Swamp Dogg: Janis Joplin, Dionne Warwick and Me

Soul great also known as Jerry Williams tells all: “Ask me anything you want. I had a good night sleep.”

Swamp Dogg (Art: Ron Hart)

The story of soul music is that of a great tradition with legends like Aretha, JB, Otis, Marvin, Stevie, Brother Ray, Patti, Curtis, Sly, Sam, Smokey and Tammi. Another name that arguably belongs there is one Jerry Williams aka Swamp Dogg.

Starting out in the ‘50’s, even before he was a teen, the Virginia-born singer / songwriter / producer was soon making a dent in the R&B charts in the following decade on his own and working alongside Gary US Bonds, Patti Labelle and Gene Pitney.  One person missing from the equation was Williams himself, who didn’t always get the credit so he unleashed upon the world the outrageous, hilarious persona of Swamp Dogg around 1970. Under this moniker, he unleashed 70s manifestos such as Total Destruction To Your Mind, Gag A Maggot (featuring him in a dumpster) and Rat On! (with SD riding a rodent). Though his album release pace slowed down in the 80’s and 90’s, he still toured to share his funky unbowed carnal wisdom.

Swamp Dogg Gag A Maggot, Stone Dogg 1973

The new millennium saw him reissuing his old material (most of which you can find on his Bandcamp page) alongside new albums such as 2014’s The White Man Made Me Do It, plus a country record (Don’t Give Up On Me) and Christmas album (An Awful Christmas and A Lousy New Year). Last year, he put out Sorry You Couldn’t Make It which featured John Prine, Jenny Lewis and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). Which leads up to the recent EP, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It Demos.  Funny story about that- as he explains here, he didn’t know about the record until after it came out though he is happy that it’s available. He also shares stories about a run-in with Janis Joplin, a near run-in with Dionne Warwick and how he once had it all.

For the phone interview, he was in an exceptionally good mood, saying “Ask me anything you want. I had a good night sleep. I’ve been waiting on your call.  And so my time is your time.”

One thing we agreed on otherwise- football is B.S. and neither of us was going to watch the Super Bowl, except maybe the Weeknd for the half time show. “Give ‘em all a ball and maybe they’ll be satisfied!” he said.

 

Why did you decide to put these demos for a new release?

Well, to be honest, I didn’t know they were coming out. I didn’t know the record company had them. I didn’t know that one of my producers, Ryan [Olson], had them.  I left Ryan and a couple of other constituents here while I went to do a gig.  They were here for a couple of days so they had a chance to go through my record library, my tape library and all that stuff. I didn’t know they had it.  I was more surprised than you.  I could have found reasons to put them out but it was not my doing.  Nevertheless, I’m very happy that it was done ‘cause I want more product out in the street.  So that’s that.  I ain’t screw up your interview, did I? (laughs)

 

Not at all!  So, for the EP, there were two songs that didn’t appear on your recent album before that, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It. Why did you decide against having “Barney’s Beanery” and “Something You Didn’t Have Time to Do” on the album?

OK, it’s almost the same answer.  When I opened the album, the 12 inch, and that thing fell out, I didn’t have a clue.  ‘What the hell is this?’  And that’s what it was.

I mean “Barney’s Beanery” is something I wrote right after… what’s her name died… She could sing her ass off and used to bring all kinds of liquor on stage. I think she’s from Austin, Texas and she sang “Piece of My Heart.”

 

Janis Joplin?

Yes, that’s her. I know all the details but forgot the name.  I wrote it with the restaurant Barney’s Beanery in mind ‘cause I used to go there a lot and a late at night.  I saw her there one morning, about two or three o’clock in the morning and then there was no one else in there except the people who clean up. I introduced myself and I’m quite sure she remembered for at least 15 minutes and that was it.  I have a habit of not bothering even people even if I recognize them.  I don’t go over and start a conversation about how great they are, ‘cause they know how great they are.  And they love their food and want me to get the hell out of the way. So that’s what I exercise.

 

What are you playing on the demos? Is that a regular piano?

Yeah, I was playing an upright piano, but not very well. What happens is, once I can put a song down, I may not go back to it to do anything else. I’ll just leave it until there’s an interest in it and then I’ll try to thrill it up and do things to it.  But I was happy with what I did.

Swamp Dogg Sorry You Couldn’t Make It Demos, Joyful Noise 2021

Will you be putting out other demos?

Yes. I would do it and I got something that I’d  love to come out. Now take for instance, “Something You Didn’t Have Time To Do.” I wrote that for Dionne Warwick in the mid-60s. But I don’t know if it ever got to her or what.  After I gave it to the person who was super close to Dionne Warwick, I didn’t hear any more about it. But that’s who I wrote it for.  She was in the studio and she was still looking for material but I should have known that if she was going to get some new material, Burt Bacharach and Hal David was going to write it. I don’t care if you were Jesus, they were going to write something that they considered ‘better.’

 

What do you like to do to relax outside of making music?

I’m a movie fanatic. I’m so mad that I can’t get Netflix and all that shit right now.  That’s my big thriller.  But I’ve had women to tell me afterwards that they weren’t as thrilled as I was about going from theater to theater because that’s what I do-  I go to the theater like about 12 o’clock in the afternoon and stay until the last feature, which turns out about 1 o’clock AM.  Just so I don’t get hungry ‘cause they don’t have shit for you to eat there [at the theater], I always scout the place out and see if there’s somewhere I can go and get a sandwich and put in my pocket and bring it back into the theater.  I’ll tell the people at the door that ‘I think I left the lights on in my car’ and they have humungous parking ‘cause they have 15, 16 theaters.  And when you come back in, nobody says anything.

So, where are you from?

 

New York City.

No shit! I stayed there a lot but I never lived there. I lived in Long Island, West Hempstead, for years and I loved it, from ’68 maybe until ’77. It was great, it was beautiful.  My daughters loved it, my wife was crazy about it. The only thing to me, my wife loved cold weather, the kids they liked cold weather.  As far as I’m concerned, you can take cold weather and stuff it! That’s where I really lived and that’s where I wrote a lot of hits and it was nice. I lived a life of a millionaire there ‘cause I was at that time.  I couldn’t give you cab fare today, but during those days, I had it all. Which brings me to the point that if you don’t do the right things, you will not keep it all.

 

AUDIO: Swamp Dogg Sorry You Couldn’t Make It Demos (full album)

 

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Jason Gross

Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever , one of the first and longest-running online music magazines. He also does freelance writing for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Time Out, AP, New York, MTV, Oxford American, Billboard, MOJO, The Wire, Blurt among others.  Reissues and collections that he's produced included Delta 5, Essential Logic, Kleenex/Liliput, DNA, Oh OK and OHM –The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. He lives in New York with his girlfiend and their 30 plush cats.

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