Thursday, June 28, 2007
Interview with Swamp Dogg - Published in 'Juke Blues' magazine
A DOGG TALE by Ray Ellis
‘Where else but in America could a person own a Rolls Royce, an Eldorado, a Mark IV, a Mercedes limousine, an estate in Long Island, an apartment in Hollywood and still be considered a failure? Well, you’re looking at him and listening to him.’
Written by Swamp Dogg as part of the liner notes to his own 1974 Island LP ‘Have You Heard This Story?’ (his fifth album!), this somewhat self-depreciating attitude gives but an inkling into the colourful character of Jerry ‘Swamp Dogg’ Williams, Jr.
An immensely talented and vastly underrated songwriter/producer/singer/musician/performer, Jerry has written hundreds of songs, recorded only a fraction of them himself and has produced scores of artists across the diverse musical spectrum from Gene Pitney to Lightnin’ Slim to Kid Rock. His latest album was recorded in Trinidad last year whilst four of his songs can be found on Guitar Shorty’s ‘Roll Over, Baby’ for Black Top Records in 1998. Billy Price (featured in JB 46) was subject to the Dogg treatment for his successful ‘Can I Change My Mind’ set in late 1999.
Recording as R’n’B singer Little Jerry Williams then as Jerry Williams during the 60’s for a variety of labels including Ember, V-Tone, Calla, Musicor and Cotillion, Jerry transformed himself into Swamp Dogg in 1969. This enabled him to break out of the straight-jacket in which he had felt so confined and gave vent to an explosive expression of social satire, hypocrisy, political awareness, surrealism and adult relationships in all its forms, spiced with more than a dose of humour. Put this together with a range of musical styles from raw funk to country-soul to blues and what do you get? A series of powerful off-the-wall yet meaningful albums.
Sample the lyrics to ‘Or Forever Hold Your Peace’ (‘I should have been a happy man last night/Our son introduced us to his future wife/From the moment they walked through the living room door/I was sure I had seen her somewhere before/When they all turned their heads, she winked at me/Then I remembered it was somewhere a married man shouldn’t be/These words tortured me as we all sat down to eat/Speak now or forever hold your peace’), ‘Ebony And Jet’ (‘I’ve got a lot accomplished/But I ain’t done nothin’ yet/’Til they write me up in Ebony/Put my picture on the front of Jet’) or ‘Synthetic World’ (‘Hey, you/I’m up from the bayou/Where wildlife runs free/You could say that I’m country/But let me tell you what I see/Your world is plastic/Can see through to the other side/Your cities are made of wood/Antiques are what you got inside/Houses are paper but folks don’t hear a word you say/Friendship’s like acid/It burns as it slides away/So you see, my patience is growing thin/With this synthetic world we’re livin’ in’).
Arguably, he kept his best work writing and/or producing for others, especially the female singers such as Doris Duke, Sandra Phillips, Irma Thomas, Dee Dee Warwick, Irma Thomas and Ruth Brown. Z.Z. Hill, Solomon Burke, Freddie North, Oscar Toney Jr all benefited, too - the list just goes on and on. Although he achieved limited commercial success on his own recordings, two of which were the melodic and soulful ‘Baby, You’re My Everything’ on Calla in 1965 (as Little Jerry Williams) and the straight blues ‘Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe’ on Canyon in 1970 (as Swamp Dogg), Jerry scored heavily on producing Freddie North’s 1971 hit ‘She’s All I Got’ co-written with partner Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds (Billboard No 39 ‘Pop’ and No 10 R&B). This spawned numerous cover versions including country hits on Johnny Paycheck (twice) and Tracy Byrd.
But that’s only half the story. If you include writing and producing television and radio commercials, running his own record labels, writing his own outrageous liner notes, being a part of the group FTA (Free The Army) in the early 70’s with Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory and Donald Sutherland to protest against the Vietnam war, and writing a cookbook called ‘If You Can Kill It, I Can Cook It’, you get a wider view of the man’s kaleidoscopic range of activities.
Born on the 12th July 1942 in Portsmouth, Virginia, Jerry had a middle-class upbringing, his father being a naval officer, his mother a drummer. He didn’t follow the usual gospel route, but his passion for music that stretches back to his childhood is as strong today as it has ever been. His own view is neatly summed up in those Island LP liner notes: ‘I have come to the conclusion that I’m a freak for rejection. If not, I’d drag ass out of this business - hurt me!!................I think I love it.’
Early influences.........'My earliest influences were Amos Milburn, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Larry Williams. You can find all these guys are always alive in my music somewhere in every album I’ve ever done and will ever do if it’s only in my piano playing, some licks from them, a phrase that they may have said. It might sound a little weird, but I’ve got to throw Little Jerry Williams in there also, because Little Jerry Williams was like the cocoon that Swamp Dogg emerged from.
