‘Edison didn’t need me’
Alex Abramovich talks to Swamp Dogg
Jerry Williams Jr released his first album as Swamp Dogg, Total Destruction to Your Mind, in 1970. Before that he worked as a straight-up songwriter and producer – at Atlantic Records, among other places – cutting singles for Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Pitney, and Inez and Charlie Foxx, as well as himself. He had got his start in 1954, the year that Elvis Presley made his first commercial recordings. Like Presley, Williams was living with his mother back then, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the song he recorded: ‘Now, I know I take my whiskey/and sometimes get carried away,’ Williams sang. ‘I’m over 21 years old/so you ain’t got a darned thing to say.’
Williams was actually 12 at the time. He turns 77 tomorrow, and he’s still making music. Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is the album he put out last year. It’s a remarkable record, and a remarkable look at the way that technology – in this case, a technology designed to mask imperfections – can be used to convey intimacy and, of all things, vulnerability. Coming from a millennial, it would be impossible and amazing. Coming from a septuagenarian widower who worked on the Chitlin’ Circuit, then blew his mind on acid and early Frank Zappa, it somehow makes sense. In some ways it’s the opposite of everything Rick Rubin did with those last albums by Johnny Cash, stripping everything away but the essence. In other ways it isn’t. Like those Cash records, it just works.
Produced by Ryan Olson (of the indie band Gayngs), with assistance from Olson’s sometime collaborator Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), the album starts with a radical reworking of Nat King Cole’s ‘Answer Me, My Love’, ends with a relatively straightforward cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’, and slips seven original songs between those bookends: In ‘Lonely’, Swamp Dogg’s working two jobs, ‘Sixteen, eighteen hours a day’, while hunting for love. In ‘$$$ Huntin’, he’s been unemployed for a few years: ‘I’ll take some love if it comes,' he sings, 'But I’m going money hunting.’ ‘I’ll Pretend’ is a searing letter that’s never going to be read; a low, rolling wave that never crashes:
I’ll pretend when I visit our old friends
That you’re sitting down by my side
And when our old friends ask how am I doing
I’ll pretend I’m not losing my mind
One thing the songs have in common is the way they all speak to the political moment, in personal terms; their way of capturing the emotional fallout. But, as Williams told me on the phone the other day, ‘I’m always thinking about the economy when I write. The country. The state that it’s in. Even when I’m writing a novelty song.’
Williams was at home in California when I reached him, lying in bed in his pyjamas, and we ended up talking for an hour or so. ‘Swamp Dogg – he’s me,’ Williams said. ‘But I never turned him loose by himself because I’d never be able to reign him in. Another shot at success keeps me from turning Swamp Dogg loose.’
Using Auto-Tune, he said, ‘lent something to the songs and the production. Whereas, in most cases, you don’t really get a sense it makes it better, I do think it made my songs better. The only thing I could do to help it was stay out of the way. You know how you decide sometimes: “OK, I’m going to let ’em do whatever it is”? “I’m a stay out of the way”? I’ve got opinions. Every time something comes up, I got an opinion. I want to try something. This time, I did not. I held back. I had plenty I wanted to say, plenty I wanted to ask. But something said: “Just shut the fuck and up and let’s see what else can happen.” Like, Edison did the electric light thing, and he didn’t need me – and it worked out pretty good.’
He got to make that first record, ‘HTD Blues’, because his mother, Vera, who had her own band, had responded to an ad in the back of Mechanix Illustrated magazine. A van came down to Portsmouth, Virginia, to record her combo at home. ‘They ran all of the cords into our recreation room, through a window, and the guy who was doing the recording was outside the window,’ Williams told me. ‘The mics and everything was situated inside the breezeway … Whatever you were singing or playing went straight to the disc. They cut the record right there. If you made a mistake you couldn’t live with, you’d have to do another take.’
Vera’s combo was ‘a jukebox’, Williams said. ‘Playing what was popular. Ruth Brown. Joe Turner. Eddie Fischer’s “Song of a Dreamer”. They played at the Flame Bar in Baltimore. They played in Miami, and Cuba was as far from home as they got, playing for shake dancers, mostly. Do you know what a shake dancer is?’
‘How old are you?’
‘Shit. Are you trying to catch up with me? A Shake dancer was a stripper, with those little tassels they’d have on their titties.’
Vera’s band recorded her songs – a private pressing, to hand out to bookers – quickly enough to leave time for her son to record something too. ‘I didn’t have any plans,’ he told me. ‘I just wanted to make a record and hear it on the radio. And Jack Holmes, who was the biggest black record jock – or any kind of jock down there – played it and took me on record hops. I would get ten or fifteen dollars a night to perform, and I would pantomime.’
‘Sing along to the record?’
‘Yeah. Later on, in the sixties, I got a contract, but that was also because of Jack Holmes. He was one of those jocks who’d play your record two or three times. People would start asking for it: “Back up! Let’s hear some more of that.” He had people so excited, they’d be trying to break into the record store. He had a lot of success.’
'What happened to him?'
'What happened? He died. But for a country boy, he was smart as a sonofabitch.’
I asked Williams what his plans were now. ‘I’m trying to stay as happy as I can,’ he said. ‘Amass as much as I can of what I’m interested in. And that does it for me. It’s not that I don’t care. I still care. But you even run out of care, sometimes.’
Then again, sometimes you don’t.