Austin, Texas, South by Southwest ’98 Two hundred or so music-bizzers, pickers, and hangers-on have crammed into the Victory Grill, a venerable black supper club 10 minutes from the industry hubbub downtown. It’s nearly 2 o’clock in the morning, and Swamp Dogg and his 10-piece band have been pumping like pistons for two hours. Sated by Swamp’s Muscle Shoals-styled fatback, this crowd isn’t going anywhere.
As the 56-year-old singer brings his version of John Prine’s “Sam Stone” to a close, he segues into an impromptu eulogy for the casualties of the Vietnam War. “Broken radios,” he calls them, chanting the words from Prine’s chorus as if uttering a prayer. After four minutes of weighty, stream-of-consciousness commentary, booting horns testifying throughout, Swamp Dogg explains: “This song goes on like this, almost like it’s never-ending, because that’s the way I interpret Vietnam. We can’t put it behind us, especially the ones who had loved ones lost, loved ones hurt.”
In Swamp Dogg’s whimsical, at times anachronistic, but always prophetic universe, the war in Vietnam loosed a social and moral contagion from which the nation has yet to recover. More than U.S. involvement in Latin America and the Persian Gulf, he links Vietnam to homelessness, the war on drugs, and the building of prisons as a palliative for the country’s housing crisis.
Swamp Dogg, who brings an eight-piece band to the Sutler for two shows this Saturdayhis first Nashville club date everhasn’t always been so outspoken. Twenty-eight years ago, in fact, he was just another soul singer working the chitlin circuit. He’d charted a couple of R&B singles; he’d even enjoyed success as a songwriter and producer, working with the likes of Patti LaBelle, Doris Troy, the Commodores, and Gene Pitney. But he had no discernible identity as a performer. He wasn’t selling out, to borrow a phrase he’d later use in an album title, but he wasn’t buying in either.
“I was doin’ the same shit that other artists were doin’, but they were doin’ it way fuckin’ better,” remembers Swamp Dogg, born Jerry Williams Jr., in Portsmouth, Va., in 1942. “Ben E. King, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Solomon Burkeyou name it, I was out there doin’ their thing.” At least, he was until 1970, when he quit doing musical impressions and assumed his canine alter-ego. From there, he launched a balls-out attack on hypocrisy, bigotry, warmongering, greed, and most of the other intractable stupidities that persist today. And to set the record straight, he was spelling “Dogg” with two g’s before Snoop Dogg was even born.
“I wanted to sing about everything and anything and not be pigeonholed by the industry,” he wrote in the liner notes to his 1995 career retrospective, Best of 25 Years of Swamp Dogg...or F♦♦♦ the Bomb, Stop the Drugs (Pointblank/Virgin). He came up with the idea for his stage name, he says, after realizing that dogs can do just about anything and get away with it.
“[If your dog] sleeps on the sofa, shits on the rug, pisses on the drapes, chews up your slippers, humps your mother-in-law’s leg, jumps on your new clothes, and licks your face,” he elaborated in his liner notes, “he’s never gotten out of character. You understand what he did, you curse while making allowances for him, but your love for him never diminishes. Commencing in 1970, I sung about sex, niggers, love, rednecks, war, peace, dead flies, home wreckers, Sly Stone, my daughters, politics, revolution, and blood transfusions (just to name a few), and never got out of character.”
Indeed, with a debut album that promised Total Destruction to Your Mind, Swamp Dogg sprang from the cultural upheaval of the ’60s as fully formed as Athena from the head of Zeus. A visionary synthesis of social protest, ribald comedy, and incipient funkincluding grinding one-chord workouts as primal as any waxed by James Brown or Dyke & the Blazersthe record won Swamp a rapid cult following. Not only that, it unleashed an iconoclast who would become a thorn in the side of industry factions governing rock, soul, and especially lily-white Nashville. The last of these, Swamp believes, snubbed him in the early ’70s despite his status as a hit songwriter.
Swamp Dogg’s most devastating weapon has always been his brassy, bullhorn of a barka bullshit-dispelling tenor he wields with staggering scope and control onstage. With the conviction of a zealot and the charisma of a cab driver, he has, over the course of three decades and a dozen albums, used that voice to affirm life and to decry anythingracism, homophobia, violencethat threatens it.
It was certainly fitting that his recent rerecording of “Synthetic World”a virtually all-encompassing piece of social analysiswas the lead single on Generations I: A Punk Look at Human Rights (ARK 21), a 1997 benefit album for ex-Amnesty International head Jack Healey’s Human Rights Action Center. The song, recorded with the British rock band Moon Dogg, appears alongside tracks by Joe Strummer, Pansy Division, John Doe, and Exene Cervernkova.
Swamp Dogg’s commitment to justice is born of his own cultural and artistic marginalization. Prior to his musical rebirth in 1970, he was the first black producer hired at Atlantic Recordsa back-of-the-bus scenario if ever there was one.
“I was the vice-president of a company called Botanic that had just gone the way of the Titanic, and I went to Atlantic and asked for a job,” he recalls. “Unbeknownst to me, the NAACP had come down on them because they were making so much money on black music and black artists but didn’t have a black producer on staff. Now, they were using a lot of black producers, but they were outside free agents. So when I walked in, it was like, ‘Quick, grab this guy.’
“They needed somebody to fill a fuckin’ spot, but I didn’t realize it at the time,” he continues. “I thought they hired me because I had good shit and they needed me, but one, I didn’t have an office, and two, nobody really cared about gettin’ me one. They never gave me a restroom key either.”
Small wonder this self-declared “Ph.D. in niggerism”who claims he “was black even before it was fashionable”went on to use his music to undermine racism’s insidious power. “Anyone can be a nigger, regardless of race, creed, or color,” he sang in 1973’s “Call Me Nigger.” “Why, we’ve even got ourselves a white American nigger.”
Radical pronouncements such as these made Swamp Dogg a lightning rod for institutional bigotry. When he sang “God Bless America for What” on his 1971 album Rat On!, J. Edgar Hoover tacked Swamp’s name to the FBI’s secret list of citizens engaged in “Un-American” activities.
By this time, even his successes were tempered. In 1972, country producer Billy Sherrill heard Freddie North’s hit R&B recording of the Swamp-penned “She’s All I Got,” and decided it would be perfect for Johnny Paycheck. After Paycheck turned the song into a left-field country smash, the former Jerry Williams found himself an unlikely nominee for CMA Songwriter of the Year. The recognition was great, especially since, like many kids from black households, Swamp had grown up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. The problem was that he only learned of the honor a week after the awards show, when a note from then-CMA president Frances Preston came in the mail expressing regret that he hadn’t attended the proceedings.
In a 1996 interview with the Scene, Preston couldn’t recall the mishap, but Swamp Dogg, who insists he never got an invite, still smarts from the slight. Had the nominee been white, he reasons, surely the CMA would have gone out of its way to confirm his attendance. Ironically enough, this week Preston will be presenting Swamp with a BMI award for cowriting “She’s All I Got,” which reached the country Top Ten again last yearthis time for honky-tonk singer Tracy Byrd.
Swamp Dogg’s imbroglios with the FBI and CMA are part and parcel of a career-long commitment to speaking his mind and playing the foolconsequences be damned. They doubtless also explain why, despite his undeniable musical résuméwhich includes putting together the original Muscle Shoals Hornshe remains a cult figure, and an obscure one at that. It doesn’t help any that the country album he cut for Mercury Nashville in 1987 and the live disc he recently made for Pointblank remain in the vaults.
And yet despite what he calls his “Buzzard Luck”the title of a single he recorded in the ’70s for Faberge’s ill-fated Brute labelSwamp has never lost his sense of humor, even if at times he gets a little pedantic. He’s at his funniest, though, when he’s singing about romance; his meditations on sex and marriage are as uproarious as they are incisive. And that’s the case whether he’s playing the randy “Wifesitter” or the cuckolded schmuck on “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe.” (“I got brown eyes and so does she/But the baby’s got blue eyes/That’s a mystery to me.”)
Nevertheless, when one considers Swamp Dogg’s entire body of worknot all of it as devastating as Total Destruction, Cuffed, Collared and Tagged (1972), or Gag a Maggot (1973)it’s hard not to keep coming back to his resounding commitment to social and economic justice. Curiously, though, he’s always been a rather reluctant activist. “I’m not trying to get anybody to follow me,” he insists. “I’m not tryin’ to put a gang of motherfuckers together. I’m just tellin’ people what I think and feel.”
Harlem Renaissance poet and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson once dubbed black preachers “God’s Trombones.” A devout Catholic whose songs have never been overtly religious, Swamp Dogg might more appropriately be deemed dignity’s trumpet. “Call me nigger, call me black/Call me anything you like/I don’t care what you say/But when I’m makin’ progress just don’t stand in my way,” he sang in 1973. Twenty-five years later, his words have lost none of their righteous fury or resolve.
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