Some artists are so talented they defy the boxes the music industry wants them in to build a specific fan base. Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bettye LaVette, John Prine, and Tony Bennett come immediately to mind. Swamp Dogg is one of those artists. Each one of these amazing creative geniuses spent a lifetime building a catalog of music that is so honest and true to their unique character, that it breaks the bonds of convention and cliché.
Swamp Dogg’s real name is Jerry Williams. His manager is Jeri Williams, his daughter, a neurologist by profession. At 77 years old, he told her he wanted to create an album that would “regenerate” his career. “I’d never been full generated,” he explains. “I kept watching how Tony Bennett was doing this thing with his son. His son brought him back ’cause his son had fresh approaches, and that’s what I did with Jeri. Tony Bennett’s cool. Always has been. I like what (he and his son) did together. My daughter was interested, and she knows music.”
Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, released on March 6th just before the pandemic hit, is Swamp Dogg’s “regeneration” album. It features John Prine on two cuts, “Memories” and “Please Let Me Go Around Again.”
I woke up yesterday
I was 40 years old
life had passed me by
Please let me go around again.
I told Jerry that “Memories” tickles my mind like my grandbabies’ smiles. He liked that.
Memories don’t leave like people do
And that’s why anytime anywhere I can still be with you
And that’s why I’m a man.
I’m always gonna be with you.
Working with Prine, says Jerry, “I guess was whatever older people call having a ball. We had a ball. The songs that we did, we didn’t cross out lines. ‘This is my line. That’s your line,’ stuff like that. We just started singin’ it, and whoever felt the next line that’s what came and we started to sing.”
Shortly after recording with Prine, the folk legacy died, one of hundreds of thousands taken from us by the coronavirus. The two had made plans to meet at Prine’s home in Ireland to write more songs.
The story behind “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got)” on the new album says a lot about Swamp Dogg’s seven decades in music. The first version recorded by Freddie North was a top-40 hit that also went to number 10 on the black singles chart in 1971. Country legend Johnny Paycheck took the same song the same year to number 2. Country artists Conway Twitty and Tanya Tucker both put the song on albums released in 1972. And Tracy Byrd took it to number 4 country in 1993. It was co-written with soul singer Gary U.S. Bonds of “The Twist” fame who contributed my favorite line on the new album: “She could kiss the ground in the winter time and make a flower grow.”
See what I mean about Swamp Dogg’s transcending genres? He’s calling this his country album. It was recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium and features Nashville guitarist Jim Oblon, but Derick Lee heads the studio band. He was the musical director of the Bobby Jones Gospel Show for almost 40 years. The arrangements on all 10 songs are sumptuous.
Rolling Stone called Swamp Dogg’s last album “an existential soul opus” and “a singular blend of eccentric soul.” Indeed, finding a home for his doing-it-my-way creations has been problematic throughout his career. When I asked him how it felt when someone like Kid Rock samples his work, he said, “I’ve worked with at least four companies that put out samples for movies and television shows. If it wasn’t for that and rap, guys like me would all be down there sleeping on the street. People ask me what kind of music do I do. I don’t even know. I just do music.”
He’s spent a lifetime rubbing shoulders with icons like Aretha Franklin, Atlantic CEO Jerry Wexler, and Gene Pitney. “If you listen to Gene Pitney’s ‘She’s A Heartbreaker,’ you’ll hear me behind him because my voice leaked to the earphone because he only used one side of the earphone. He was listening to me at the same time. So, it’s actually Jerry Williams note for note. But he still made it him.
“They fired me because they say I ruined Gene Pitney’s career. They came back and tried to get me. I came back and did a couple of sides with him, but Musicore said I ruined his career. I wasn’t making $100 a week before takeout, and they fired me.”
My favorite cut on Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is “Billy” in which he addresses his wife’s tombstone in his most avuncular voice and tells her about their son.
You ought to see Billy
He looks more like you every day
He’s too young to remember
I guess It’s better that way
I wish you could see Billy this morning
He took his first step today.
“A good song don’t care who sings it,” he says. “A good song has universal appeal. It has something everybody can feel.”
In 1971, after releasing his second album Rat On! Jerry joined Jane Fonda’s Anti-Vietnam Free the Army Tour. Myself an anti-Vietnam sympathizer who got caught in the system and ended up in Vietnam, I nevertheless was offended by Jane Fonda allowing the Vietcong to photograph her aiming a rather large weapon at America’s soldiers. It was a public relations coup for the enemy. I asked Jerry what his take on that was.
“Um, (pause). I really look at – I really didn’t care. I had developed claustrophobia at the same time. I would go on stage and do what I had to do, but I was an emotional wreck. I didn’t like what she did, but I really didn’t have the brain power to concentrate on what anyone was doing. It was all about me. It wasn’t ego. I was afraid. I would check my heart 100 times a day thinking I was dying and all that bullshit, you know. So, what she did really didn’t matter to me.”
It’s been a long, often tough life for Jerry Williams a.k.a Swamp Dogg. And at nearly 78, he has an album that captures the best efforts of a very complex man. I told him that we don’t choose our friends; our friends choose us. We both agreed that we’re now friends with that one phone call and an album that reaches deep. Very deep!