Little Jerry Williams reinvented himself as Swamp Dogg, using Southern soul to tackle social issues, comedic parables, and once-taboo subjects
by Travis Atria
Jerry Williams Jr.’s life is the stuff of legend, yet he never became a legend. He hung out with Louis Jordan as a kid and started his own music career as a twelve-year-old artist called Little Jerry, then Little Jerry Williams, writing his own singles, such as the 1965 hit “Baby, You’re My Everything.” From the mid-’60s through the ’70s, he worked as an A&R man, songwriter, and producer for countless labels, including a stint with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records, as well as Musicor. In 1969, he wrote and produced for Doris Duke on her cult classic Southern soul album I’m a Loser. Around the same time, he penned the funk hit “I Can’t Stand Myself,” which was originally intended “for a motherfucker named Mona Lisa” but ended up in James Brown’s hands instead. He also produced and/or wrote songs for a dozen other artists—people like Arthur Conley, Gene Pitney, Clarence Reid, the Commodores, Dee Dee Warwick, Irma Thomas, Z.Z. Hill, Wolfmoon, Isaac Hayes, and even Lee Fields—and he wrote the country smash “(Don’t Take Her) She’s All I Got” with partner Gary “U.S.” Bonds.
Despite that success, Williams could never seem to do for himself what he did for others. Even after inventing a wild persona named Swamp Dogg in 1970 and releasing Total Destruction to Your Mind, he failed to gain traction with his own work. Perhaps one reason Swamp Dogg never really caught on is that his songs often come from odd points of view—a man complaining about his ex-wife’s new husband in “The Baby Is Mine,” for example—and they often deal with social issues in ways that are much too blunt for the mainstream. Listen to “Call Me Nigger,” in which he says the word sixty times in the space of seven minutes, or “I’ve Never Been to Africa (And It’s Your Fault)”—in which he lays the blame pretty squarely on, well, you—and it’s clear his stuff never had a chance on Top 40 radio. Also, there’s the matter of his album covers, which consistently appear on lists of the worst ever.
Sadly, these superficial things often overshadow his talents, but anyone who looks beneath them will find a rich, untapped vein of classic soul. I spoke with Swamp Dogg before writing a “Re: Discovery” on his 1971 album, Rat On, for Wax Poetics. During the conversation, he looked back on his entire life, cussing up a storm for more than two hours. In fact, he was more gracious with his time than any artist I’ve interviewed (except Bobby Womack). A few times as I tried to wind down the conversation, he simply kept talking. I came to realize that those were the moments when he’d hit me with the best story yet, and I decided to get out of the way and let the man speak. Perhaps he spoke at such length because he’s been fighting for recognition his whole life and looks at every interview as an opportunity. Or maybe he just appreciated that I didn’t lead with a Doris Duke question (“If somebody asks me about working with Doris Duke again, I think I’ll throw up,” he said).
Either way, as he nears his seventy-second birthday, Swamp Dogg remains the ultimate underdog, still searching for recognition, still producing music, still playing shows—sometimes with his ninety-two-year-old mother as an opening act—and still fighting for his work.
You come from a musical family, right?
Not only was it a musical family, I was raised in a big house in Virginia. There was only two Black hotels between Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, and there was really no place to stay. So when my mother would be out on the road, and she would run across these acts, and they would be headed to Portsmouth and Norfolk and Richmond, she would say, “Hey, when you get down there, go by our house. We rent rooms where you can stay.” And they did. Louis Jordan’s band used to stay there when he came through town.
Did your mother teach you to play music?
She played some chords for me. If you listen good to my records, you’ll see that I never really learned to play piano. I got to my second book with my piano teacher, and every time I was going to take piano lessons, that fifty cents sure did look good. Fifty cents was a lot of fuckin’ money. So, as I got near her house, sometimes I would go different directions. Plus, I wouldn’t practice because I wanted to play what I heard, and I was hearin’ Fats Domino and Amos Milburn. This is the kind of piano I wanted to play, and I could already emulate that style. I’m still listening to the old masters—Big Joe Turner, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, who is like the second greatest songwriter in the world. I don’t know who the first is, but he’s the second greatest. These are the people I learned from, and they are the people I still lean toward. Even when I’m producin’ hip-hop and shit on other people, I’m still pullin’ from that bag.
You started touring very young, when segregation was very strict. What was it like being on the road in those days?