We had a large house [in Portsmouth, Virginia] and when black entertainers came through town, our house was one of the houses some of the band members, or a couple of times some of the major entertainers, would stay because we always would rent a couple of rooms to those guys. My mother and my stepfather were musicians (my mother is still a musician, my stepfather recently died) and when they were out on the road, they would run into these guys. At that time, they would exchange information: ‘Well, hey, when you get to Virginia you go here, you go there.’ Because they [the visiting entertainers] couldn’t stand the regular hotels. Well, some members of Louis Jordan’s band used to stay. I got to meet him [Jordan] because he used to come by and pick up the guys. Sonny Til’s Orioles, you name it. Just because we had a theatre there, the Capitol Theatre. They used to come and play that circuit: the Capitol Theatre in Portsmouth, the Booker T. Theatre in Norfolk, the Hippodrome in Richmond, Virginia - the whole circuit. And they had to have some place to stay. There were several houses in Portsmouth where they were welcome and ours was one of them. I started going to the theatres when I was about five [years old], watching these guys on stage. And I knew I wanted to do something similar to what they were doing, if not exactly what they were doing.'
Singing, piano-playing and song-writing...............'I did sing in church, not with groups but by myself, always sung by myself. I don’t know if I sounded good or bad. I was a little kid and they used to say, ‘Oh, junior can sing!’ They would learn a song and junior would sing it in church. But while I was going to Catholic church I would also attend the Baptist church where my aunts, grandmother and everyone was going. I was in [a] Catholic school also. I was doing them both, although you weren’t supposed to go to other churches if you were Catholic! That seemed like bullshit to me, but I was only seven years old.
I learnt to play piano through formal piano lessons. I don’t have a good ear for playing piano, like some people. I guess I was about eight. I’m supposed to be a virtuoso if you take into consideration when I started [and] how long I’ve been doing it. But I got to a point, I got to Fats Domino and stopped! Yeah, that was it. It was like I had reached the pinnacle of what I wanted to achieve on the piano (laughs), without knowing there was more to be done!
I don’t know how I came to write my own songs. That was the first thing I did. I started writing little short plays. When I think back, they were awful! I didn’t have any formal training. This must have been when I was about seven or eight when I started. I had my piano and I started writing songs. They were horrible songs, horrible. What made it so bad...I had all these songs stacked up and you play them for family and the neighbours. They sent you off in the wrong direction: ‘He’s great! He should be in New York!’
When I [eventually] went to New York for my first recording contract [in 1960], I took all of these songs. I went into Al Silver’s office [Al was the President of Herald/Ember Records], sat down at the piano and must have played loads of different songs. He listened and asked me to come back tomorrow. I went back the next day and he had all these demo songs laid out. And I played ‘em without Al even telling me anything. I saw the difference. I was a songwriter without direction, I was all over the place. In the first line, I’d be writing about this table, the next line I’d be writing about that tree. There was no coherency about anything that I was writing. Then Al Silver had a talk with me and told me exactly what I was doing wrong. He said, ‘You’ve got the makings [of a writer], but I can’t use none of your songs. They’re all the pits.’ He’s sitting there saying, ‘Here’s what you do. You approach your songs just like you would approach writing a book or anything else. Get yourself something interesting to write about and give the subject a beginning, a middle and an end.’ He also told me to employ those rules of journalism - what, when, where, why. I went back home - this was 1960. By 1961, people were starting to record my songs, because I knew exactly........it was like painting the whole room black. You’re a good painter, it’s not streaked or anything, but it was the wrong fucking colour! So, Al Silver was instrumental in me becoming a writer. The next person was Don Covay. I met Don at around the same time. Don told me two things, one I didn’t pick up on for too fucking long. The first thing he told me was, ‘Look, get yourself a hook’ - he explained to me what a hook was - ‘And stick with it. Keep going back to it. Whenever you’re in doubt, go to the fucking hook.’ That’s why he had so many hits. If you sit down and dissect most of the Don Covay songs, like ‘See-Saw’, you’ll find a strong hook. The second thing he told me was to concentrate more on Jerry Williams as an artist more than other people. Even then, I had other artists that I had recorded and I’d brought them to New York in 1961. I took heed to that later. He was right again. '
First recordings............'My first recording was on Mechanic in 1954 [‘HTD Blues (Hardsick Troublesome Downout Blues)’ / ‘Nat’s Wailing’]. There wasn’t any contract required. It was actually my company, but I didn’t realise it! They just pressed up some records for me. [This was a tape Jerry mailed-out to Mechanical Illustrated Magazine for which he received the 78rpm discs in return. The recording was made on a family-owned Grundig reel-to-reel tape machine and included his mother Vera Cross on drums, step-father Nat Cross on guitar and step-uncle Garfield on bass, with Jerry, aged twelve, on piano and vocals. Jerry took it to influential disc jockey Jack Holmes at the local radio station in Norfolk, Virginia who played it.]
[As mentioned earlier], my first recording contract was with Ember Records of New York in 1960. Jack Holmes got on the phone and called Al Silver. Al did him a favour and recorded Little Jerry. There was nothing about Al Silver hearing me saying that he [Jack] was knocked out by my talent. There was none of that! It was just a powerful disc jockey [who] got on the phone [and] who liked me. But then he knew my family and so on. If the record was going to be broken, it was going to have to be broken down in Norfolk, Virginia. The record did pretty good on the East Coast - Baltimore, Washington, Virginia, North Carolina. It was called ‘There Ain’t Enough Love’ and the flip side was ‘Don’t You Feel’ [Ember 1081] produced by Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez. It was a good record, one of my better records!'
Little Jerry.........'I started off as Little Jerry because I thought it was so great I’d walk by and I’d see posters: Little Willie John, Little Richard, Little Milton, Little whatever. ‘Little’ was the thing to be. So, I became Little Jerry. At that time, I was a skinny guy, but I got bigger. Then, after my R&B hit ‘Baby, You’re My Everything’ for Calla Records in 1965 [Calla 105], I decided it was time to drop the ‘Little’. So, I dropped it for the next record ‘Baby Bunny Sugar Honey’ [Calla 109] when it was by Jerry Williams. The name Jerry Williams didn’t seem to jump out at me like Little Jerry Williams. Without the ‘Little’, Jerry Williams didn’t seem to do much for me. So, I just dropped it and in 1969 I completely eradicated it.'
Jay Dee Bryant.................'I had a record on J.D. in 1961 on Aldo called ‘I Wanna Know You Want Me’ / ‘Don’t Stop Now’. J.D.Bryant is a great R&B singer. Matter of fact, he is the half-brother of Matt Parsons, the renowned promotion man [who produced with Jerry singles on Gino (real name Frank Amodeo), and The Suburbans for Golden Crest and Shelley Records in 1963] and he is also the cousin of Peabo Bryson. Bobby Robinson produced some good stuff on him on Enjoy Records. He’s got records on Josie [including ‘Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave’] and he’s got a record I did on Island ‘I Want To Thank You Baby’ and ‘Standing Ovation For Love’ [Island 008]. I got one in the can, too, that’s so great!'
First record label............. '8730 Records was my label [formed in 1965]. I lived at 8730 North West 16th Avenue in Miami, Florida at the time. We had just moved to Miami. The first recording on the label was by Alto Lee, and it was called ‘Indefinitely’ [8730 101]. The other side was called ‘Who Can I Turn To / Blowin’ In The Wind’. I’d taken Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and a song I wrote called ‘Who Can I Turn To’ and made up a medley. Alto was out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The second [and last] recording on the label was ‘Your Man’ [8730 102] by yours truly and is on Tommy Hunt’s album [‘Until My Arms Fall Off’ on SDEG 1978 released in 1997] - same track. Actually, on the flip side of ‘Your Man’, is a thing called ‘Give The Disc Jockey Some’, an instrumental. All it was, was ‘Who Can I Turn To / Blowin’ In The Wind’ without Alto’s voice (laughs)! I think I put on there ‘A Michelle Production’ after my daughter Michelle.'
O.V. Wright…………….. 'It was early 1966 when O.V. was touring Florida and so was I. I believe his big record at the time was ‘Monkey Dog’ – at least in the state of Florida where it was a fuckin' smash! They played it like the national anthem. Mine was ‘Baby You're My Everything’. I opened some shows for him because we had the same promoter, disk jockey Nickie Lee. I tried to teach him to tie a necktie but he never caught on...he use to have me knot all of his ties for him whenever we'd run into each other! Carl Henderson ‘Sharing You’ (Renfro) was also on some of the shows. We were all staying at the Sir John Hotel in Miami and we party'd together all of the time. O.V. was a warm, wonderful guy who was just a little too naive.'
Brooks & Jerry...............'That was just a thing we [Brooks O’Dell and I] did for Dynamo in 1968 [‘I Got What It Takes Parts 1 and 2’ on Dynamo 114]. We didn’t know that it had reached some marginal success in the UK [where it was released on Direction 58-3267]. We knew it had been played and somebody liked it, but Art Talmadge who owned the record company didn’t tell us much because he didn’t want to pay us much! When I signed with the company, they advanced me some money somewhere around about $500-600. And I was making $100 a week before taxes and everything. But they recouped their money. They gave me this $100 a week [which] they treated like a draw, they treated it like salary, whatever. The hits I got on Gene Pitney [‘She’s A Heartbreaker’ on Musicor 1306] and Inez & Charlie Foxx [‘1234567 Count The Days’ on Dynamo 112], I didn’t get paid. It wasn’t like I had worked there for long enough. Like if you were working there for 2 or 3 years and taking a draw. If you get a hit, you don’t get anything coming, because you’re getting it all in the draw. But I was there maybe only 3 months before I got my first hit with Inez & Charlie Foxx. In fact, I didn’t start getting paid on ‘She’s A Heartbreaker’ until about a year and a half ago! We’re still going through with the lawsuits. Because what he’s doing, he’s paying me for monies that are being earned now. So, I got a cheque for $93, a cheque for $16.79, that kind of thing. But what happened to the money from the million-seller? OK, you’re not getting paid, that’s one thing. But you have an accomplishment and people wanted to deal with this. So, I was playing on records and producing records. My wife [Yvonne] had a job. So, out there money was not the object. Because we hadn’t thought about money. The fact that I’m writing songs, I want to write songs, you’re not really thinking about money. It’s not on your mind. Living is very easy. I paid my rent, utilities, I got food - I’m living! Yvonne was working and she was making enough to really carry the family. I bought the house [in Miami] that today sells for about $165,000. I paid $9,500 for it. $1,000 down and I paid that in 10 instalments of $100 every 2 weeks. It was still a lot of money but the pressure wasn’t there. And when you’re young, you know you can do anything. Because you’ve got one thing that most people don’t have - that’s time.'
The Greene Sisters……………'I visited a church in New York, circa ‘67, to see the Mighty Clouds perform and this group was on the bill. I signed them, took them into the Musicor Studio and produced a part 1, part 2 single entitled ‘Thank You Lord’ which was released on Dynamo 128 and written by Gary Bonds and myself. There was another cut on that session that I never released entitled ‘The Lord Is Watching You’. This was my first stab at gospel music. Their first album was on Hob (Scepter) and spawned a hit ‘Rushing Of The Mighty Wind’. At that time, their father was singing with them. When I signed them he had a heart attack and retired from singing and roadwork. Their actual billing is The Greene Sisters of Baltimore.Then I signed them to Mankind [in 1972] for the ‘Whatever’s Fair’ album [Mankind 202]. If you look at the album cover..........the sisters are (l to r) Maxine Greene, Joyce Butler (formerly Joyce Greene), Edna Issacs (formerly Edna Greene), Evelyn McLaughlin (nickname Jap) and Shirley Brooks. Willie Jackson is on the back cover....he was the piano player and a damn good gospel singer as you can attest to on side two, track one. After the Mankind LP, they continued to sing in churches, at conventions and in venues throughout the country including Alaska.'
Singer and co-writer Charlie Whitehead (aka Raw Spitt)................'I met him in New York, but I found out later that he was from my home town. He wandered in with his partner Joe Pond, it was Charlie and Joe: Charlie Whitehead and Joe Pond. I was at Musicor [in 1967] and they wanted to cut a record. We became friends. When we were putting the record together, it became a thing of who was going to sing the lead part. So, they broke up. I was happy, because they were gettin’ on my nerves! I couldn’t really get to what I wanted to do. I cut a record on Charlie, the old Jimmy Holiday number ‘How Can I Forget’ [b/w ‘The Story Of Mr. Pitiful’ on Dynamo 132]. After we cut that, him and Joe got back together and went over to Jubilee to record as Charlie and Joe. Then Charlie came back and I signed him to an exclusive 10-year contract. I would record him - I just like to hear him sing. What he didn’t realise was that we did finally get a hit on Island ‘Love Being Your Fool’ [b/w ‘Now That I Can Dance’ also released in the UK on UA 35898]. The thing was, I was making Charlie happy about recording. As a result, he was making me happy by writing with me. So, I was getting hits. He just wasn’t getting any hits as Charlie Whitehead the singer, but he was getting hits as Charlie Whitehead the writer. I always did all the music. I haven’t seen him in a long time. At one time, I know he was working in a television repair shop. As an update…I spoke to him in mid 2000 and he's working as the entertainment director for the city of Manhattan and still living in Brooklyn.'
Metamorphosis from Jerry Williams to Swamp Dogg........'The name came about because I was recording down in Macon, Georgia and we were doing a music that Jerry Wexler had coined ‘Swamp Music’. We were playing [with] Tony Joe White and all of those people. That’s where the ‘Swamp’ came from. I wanted to be able do anything in the world that I wanted to do musically. I wanted to be able to dress any way. Every time I walked on stage, I didn’t want to wear no fucking tie or suit like I was going to church. Why did I have to be all dressed up? The audience weren’t dressed up. And a dog can do anything he wanted to do. A dog can walk in and shit right there in the middle of the floor and somebody will clean it up. ‘He must be lost or something. He’s a nice dog, a good dog. I’ll take you home.’ That’s what I like about the dog part. If I could get another connotation in the dictionary, it would mean ‘to be able to do anything that you want to do and still be accepted’. The main thing is you can’t bite anyone. Once a dog bites you, it’s over - you go put him to sleep. As long as you don’t bite anyone, you can do anything you want to do. The creation of Swamp Dogg was a necessity, because I was just starting to be introduced to money, something I hadn’t given any thought of ever really having in quantity. I hadn’t been prepared to receive monies. As a result, money drove me crazy! The part that really drove me crazy, not crazy but really got to me was the fact that the money was outweighing the recognition. I was making my money behind the scenes and nobody knew me except the people within the industry. I wanted to be able to walk down the street like I see Jackie Wilson and those guys. I found out later [that] not to be recognised is damn good, because you can travel faster and you can keep more of whatever it is you’re trying to keep! So, I had an identity crisis and I transferred everything over to this Swamp Dogg persona. Swamp Dogg became this wild, outrageous, outlandish personality which took all the focus off Jerry Williams while I was like searching for Jerry. So, I found Jerry Williams after going to a psychiatrist.'
