Before there was Snoop Dogg, there was Swamp Dogg. Jerry Williams, already an experienced recording artist in his late 20s, took that moniker and launched a venturesome if part-time career as a purveyor of funky soul music. Over the years since, Williams has worked as a producer and songwriter for other artists. With Gary “U.S.” Bonds he wrote “She’s All I Got” for Johnny Paycheck, which in 1971 reached No. 2 on the U.S. country singles chart; with Charlie Foxx he wrote “Count the Days” for Inez and Charlie Foxx (of “Mockingbird” fame; more recently he wrote music for the writer Ben Greenman’s fictional “Rock Foxx” character. But his two earliest Swamp Dogg releases – Total Destruction To Your Mind (1970) and Rat On! (1971) – have long been overdue for a re-release. Now, crisply remastered and available March 5 on CD and vinyl, they’re ready to shine afresh and perhaps attract a new audience.
After all, Rodríguez – whose two albums came out in ’70 and ’71, and who is an exact contemporary of Williams – has made something of a comeback, and he didn’t even have a music career in the interim. And unlike Rodríguez, no one needs to go “searching for” Swamp Dogg; he’s right here, at his own actively maintained website.
The Unknown Legends of Rock ‘N Roll described Swamp Dogg’s songs as “Like a strange combination of Sly Stone’s progressive funk with Frank Zappa’s lyrical absurdism,” a description especially apt for the first album. The leadoff and title track of Total Destruction To Your Mind, a funk masterpiece, has been covered by Galactic and other groups in the years since, but they couldn’t possibly have surpassed the original. (You can hear a snatch of it in Swamp Dogg’s promotional “jingle”:
With a punchy, high tenor voice that sometimes sounds a bit less polished than those of more famous soul singers like Jackie Wilson or Sam and Dave, but is every bit as biting and with a freestyle quality all its own, Swamp Dogg was clearly the master of his own universe on these recordings. “His vocals have always been for me both very energetic and very sad,” says Greenman, a longtime fan. Lyrically, Swamp Dogg manifests three preoccupations (he wrote some of the songs by himself, others in collaboration with Troy Davis or Gary “U.S.” Bonds.) There are calls for equality and social justice, songs about love and jealousy, and a related concern with babies and children. But he tends to tinge all of them at times with a kind of psychedelic absurdity. “Total Destruction” expresses a non-specific sense of being downtrodden and a vow of revenge:
I stand here, watch you playing games
But now I’m learning do the same
And now I am on your case
Looking you square in the face
And as sure as the sun will shine shine shine shine shine
I’m gonna do
Total destruction to your mind.
He leaves to our imagination just how he’ll engineer such destruction, while letting his own imagination run wild in songs like “Dust Your Head Color Red” (“Spirit dust your head color red / Sparkle your insides pink with pleasure”) and “I Was Born Blue” (“Why wasn’t I born with orange skin and green hair like the rest of the people in the world?”).
There’s less surrealism, and there are more overt cries for social justice, on the second album, Rat On!, which Swamp Dogg proudly touts as having one of the top 10 “worst album covers” of all time. In “God Bless America for What” he cries, “Oh what a joke is the Statue of Liberty / When there are Indians on the reservation, and black folks still ain’t free.” “Remember, I Said Tomorrow” and “Do You Believe” are also songs about liberation, and in “Do Our Thing Together” he returns to New York Harbor with: “We got to walk tall / Hand in hand / We’re a proud new generation / We’ll make a new land…The Statue of Liberty can be real if we let her.”
Singing about the darker, wackier side of family relationships, Swamp Dogg anticipates the oeuvres of both Maury Povich and Michael Jackson in songs like “The Baby Is Mine” and “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe”:
I got brown eyes
And so does she
But my baby’s got blue eyes
That’s a mystery to me…
Could it be Mama’s baby, Daddy’s maybe?
I guess I don’t really really want to know.
“Predicament #2” is about a man who has two women and is fine with keeping it that way “until I find a solution.” But the tables are turned and he goes into denial with “That Ain’t My Wife”: “That ain’t my wife that I see / I know that woman with that man don’t belong to me.”
There’s nothing unusual about any of these themes showing up in funk and soul music, but Swamp Dogg applied to them his own quasi-tongue-in-cheek patina, often enough to make him a true original, and an artist whose work of that period deserves to be better remembered than it is.
Humor and skewed points of view aside, all the best singers and songwriters know that a good song is a good song, and Swamp Dogg knows that very well, having crossed genres his whole life. In an interview on NPR’s Studio 360, he explained that he was raised on country music, growing up in Portsmouth, VA listening to DJ (and songwriter) Sheriff Tex Davis play country songs all day. On the other hand, “Black music we heard somewhere starting about 10 o’clock at night ’til about 4 in the morning, and I had to be in bed then…If you strip my tracks, and you take all the horns away and the funk guitar licks, what you have is a country song.” Ray Charles knew that too.