Here’s the thing—by being born in Virginia, it’s like growing up in an abused home. You didn’t even realize you was abused until the police came and told you. You got in court and found out that your old man was crazier than a motherfucker, you know? Because he seemed natural, you know, “That’s the way he’s always been since I’ve known him.” [laughs] I knew I was supposed to go around the back to get my food. I knew that we were going to some jive-ass hotel, or motel, or somebody’s house, or sleep on the bus, or sleep in the car. You got to bear in mind too that, at that age, it was fun. And, no one had spoken up. We didn’t have Martin Luther King or nobody; we hadn’t even had a sit-in. So you just do what you do. When you see a White man comin’ down the street, and you walkin’ down the sidewalk goin’ toward him, you step off into the street. Even if Mario Andretti is turnin’ the fuckin’ corner, you step out in front of his car. You dare not walk past that White man on the sidewalk; that sidewalk belonged to him. And, you dare not stare at a White woman. Because they did have some shit that they called “reckless eyeballin’.” I mean, in the court, it was “accused of reckless eyeballin’.”
I didn’t know that.
Yeah, that’s why they killed Emmett Till—that’s what they said, “reckless eyeballin’.” But, if you grow up with these things, as you go from city to city, you don’t even think about it until you get to somewhere like New York, and you see a Black guy walkin’ hand in hand with a White woman, and you say, “He’ll be dead before the night is over.” It’s scary. You couldn’t pay me to walk up beside that guy at that time.
How do you get over that? Much of your audience now is White, but is it difficult to reconcile that with what you experienced in the ’50s and ’60s?
No, because I found out that all people weren’t like that. You know, every White person is not interested in becoming a Klan member. You got good and bad in every race.
When you started your career as Little Jerry, were you headlining shows?
No, I was a time killer. I was usually the opening act. I was young, and I heard the word “cute” a few times, so I guess I was cute, and I could sing, and I was raw. So that was it. The older guys always took me under their wing to try to teach me stuff, which they did. When I look back at those older guys, when I look at their pictures now, man, those older guys was in their late teens and early twenties. Goddamn, they looked like they were ninety years old in those days, through those eyes. But your eyes change. Now, you’re from where originally?
I lived in Miami from December ’65 through ’68.
[At] 8730 NW Sixteenth Avenue. I bought my first house there. Paid $10,500 for it. I wish I would have kept the motherfucker. When I moved there, that area was called Flamingo Village. Every nigga who supposedly had over twenty cent bought a house out there. Dave Prater from Sam & Dave was out there. There were a lot of celebrities, and club owners, and dope dealers. It was a hell of a place to live at that time. You wouldn’t want to live there now.
Did you make music down there?
Yeah. First of all, I went down to play a gig at the Continental Club, and, man, when I got off the plane, I had just left New York from playin’ the Apollo where it was like zero [degrees]. I had on this big fur jacket, Beatle boots, leather pants, and a long-sleeved leather shirt. I look out the window as the plane is taxiing in, and I see motherfuckers out there in them Hawaiian shirts and straw hats and shit. I said, “What kind of bullshit is this?” And, it’s night, and the palm trees and the wind is just right. When I walked down those steps, I said, “I’m stayin’ in this motherfucker.” What was the fuckin’ question?
I was wondering if you were making music or just living down there.
Oh, yeah, right. I made some music down there. I wrote that thing that James Brown did, called “I Can’t Stand Myself.” I wrote it for a motherfucker down there by the name of Mona Lisa. He was on the Dade label. He was a big, Black, funny-lookin’ motherfucker who had his hair dyed blond. I taught it to him, and I was supposed to go in the studio and record it. The next thing I knew, I heard it on the radio. This motherfucker had gone in, cut it, and claimed it as his own. Next thing I know, James Brown got it, ’cause Mona Lisa wanted to go on the road with James Brown. James Brown said, “You give me this song, and you can go.” Well, James took the song; Mona Lisa never did get to go on the road with him. I damn near went to jail one night for it. I was in Ft. Lauderdale—I forgot the name of the club I was playin’. Mona Lisa walked in with his whole band and asked the man who owned the club if he could come up and sing. Now, I’m mad at Mona Lisa because he stole my song. He went onstage with his band, and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to sing my latest song, ‘Can’t Stand Myself,’ a song I wrote.” When he said he wrote it, I ran out of the audience into the kitchen, which was behind the stage, grabbed a butcher’s knife, and came out—I’m not a violent person—I came out of the kitchen with the butcher’s knife and was getting’ ready to stab him onstage in front of at least ninety to a hundred people. But, somebody grabbed me and took the knife away. I guess I didn’t want to do it as bad as I felt like I wanted to do it. I’ve told that story maybe five times, which isn’t many, from 1966.
Did James Brown give you credit?
Yeah, I got credit for it, but I never got paid for it.
You worked with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section on your first few Swamp Dogg albums, right?