Doris Duke and signing with Wally Roker at Canyon Records.................'I took Doris Duke to him first. When I took Doris Duke to him [in 1970], Canyon was damn near out of business. But I had been turned down by every company in New York. No-one liked Doris’ ‘I’m A Loser’ album, because it was done from a woman’s point of view. There were no women in the industry for me to go to. If you listen to it from a woman’s perspective, it’s a depressing album! It’s just lose, lose, lose! A friend of mine by the name of Troy Davis just brought her to me. I wasn’t looking for no artists. I wasn’t looking for anything, but I was open to everything. So, he brought her to me. He said that we should record her. OK, so let’s record her! That’s the way that went. 3 of those songs were already written. ‘He’s Gone’ I did on Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles [‘Dancing To The Rhythm Of Love’ / ‘He’s Gone’ on Atlantic 2610]. 2 of the songs were written by George Jackson with Mickey Buckins and I love those songs anyway [‘The Feeling Is Right’ and ‘I Can’t Do Without You’]. When I heard her sing, all of a sudden song ideas starting coming forth. But we had written a load of songs before we had done too much of anything with anybody. Just stacking up songs, getting ready. The first record [‘To The Other Woman (I’m The Other Woman)’ / ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ on Canyon 28] was a smash, so we must have been on the right track. The only reason why Wally Roker took it was that he thought it was a smash! They [Canyon] had just enough money left to get it out on the streets. He made me some promises. He said that once this was a hit, you can do any fucking thing you want to do. We made plans, the record became a hit, and I went back and he made good on his promises. The company would have been around now, but it stretched out too far. He tried to become Capitol Records or something overnight! There’s only one thing I feel on the album was missing that I regret. If you notice, there’s no background vocals on it, except on ‘Congratulations Baby’ - that’s Doris and me! The background singers didn’t show up! The studio is the last place that I ever have a problem. I don’t argue in the studio, I don’t argue with the musicians - never have. If you don’t show up, great. If you can’t show up, great. If you can, great. When I found out they weren’t coming, that was after we had gone on into the night, well, Doris was a professional background singer [for Jerry Butler, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone amongst others]. I thought I could sing a little bit. So, let’s do it. We couldn’t do a lot of multi-tracking because this album was recorded 16-track and we were running out of tracks. We were using a lot of tracks. As a result, we didn’t have enough places to put background voices. Which means I would put background vocals - Doris and mine - on somebody else’s track with them. Then try to do a final mix of that one track to try to move it with the remainder. I didn’t want to do that. So, we only had one track to work with and that’s just Doris and I on that one track.'
The Doris Duke / Sandra Phillips connection................'At the time, I was trying to create another Doris Duke as fast as possible. Doris was giving me a problem before the record came out. Before the record hit, Doris used to call me up and fire me! I said, ‘You can’t fire me! I’m your producer, I’m your manager!’ I even owned the fucking name, you know! I even copyrighted the fucking name. Her real name is Doris Willingham. I changed her name to the heiress, she owns the tobacco fortune or something. One thing, the minute I started telling people I had a Doris Duke album, right away they said, ‘I heard of her!’ I wanted something that didn’t need a lot of explanation. As a matter of fact, several gigs were played by Sandra Phillips as Doris Duke, because Doris was acting crazy. Every time I sent Doris on a gig, she would fall in love with the club owner or the promoter or whatever. Now, all of a sudden, they are her manager! That means she don’t get paid and I don’t get paid. Then, one night, somebody shot the tyres off the station-wagon and scared the band. It just became more than a young man wanted to deal with. So, Sandra Phillips was my new Doris Duke. Doris came back into the fold after everything was over. But, my spirit wasn’t in it. If you look at the album [‘A Legend In Her Own Time’ on Mankind 200 in 1972], I didn’t write that many songs. When I made the deal with Nashboro [distributors of Swamp’s Mankind label], I had Z.Z.Hill. They wanted me to take Freddie North which I did. I had Brooks O’Dell, and a group called The Rhythm And Blues Classical Funk Band. That was it. That was what I was starting my label [Mankind] with. We were standing there negotiating and I’m happy this was going to be a great deal. While I was negotiating, I keep hearing those little voices saying, ‘What about Doris Duke? Are you going bring Doris Duke? We’d really like to have Doris Duke!’ My deal was hinging on delivering somebody who dislikes me and someone whom I dislike. But the cheque is laying on the table awaiting those signatures until I bring her. So, I called up Doris. I tried to be real nonchalant. ‘Hey, what you doing. Do you like to do another record?’ She senses that somebody told her something. Right away, she started pillaging and plundering. Like, ‘I want this and I want that.’ And I gave it to her. What happened was, she didn’t need to sign another contract. The [original] contract was still in effect. I had put it in suspension, because I couldn’t find her, she just disappeared. So, the contract was picked up from that day and went retro-active from the day I couldn’t find her. I issued another letter and we went from that moment on. But all those contracts don’t mean nothin’ if you don’t have the body! So, we did that album.'
