The musical force known as Swamp Dogg, aka Jerry Williams Jr., has spent the past 65 years in the music industry as a singer, songwriter, A &R man, performer, and record producer. Once described as “one of the great cult figures of 20th century American music”, the always colorful and defiantly original artist earlier this year released his latest album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, a country album, to rave reviews and critical accolades. Recently, via phone, we had a conversation about his storied career, his love of country music, his longtime friend John Prine, how he wants to be remembered, and about his future plans. The resultant conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Americana Highways: Who were some of your favorite musical artists growing up?
Swamp Dogg: Louis Jordan, Larry Darnell, Big Joe Turner, Elvis, Nat King Cole, Guitar Slim, and Fats Domino to name just a few. There were a lot of performers that I loved, just too many to mention. And all of these performers used to come through my hometown in Virginia because it was part of the chitlin circuit and the great thing about that was I got to see a lot of them perform live.
AH: Can you describe the specific moment that you wanted to become a performer?
SD: I recorded my first song when I was twelve, a song called HTD Blues (Hardsick Troublesome Downout Blues) but I knew that I wanted to be a performer way before then. At first, I wanted to be a guitar player. My stepfather gave me an old Gibson but the strings were raised up real high so they were really hard to hold down. And my stepfather told me that I was going to have to get calluses on my fingers before I could really get down and play. Because they started hurting really bad I just said f*ck this and I decided that I’ll just sing without a guitar. So I learned how to play the piano, not well mind you, but good enough to play in front of an audience. I copied Fats Domino because all of his songs had three chords. He was a great teacher along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. To me, to this day, Chuck Berry has still got to be considered among the top five songwriters in the world.I mean he could tell a story like no one else could.
AH: Back in 1970, how did you come to adopt the moniker “Swamp Dogg”?
SD: I had recorded two songs for a disc jockey named Hamp Swain in Macon, Georgia called “If I Die Tomorrow, I Lived Tonight” and “Everything You’ll Ever Need”. Hamp was the kind of DJ that back then, if he played your records it was a big deal. I was having an identity crisis, which I thought was bullsh*t until it happened to me. I found that I wasn’t satisfied with anything that I had done up until that point. You know people never knew how to categorize me. I had a couple of little hits, one called “Baby You’re My Everything” on Calla Records and another one called “I’m a Lover Man.” They were minor hits under the name of Little Jerry Williams. I knew I wanted to be someone other than another performer being called “Little”something. I mean at the time you still had Little Richard and Little Milton, to name just two, and I just couldn’t see myself going on calling myself “Little” anything. When I wrote the songs for the Total Destruction To Your Mind album, I didn’t realize I had gone off into such deep political sh*t with my songs, because I really didn’t consider myself political at all. My wife was very politically active at the time and I agreed with everything that she was doing because I believed she was right to be fighting for the things she was fighting for. People weren’t really ready for the Total Destruction To Your Mind album, which was heavily influenced by Frank Zappa, who was an idol of mine because of all of the chances that he took both lyrically and musically on his records. I knew I wanted and needed a different name to be able to do all of the things I wanted to do with my songs. So, I came up with Dogg,with two “g’s”, and Wally Roker, who owned Canyon Records at the time, suggested I put something in front of it and I chose “Swamp”. I liked it and I started using it and Wally put out my first songs on Canyon Records under it. It made my relationship with the music world a little awkward because they didn’t want to associate with me because of it. I was always being asked by record company types if I would ever consider changing it , but I always refused and told them “No.” So, I went on with it and never looked back.
AH: I read in a previous interview that you have ideas for over 900 original songs saved in your personal music vault. Is that a true number?
SD: It’s more than that now, and it was more than that when I said it a few years back. If you look up my catalog at BMI there are about 1,500 songs in there. And since I have been working with rappers, my catalog is getting even larger.
AH: Your new album Sorry You Couldn’t Make It has a distinctive country music feel to it. What do you think country music and soul music, which is the genre your music is usually categorized in, have in common?
SD: Everyday situations. Rhythm and blues and soul basically ain’t nothing but country and country ain’t nothing but rhythm and blues and soul. The chord structure might be different, but I think they go hand in hand.
I’ve always loved country music. One of my favorite singers right now is Blake Shelton. He sings with such ease, he sounds so good and he’s not trying to disguise he’s country. I jump from him to Hank Williams, Sr. I have never heard anyone else that could write so many different things about love affairs. I mean he was stuck on love affairs. To me he is still the greatest when it comes to singing and writing. Nobody could outwrite him then or now and I have been listening to him since 1949. My grandfather used to buy his records and play them over and over. I liked other artists like Red Foley but I loved Hank Williams, Sr back then and I still do today. If you just sit back sometime and read his lyrics, you’ll find that it’s just like reading poetry. He didn’t waste words. He just said what he wanted to say and he said it in the quickest and most understandable way.
AH: Your new album also features two songs with your longtime friend, the late great John Prine.What are some of your favorite memories of him?
SD: I have a lot of good memories of John and they are just too numerous to mention here. My favorite one of him is that he allowed me to get up on stage with him and perform with him a couple of times, once here in L.A. and the other time in Minneapolis. Before Covid-19 happened, we were actually booked to perform together at the Apollo Theater in late May. Obviously and unfortunately that didn’t happen.
AH: Years from now when people talk about the artist that was Swamp Dogg, how would you like to be remembered?
SD: No one has ever asked me that question. I really don’t care how people remember me because it’s like life – when you are alive,you can’t worry about who is talking bad about you, you just keep doing what you want to do. I just believe if you are doing something that you believe in, f*ck what everybody else says as long as you believe in it. Now, you could be wrong in what you are doing, but that will come out too. I just think that if you keep pushing and pushing and pushing, good things will happen for you.
AH: So, what’s next for Swamp Dogg?
SD: Well, like everybody else, my next move is totally based on the outcome of this coronavirus. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing right now but we are making a record. I am trying to get out one or two more country albums before the end of the year.
We are doing a lot of streaming. Which is good because I can release a record right now, after I finish talking to you, if I want to and that is just fantastic.
You know,in one sense it’s like the music business has gone all the way back to the 1940s with its concentration on the singles instead of the whole record. It’s back to where you can just buy one song and not the whole album and I think that is great too.
This music keeps me young, man, and I don’t let anybody discourage me.
Basically, what I am trying to do is get on and do as many projects as I can, singing hooks for rappers, making more records,all kind of sh*t to get my name out there because I feel like I ain’t got a whole lot of f*ckin time left to be f*ckin around.
Swamp Dogg’s latest album Sorry You Couldn’t Make It on Joyful Noise Recordings is available on his website .