Actually, I am the one who put the Muscle Shoals horns together. I didn’t realize it—I just brought in a bunch of guys that I liked the way they played together, and we did all of my projects together. I was doing a hell of a lot of projects. I put the guys together, and I’m proud of it. I don’t get credit for it. But, I gotta say, I didn’t do it alone; I did it with the help of David Johnson, who was my engineer, and he owned the studio. He was fantastic. When we went on tour, I took all those guys with me, and they were so afraid of losin’ their jobs and so forth, bein’ out there with Swamp Dogg and Jane Fonda [Swamp joined up with Jane Fonda at the height of her antiwar phase. –Ed.], because they were schoolteachers and shit, that they all had on those caps, what we call skullcaps—you know, you can kind of pull ’em all the way down and rob somebody? Well, they had those on, and then they would turn their backs. I had the only band that most of ’em had their backs turned to the audience. [laughs] The horn men were schoolteachers, and they said, “Man, if this gets back…”
The Muscle Shoals band had day jobs? That’s surprising.
Yeah, they were schoolteachers.
Did you have to work a day job?
Aw, no. That was my wealthy period. Shit, remember I had a million-seller on Doris Duke, and I was her manager. I had a million-seller on Dee Dee Warwick. And, plus, I was puttin’ out all these fuckin’ records on all these different little labels that I had. That was money like a motherfucker.
You were writing for quite a few artists at the time, right?
I was just bubblin’ with fuckin’ songs and ideas. Everybody wanted me—didn’t nobody want to pay me shit, but everybody wanted me. So I went with Musicor, who paid me a hundred dollars a week. And I’m the only producer I ever heard of in my life who had to punch a clock. In other words, if I didn’t work five days a week, at least eight hours a day, I got docked. Ain’t that a bitch for a creative position? But I learned a lot, because I had twenty-four-hour access to the studio. I’d be in my office two, three o’clock in the morning, which didn’t have nothin’ in it but a desk and a pen and a phone. I could go in the studio and try out all kinds of things, and the next day, I’d play ’em for Charlie Fox, who would change two words and one note and put his name first and all over it. But it was all right. Sometimes, to get to the top, you need a person like that. They can get you where you tryin’ to go; you just be broke as a motherfucker when you get there.
Did it bother you that other people got so much credit for your work?
I just cared about gettin’ the music out. When I was fifteen, I cut a record on a guy by the name of William “Smitty” Smith. This was the first record I really produced on somebody else. That’s when I found out that it wasn’t just me I wanted to hear on records; I wanted to hear anybody on records that I liked. I didn’t want their performance to get away. As a matter of fact, I don’t know if you heard about the Bob Dylan version of one of my songs, “Sidewalks, Fences, and Walls.”
Okay, well, they can’t identify the keyboard man, but the keyboard man actually is Smitty. I taught Smitty how to play piano. He excelled me like a motherfucker. As a matter of fact, he’s the one playin’ that solo on “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters. I couldn’t play that solo if you paid me—I mean, big money.
I read that you often wrote songs from a homosexual perspective. Where did that come from?
Here’s what happened. By this time, I had written by myself and collaborated with either Gary Bonds, or Charlie Fox, or Charlie Whitehead. We had at least ten hits. We would get together sometimes, and we would write songs that were so fuckin’ wild. We wrote one song like, “Why won’t they leave us alone?” It was about two gay people, right? But we drinkin’ and cuttin’ up in my basement in Queens. We were writin’ a song about gays, but nobody wanted to hear that shit at that time. We put a lot of funny shit in that—I still got the lyrics somewhere. Just like we would write songs about people who were still alive, but we would say, “And, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the way the late, great Jackie Wilson would have said it.” We’d take live motherfuckers and make them “late, great.” [laughs] At the time, we were drinkin’ and writin’ our asses off. We just had so much creativity in us, we had to come out all kind of different ways, but we weren’t homosexual or nothing. I mean, as Seinfeld would say, ain’t nothin’ wrong with it.
I read that you would control pretty much every part of making the record.
Yeah, that’s the way I always did it. I’d go in the studio, produce what I like, conceptualize it, decide on what I want to do for my album covers—I kept complete creative control. I don’t know if it was good or bad; it might have been bad. [laughs] I didn’t get as big as Dylan, so I might’a did the wrong thing.
Rat On is one of your most famous albums, but it’s famous more for the album cover. Where did that idea come from, you sitting on top of a giant rat?
I thought of the white rat idea, because first I wanted to be nekkid on an elephant, and my wife said, “Look, the kids are young. They don’t need that shit from their father.” Plus, I didn’t know where I was going to get an elephant from anyway. So we go out and we buy this little hamster and blow him up, paint a smile on his face and eventually set me on top of it. I thought it was great. The whole idea was the balled-up fist, “Right on,” and due to the fact that I had a little hamster rat, I called it Rat On. But when I got to Electra with it, it was kind of, “Is this a Black and White thing?” And right away, my mind says, “Yeah! It’s a Black man finally on top.” [laughs] Which was the furthest thing from my concept, but that’s the way they took it, and that’s the way my career went after that.
Last question—have you been to Africa yet?
No. It’s your fault.
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