Freddie North..........'He just happened to be the national promo man for Nashboro when I took my Mankind label there. He also had the power to stop my deal. [But] Freddie sealed the deal by telling Nashboro that I was just what they needed. Freddie had produced one album on himself [‘The Magnetic North’] that was a failure, and he asked me at the signing of my deal if I'd produce him and navigate his career. I agreed without hesitation before I ever heard him sing because this was a way to pay him back for not blocking my path. After I heard him sing, what was to come was Pop/R&B history - 'She's All I Got' [on Mankind 12004] gained Top 20 status in 1971.'
Z.Z.Hill.................'I met Z.Z.Hill after I bought his contract from Quinn Ivy and Phil Walden, not knowing that he hated them both and refused to go back into the studio for either of them. He also refused to go into the studio for me also because he knew that I was a friend and associate of Phil and Quinn, and figured that this was just a ploy to get him back into the studio. I flew to New Orleans and Birmingham and talked with him until he understood that I was not out to record him for them.' [‘The Brand New Z.Z. Hill’ was recorded for Mankind in 1972.]
Oscar Toney Jr................'Oscar Toney was not one of my choices. Phil Walden asked me to cut him. The money was right, the budget was cool. I liked Oscar Toney a lot. He was a fun-loving guy. But Oscar Toney had a habit - he was well-built, stocky, very strong - he liked to laugh and tell jokes, and every time he laughed he hit me on the top of my head! I said, ‘You gotta stop beatin’ me ‘bout my damn head!’ So, after we cut four sides [for Capricorn in 1972], I said, ‘I love you, but this is killing me! This is what I’d have to go through to get an album out?’ The abuse, I mean brain dead! But he was easy to work with and [he] could sing. Someone said he was driving a truck in Boston, I don’t know. [Oscar is back recording with a new CD release ‘Guilty Of Loving You’, playing in local clubs and was a highlight of the Porretta Soul Festival in 1999.] I spoke to Oscar around October 2000 and we were going to do a deal but he insisted that his product had to be released by or before Christmas, and I couldn't deliver. I still love him though.'
Wolfmoon.............'He was from Richmond, Virginia and was also known as Little Tommy although his real name was Tyrone Thomas. I recorded him first in Philadelphia in 1964 but before I could release the record he went back to Richmond and signed with Mr Wiggles’ label (Sounds Of Richmond) who released my master. I didn’t hold it against him, so when I got my BASF distributed Fungus label [in 1973] I released the album that I cut in 1969 [entitled ‘Wolfmoon’] when I leased it to Capitol, but they decided that the public wasn’t ready for a pop-gospel album. The single sold well [‘God Bless’ / ‘My Kinda People’ on Fungus 15118 in 1973]. That was when I was trying to put that whole thing together: Swamp Dogg, Raw Spitt, Wolfmoon. A fantastic drummer…I had him on the road in the band with Doris Duke, Sandra Phillips and myself. I heard from him about 4 years ago. He had cut some more sides and was a partner on another Richmond label.'
Bette Williams.....................'She was on Gregar Records. She was supposed to be on Elektra, but it was the time of the cute black woman. She didn’t look like a Freda Payne, she was full bodied and dark-skinned. She was from Baltimore. After I cut her, I did something that almost back-fired. I got the contracts made. Elektra didn’t have but one black act at the time [in 1971]. When they signed me, they got rid of the Voices of East Harlem. This was the first time they were going to have 2 black acts. But they didn’t want the girl to look black. They wanted her to look very fair. It just wasn’t going to work, so I just got distressed and gave the album to my wife. I said, ‘Look, this is your album. Go sell it. Whatever you get off of it is yours.’ So, she messed around with it and got it to George Grief who owned Gregar, distributed by RCA. I think they gave her $25,000. They put out a bunch of singles, but the album never came out. The disc jockey who brought her to me was Rockin’ Robin. So, I gave him a piece of the publishing of an instrumental and renamed the song ‘Robin Right On’ (laughs) [flip of Bette Williams’ ‘He Took My Hand’ on Swamp Dogg Presents 101]. Oh, I love this business!'
