A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 29, 2013
Great news for fans of the soul man known as Swamp Dogg: Alive/Naturalsound records has just re-released Mr. Dogg’s first two albums, Total Destruction to Your Mind and Rat On! Both have been out of print for years.
I know there are members of the cult of Swamp Dogg among my readership. But there’s a good chance that the vast majority of readers have no idea who he is.
Born Jerry Williams in Portsmouth, Virginia, more than 70 years ago, he began recording in the mid-1950s under the name of Little Jerry and later “Little Jerry Williams.” His Swamp Dogg persona didn’t emerge until 1970 with Total Destruction to Your Mind. Rat On! followed the next year.
Despite having a wonderful, sometimes piercing high voice, Swamp Dogg managed never to become a mainstream success. His biggest success is probably being the co-writer — along with fellow soul-belter Gary “U.S.” Bonds — of “She’s All I Got,” a huge country hit for Johnny Paycheck in the early ’70s.
But Swamp Dogg was intent on forging his own path in the music world. Years before it was fashionable, he bolted the big labels and started his own independent company, Swamp Dogg Entertainment Group, even though that meant leaner record sales and relative obscurity.
Another possibility is that these albums didn’t go platinum because of the covers, which were punk-rock in spirit years before punk.
The cover of Total Destruction features a fuzzy photo of Swamp in his underwear with what might be a saucepan on his head, sitting on what looks like a garbage truck. Rat On! has a picture of Swamp Dogg wearing a snazzy black-and-white pimp cap and matching shirt and riding a large white rat the size of a horse.
(The strange, sometimes off-putting Swamp Dogg album covers never stopped. His 2003 record If I Ever Kiss It … He Can Kiss It Goodbye shows Swamp Dogg in a rather conservative suit surrounded by oversized disembodied tongues and lips. Then in 2007 there was Resurrection, which had a cover depicting the singer nailed to a cross, clad only in an U.S.-flag loincloth.)
But you can’t judge a record by the cover, so those who skipped the early Swamp Dogg records because of the album art did themselves a disservice. Especially when it comes to Total Destruction to Your Mind.
The title song opens the album, with Swamp making an overt “I Am the Walrus” reference (“Sittin’ on a corn flake …”). It’s an upbeat, gospel-infused tune, but despite the surreal lyrics and some subdued wah-wah guitar, I wouldn’t call this a “psychedelic” soul song as countless other writers have. It’s just good-time Southern soul. Swamp refers to “psychedelic music to blow my mind” in the next song, “Synthetic World.” But the music on this tune is sweet and mellow.
I can almost imagine the late Richard Manuel of The Band singing the song “The World Beyond,” a lament taking place in some post-apocalyptic reality. (Believe it or not, this was written by Bobby Goldsboro, most famous for the sap masterpieces “Honey” and “Broomstick Cowboy.”) And I’m not sure which reality “I Was Born Blue” came from. In the refrain, Swamp sings, “Why wasn’t I born with orange skin and green hair like the rest of the people in the world?”
One of the harder-edged tracks here is the slow-burning, swampy “Sal-a-Faster,” which starts out with Swamp confessing, “I just hafta always stay plastered …” But the song in which he seems to be having the most fun is “Redneck,” which was written by Joe South. That’s one of two South songs here, the other being “These Are Not My People,” which is about a young woman who falls victim to the temptations of the wild side of life.
Total Destruction ends with a couple of tunes that perhaps should have been called “The Paternity Suit Suite.” “The Baby Is Mine” is about tensions between a guy and his ex-love’s husband. “You can bet your life, she might be his wife/but the baby is mine,” Swamp sings. The next tune, “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe,” is a straight-up blues about a “wild” woman married to a brown-eyed man who is worried whether his blue-eyed child is really his.
Rat On! starts out with “Do You Believe,” which has Swamp pondering the political landscape of the day. “Do you believe in the NAACP/Or the Ku Klux Klan/The Panther Party/or in Uncle Sam?”
But the theme changes to personal domestic matters in the next song. “Predicament #2” is about a guy with a loving wife and child as well as a mistress on the side. “One woman keeps my heart and the other keeps my family,” he sings.
Later in the album, he sings about a more unusual situation. “That Ain’t My Wife” is about a guy who walks into his old house and watches a couple making out on the couch. He leaves, gets some booze at a liquor store, and goes back to the house just to make sure.
Two of my favorite songs on Rat On! are covers. Swamp Dogg does a stirring version of The Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You.” But even better is his soul-soaked take on a Mickey Newberry classic, “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” Right now I can’t decide whether I like this song best by Swamp Dogg or Jerry Lee Lewis.
Terrell questions Question Mark: I’m crying 96 tears of joy right now, because I will be doing a radio interview with the one and only Question Mark of Question Mark & The Mysterians on Sunday, March 31, on my radio show, Terrell’s Sound World.
Tune in for some words of wisdom from one of the founding fathers and unascended masters of what became known as garage rock. The show starts at 10 p.m., and the interview will begin about 10:15 p.m. That’s on KSFR-FM 101.1 and streaming live on the web at www.ksfr.org
Here's a fairly recent performance by Mr. Dogg:
The one time I got to see Swamp Dogg live, back in the late '90s I believe, this John Prine classic was my favorite song he did. This version was recorded during the Iraq war: