. I mean, sometimes I'm in a romance/sex mood, sometimes I'm in a 'what's going on in the world.' It just depends on my feelings. Like do you like chicken better than steak? Depends on what's happening. Like one 'bout as well as the other.
Q: Do you think your stuff influenced George Clinton to go into more ambitious albums with some sociopolitical comment in the 1970's?
S: I don't think so. I think George had enough pent-up creativity that once he unzipped his mind, it was enough to just keep him going right on up till today. I don't think George was influenced by too many people. I bet he wasn't influenced at all by me. Not at all. I don't think I had anything to offer George Clinton. He's a fucking genius.
I have heard a lot of my music in other people's music. But here again, country music, like when Eddie Rabbitt... I know I influenced Eddie Rabbitt, 'cause Eddie Rabbitt actually rewrote my fucking song, and did a thing called "Pure Love," which was a total takeoff on my fucking record and melody. But as far as people-there's a great, great session man around, played on everybody's records-played piano, organ and shit. His name is William Smitty Smith. Smitty played on everybody's records. Matter of fact, he played on that hellacious piano solo on "So Excited" by the Pointer Sisters. I taught Smitty how to play piano. We came from the same hometown. I had influence on him.
Now, he carried my influence into a lot of people's music. He outplays me. He had a stroke a couple years ago, he can still out-fucking play me. It was like the teacher and the student kind of thing. But he took my licks. He said, 'I love this shit that I learned from you.' He put it in so many people's shit-Bob Dylan, you name it, 'cause he's played with them all. Linda Ronstadt- I've heard my keyboard licks in a lot of shit. But it was delivered by him.
As far as people singing me, I think somebody's gotta be mad to sing like me. I haven't heard any of that. I think I've influenced a lot of people with my will to grow forward, to continue, to overcome the bullshit and not stop just because the record company, my record didn't sell. Fuck that! Ain't nobody guarantees your record's gonna sell. If that was the case, most of us wouldn't do anything but one time. Like go to Vegas. If you go to Vegas and you don't hit, you don't say fuck, I ain't going there no more. The place wasn't designed for you alone. You got millions of people in the fucking world.
Q: Do you see any similarity between some of the work that you've done and today's rap music?
S: Like you say, there are rappers, they sample my music and that type of thing. But I don't think we have any mass hysteria going on. I like more of them than I dislike. There's only rap act out there that I don't fucking understand. Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony. I can't understand a motherfucking thing they're saying. I don't think it has shit to do with the generation gap. 'Cause I've asked motherfuckers their age. I said, what are these motherfuckers saying? They said, we don't know. But it's great. I said, well, cool.
It reminds me a little of, in the '50's one time, you could hear the music, but you couldn't hardly hear what the singer was saying. And the people were saying, but we're buying it for the beat. Okay, cool. So I was trying to find out what they're buying it for. 'Cause Bone Thugs is outselling most of the rap groups. And I love Tupac. Tupac had a lot to say. Ice Cube used to have a lot to say. He don't say quite as much as he used to. Ice T got a little- he got a little too emotional in delivering the message. His anger started to overshadow his creativity. I think he's got a new album now, I haven't heard that yet.
But most of the rappers out here today, the newer ones, they're not saying shit. I like the ones with the message. I always have to have a message. I mean, I like some good-time rap. Tribe Called Quest, they don't show me shit. I dig MC Breed, his first album, but then after that, with the lawsuits and shit, and then he started doing some other shit, and he tried to get real real real dirty. And his career just went on down the toilet. He did himself a hell of an injustice.
I loved LL Cool J's first couple of albums. And Public Enemy. I'm starting to like De La Soul a little bit.
Q: What kinds of projects are you working on now (February 1997)?
S: I got an album that I did over the summer on Tommy Hunt. Good fuckin' album, too. I'm starting to release my albums in volumes, two albums to a volume. I'm getting ready to record Little Johnny Taylor. I wanna go in and just do a blues album. And getting ready to do an album on my daughter, Antoinette. She did a duet with Tommy, and that was kind of my way of introducing her to the public. That's going to be an urban-type thing. And there's an album I've got in mind of doing. I keep myself pretty busy.
Q: There's been some mysterious speculation about your latter-day activities in some things I've read, like reports that you're driving a taxi?
S: Ain't no fucking taxis out here! [Los Angeles] I don't even think they're allowed to hang around the airport any more. Where are the fucking taxis, come to think of it? Maybe I should be driving one. I still like that rumor better than the one I heard that I was dead one time. I really didn't like that. That bothered the shit out of me. Driving a taxi don't bother me. At least I'm getting money. But that dead thing... I'm supposed to have died in San Francisco. I never found out what I died of.
My wife is always telling me, you could never drive a fucking taxi, 'cause I get lost all the time. 'Cause I'll be in a daze sometime and go right past my fucking street. That is really weird. That's one for the book.
The only fucking thing missing in my life right now is money. I've got my fucking life exactly like I want it. I just need some money. The money'll be there, but I'm talking more than that. When I was in the '70's, I was very fucking wealthy. But I was a fucking basket case. I had a nervous breakdown, I had an identity crisis, I didn't know who the fuck I was. And I wasn't happy with the money. So I have like become everything that I really wanted to be, found my fucking self, got my shit together. Now if could just reach back and get my fucking money that I had, I'd be cool. My whole fucking life right now is just putting the dollars together, getting the dollars and holding things together, that kind of shit. Other than that, I consider myself one of the three happiest motherfuckers on earth. At this time. And once I get my money... my bank'll be the first.
See some of Swamp Dogg's favorite music
Also see the Official Swamp Dogg site
Also see Richie Unterberger's web site
(which has many more interviews)