Irma Thomas........................'Irma was fantastic. The last time I saw Irma, though, somebody had to introduce me to her (laughs)! She didn’t know who I was! ‘Have you seen Irma Lee?’ Maybe I changed, I don’t know. I’ve been seeing people after years........but we had, I thought, a close working relation. She came to my house, she ate at my house. That was in 1970/71 and I ran across her [again] in 1986/87. She didn’t know who I was. I get involved with artists at a creative level. But I never really get to know them as people. So, when I go to them as people, that’s when I find out some of them are as crazy as hell! Irma’s album was one of my better albums. As far as I was concerned, I never finished the album in the first place, but Canyon wanted it right away. Before Canyon could get it out, I put it out myself on Fungus [‘In Between Tears’ on Fungus 25150 in 1973]. Everybody said, it’s great, it’s great, leave it like it is. Only I knew it wasn’t finished. But I didn’t tell anybody. Everybody was raving about it. I was not satisfied until I went back into the studio and finished doing what I had planned to do. As you listen to that album [the Shanachie CD ‘Turn My World Around’ on Shanachie 9201 released in 1992], you’ll find I didn’t try to make it the 1990s. I didn’t go in there using drum machines and shit. I went in to finish the best album I could make for 1973. I didn’t tell Irma nothing - she couldn’t even remember me! She might think she was talking to Dave Bartholomew or something! After finishing the album (the Shanachie CD), I'm convinced that everybody was right…it was finished when I first came out of the studio. There's more soul and performance quality in the original.'
Solomon Burke........................'I got to be his friend in 1965 when we played 10 days at the Apollo together. There were 5 shows a day, so you got to know people. When I recorded him, Solomon set up a kitchen inside the studio and was cooking and feeding everybody! A great cook! He is one of the very few artists who I couldn’t stand to hear sing while I was producing him, because I kept breaking into tears. I signed him after I moved to California [in 1978], but I met him when I was living back east. I went to him and made a deal. I put his first product out on Amherst [the unreleased album ‘Please Don’t You Say Goodbye To Me’]. The first record hit the chart [‘Please Don’t You Say Goodbye To Me’ / ‘See That Girl’ on Amherst 736 in 1978]. Then Amherst shut the label down. I had Solomon under contract, but somehow Solomon cut another album for Amherst. Nobody told me shit about it. I didn’t know it until it came out on Infinity! [‘Sidewalks, Fences And Walls’ on Infinity 9024] They had taken a couple of my songs and put it on the Infinity set. But they re-mixed them. Nevertheless, the album has been out for a while on Charly [entitled ‘From The Heart’ on UK Charly 1024 released in 1981]. I’ve got a feeling though, that the album has done relatively well. I’ve also got a feeling that if anybody could get a few accounts to audit Charly, the record would have possibly charted somewhere in Europe - the UK, Belgium or Germany. What I’m going by is the amount of public performance residuals from radio and television that I have received on certain songs. Just last week, I was really shocked - [for] one song, ‘Let Your Love Flow’, I got a cheque for four thousand two hundred and something dollars! One song, 5 performances. That’s a lot of airplay on that one song. That was [over] a year. But if you break that down, that’s about $1100 a quarter - a lot of money! Some of his other things - ‘Sweeter Than Sweetness’ - good residuals. Anyway, that was one of my landmark productions. It was one of my greatest albums. If I had a chance to produce anybody that I wanted to in the world again or for the first time, it would be Solomon. [Now] Solomon produces his own records and he sells himself short. I told him that and I refused to let him have a hand [in the production], because it didn’t start out that way and I wasn’t going to turn it around in mid-stream. I refused to let him have a hand in the production because I did not want to compromise the album. As a result, the friendship was thrown out [of] the window. The next time I saw Solomon, I was in a phone booth in a car-lot [in California]. He walked up to the phone booth and stuck his big body in the phone booth. He said, ‘If I wasn’t a man of God, I’d kick your mother-fucking arse!’ So, he’s in the phone booth with me and the chances of him kicking my arse in the phone booth are nil to none! He can’t even move! I couldn’t move much either with his arse in the phone booth! But, anyway, that was that. One thing I can say [is] that we have been friends. Then, I saw Solomon in Porretta, Italy when we performed at the Porretta Soul Festival in 1998. We restarted our friendship and made some plans that have yet to be put in motion but I feel that it's just a matter of time.'
Esther Phillips......................'I met Esther when I worked for Atlantic [both as a solo artist (Jerry Williams) and as writer/producer for The Drifters, C and The Shells, Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles and The Commodores in 1968 and 1969] and she was an artist there. My relation with her was renewed by my friend and publicist Warren Lanier who was handling her career and publicity. Later, my attorney at that time was handling her when I signed to Takoma [in 1981]. I wanted to do a duet with either Esther or Etta. He arranged for me to do it with Esther because when I spoke to Etta she wanted ten dollars more than what my entire album budget was.' [The duet with Esther on the descriptively titled ‘The Love We Got Ain’t Worth More Than Two Dead Flies’ was on the 1981 Takoma album ‘I’m Not Selling Out I’m Buying In’]
Writing from a woman’s perspective........................'That’s one of the easiest things in the world for me to do! Because I was raised by women mostly. Strong, strong women. There were men influences, but I was raised by super-strong women. [Co-writer] Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds was raised by his grandmother. We knew more about what women think, just from sitting ‘round listening or being told things, than men. Because neither Gary nor I were into that macho bag, you know, football, basketball, I never done that. Mainly because nobody would let me play, as I was too small! After you get rejected a few times, you figure, ‘Aw, I don’t want to do it anyway!’ So, you walk away. I’d rather do [produce/write for] women, because I feel like a woman when I get into the writing. I feel like a woman when I get into the music. Maybe I’m a woman (laughs)!'
The song ‘Did I Come Back Too Soon (Or Did I Stay Away Too Long)’....................'We’ve got songs in my piano stool that we wrote in 1966. We wrote about gays, we wrote a lot of tribute songs to people who were still alive - Jackie Wilson when he was alive! We just wrote ‘em, it didn’t mean anything. ‘Did I Come Back Too Soon (Or Did I Stay Away Too Long)’ [a cheating song with a lesbian twist] didn’t mean nothin’. When I became Swamp Dogg, I thought I could do this! I could cut this fucking song. I did it on Freddie North first [on Freddie’s album ‘Friend’ on Mankind 204 in 1972]. Nobody quite understood where I was coming from. They thought, ‘Naw, he wouldn’t do that!’ Yes, he would! [It was on Swamp’s album ‘Have You Heard This Story?’ on Island 9299 released in 1974.] I did a new version of it about 2 years ago that is a monster. It was supposed to come out on Virgin, but that’s another story.'
Production Schedule.............'Out of, say, 8 production projects, I’ll end up doing 3 or maybe 4. For some reason, some will fall out, because artists will get pissed that I didn’t get to them in time and their contract is up. Sometime, I’ll sign too many acts, but I’ve got a policy. When I sign an act, I’ll tell them it’s not in the contract, because an attorney can just do whatever he wants to do without telling us. Look, I’m gonna cut you within this period of time. If I don’t cut you within this period of time, it’s not because I’m not going to cut you. I do still want to cut you, but if you wanna go, I’ll let you go. I won’t put no tricks in it or anything like that. I won’t try to get no money from them or nothin’. I need them on the contract, so I can make plans. I know who I’m supposed to prepare for.'
Music scene today...................'I’m involved with rap, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, I’m gettin’ involved with some gospel, light jazz. You see, I’m the eternal optimist when it comes to music. I like the direction it’s going. The people are being exposed again to a little more music than they were. Different styles of music are selling better. It really doesn’t matter too much to me. I love it so much that I would go with the music almost anywhere it went anyway. It’s harder to get a hit, but I’m a firm believer in working hard to get what you want. I’m not saying that hard work always pays off, but it doesn’t hurt. So, I’m always willing to push as hard as I can in the marketing department, the promotion department, the merchandising department. This is after all the production is done in order to try to find that little crack that we can get through. Where the music is, is fine with me and where it’s going is just as fine with me. I’m very optimistic about the music industry. The only time music has done me any injustice - it didn’t do me an injustice, just seemed to be an injustice - was when I refused to accept disco music. I didn’t want to produce disco, so I turned my back on disco. But disco kept on going. I did myself an injustice really.'
Visiting Trinidad in 1999 to record ‘The Re-invention Of Swamp Dogg’ ……………….'Reinventing Swamp Dogg was a necessity. The time had come for a change because I have used every musical arrangement known to man putting new spins on some of the same o’ shit! This time using calypso music as a warm blanket and the backdrop to vocalise about the world, politics, pain, crack, religion, love, blind people, atheists, one-legged tap dancers and all other madness that I deem necessary to write/speak about when it invades my id.'
Latest Update………...'I'm signing Swamp Dogg to Corozong Records in the Netherlands for all of Europe. They're going to release my ‘Re-Invention’ CD with two bonus tracks and ‘The Excellent Sides - Vol 1’. Slated for later release is the ‘Anthology’ and ‘The Excellent Sides - Vol. 2’.'
Interview with Swamp Dogg in July and August 1998 with an update in early 2001.
Published in 'Juke Blues' magazine issue # 49, Spring 2001
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