How Jerry Williams Became Swamp Dogg, the Unsung King of Soul Music

In 1954, Jerry Williams walked into a recording session, sat down at the piano, and started singing the blues, bellowing into a microphone about drinking too much whiskey and being stuck in a broken marriage. He sang with feeling; this was the voice of a man who had lived the pain he wrote about.

Or at least it sounded like it. In reality, he wasn’t a man at all; he was a 12-year-old boy.

Williams, better known as Swamp Dogg, hasn’t stopped making music since the day he cut that very first record—and now, 66 years later, he’s releasing a new album, out Friday. He’s spent his career in near-total obscurity, but to his fans, he’s a legend, one of the greatest soul singers and songwriters that’s ever lived, whose catalog—comprised of hundreds of songs, and more than 20 albums—has gone woefully underappreciated.

Even for those who love his music, Swamp Dogg remains an enigmatic, almost mythic figure. The precise details of his past aren’t easy to track down, largely due to the fact that he flew under the radar for so long. It’s only within the last two decades or so, as his music has grown in popularity, that people have begun to ask who, exactly, Swamp Dogg really is.

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Williams was raised by a pair of musicians in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the only Black block of Duke Street. Most motels in the city wouldn’t rent to people of color in the 40s and 50s, so his folks opened their home to all the Black players who traveled through town. At some point—maybe during one of his parents’ band practices, or on the day Louis Jordan walked into his living room, or after he heard Jerry Lee Lewis on the radio—Williams decided to start making music himself.

“It’s something I been doing as long as I can remember,” he told VICE. “I looked up, I was writin’ songs.”

Almost everyone on Duke Street had a piano in their house, and they’d invite Williams inside to play for them. At lunchtime on school days, he’d get behind the piano in the cafeteria and play for his classmates, singing goofy little numbers he made up on the spot, banging away on the keys and wailing whatever words came into his head. When he was 12 years old, he weaseled his way into the tail-end of a recording session for his parents’ band, and convinced them to let him cut a song called “HTD Blues.”

He had always liked making music—but after that, he was hooked.

In his teenage years, he took the bus up to New York City as often as possible, using his trips to meet as many musicians, producers, and A&R men as he could. Eventually, he managed to find work writing songs for other singers and moved there full-time—though “moved” might be too strong a word.

“I used to check into hotels and stay about a week, then slip out the motherfucker,” he said. “Skip the bill. After eatin’ Baked Alaska and all kinds’a good shit. And then I’d leave that hotel and make reservations for another hotel, which might be right across the street.”

In 1966, he had a breakthrough: A song of his called “Baby, You’re My Everything” took off, shooting up the R&B charts and swinging open club doors for him throughout New York. He gigged all over the city—including at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater—and beyond, touring Black clubs across the country on the strength of that one single.

He landed a job as an A&R man at a New York label called Musicor and, soon after, became the first Black producer ever hired at Atlantic Records. He was making less than half of what his white colleagues made, and he was the only producer without an office—but to him, the chance to scout artists and record their music was all that really mattered.

“I’ve never been one of those artists who didn’t want nobody else to have a record out but me,” Williams said. “I wanted anybody could sing, or whistle, piss loud or whatever—I wanted to record it.”

And he was good at it—great, even. He knew what went into making a hit song, because he had written one. He could recognize a one-of-a-kind voice, because he had one. Executives from other labels started seeking him out for work. He was thriving in his new role—but gradually, it began to wear on him.

“Basically, I was having a nervous breakdown,” Williams said. “I didn’t know what I had done to become successful. All I knew was that people were calling me, offering me money—money like I had never had—and asking me to do shit at my convenience. And all the sudden, I went from being offered hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars. That just made me a little bit more crazy. I had the money to do some of the dumbest shit anybody ever did.”

To wit: He bought nine cars, for reasons he still can’t explain. He bought an 8,000-square-foot mansion on Long Island, an apartment in West Hollywood, and a place in Miami. He acquired more diamond chains than he could wear. He snapped up every house on two blighted blocks of Baltimore and tried, unsuccessfully, to flip them. He started drinking more than he should have. He became debilitatingly paranoid, to the point where he was too anxious to drive on the freeway. A psychiatrist prescribed him Valium, and he developed an addiction to it.

All that tumult came to a head in 1969, when he went to a party where—unbeknownst to him—the punch had been spiked with LSD. That psychedelic experience, combined with a feeling that he had lost touch with himself, led him back to making music.

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Where his old songs were poppy and straightforward, these new ones were genre-bending, jumping from funk to disco to soul to blues and back again. His songwriting took a more expressive turn: It could be surrealist—take the line “lipstick-colored smiles ash into my hands,” for instance—and it was often political. He wrote about rednecks and racism, absentee fathers and the ills of materialism.

Once he’d gotten about a dozen songs together, he started shopping around an album under a new name: Swamp Dogg.

“I needed a alter ego. Because somewhere along the line, I had lost Jerry Williams,” he said. “I liked doing the ‘Baby You My Everything,’ all of that. But when I went this way as Swamp Dogg, I knew there wasn’t going to be anybody else coming out with any shit like mine.”

He released Total Destruction to Your Mind, his first album as Swamp Dogg, in 1970, and followed it up with a second, Rat On!, a year later. They’re filled with bright horns and funky guitar parts, soulful melodies, and driving drum beats—jaw-dropping, head-bobbing, stop-everything-and-listen records unlike anything else from that era. And they’re propelled by powerful songwriting—whether on systemic oppression and American interventionism, or love and infidelity and heartbreak—delivered in a voice that careens over the music itself, a voice with character and real heart behind it.

They’re both remarkable albums. And both of them flopped.

Regardless, Williams just kept making more of them: He released a third in 1972, a fourth in 1973, a fifth in 1974, a sixth in 1976. Sales-wise, they were disasters; but to Williams, they were masterpieces.

“The more I got rejected, the better I was feeling about it,” he said. “When people rejected me, they gave me the weapons that I needed to fight for what I wanted to do.”

For decades, Williams forged on in obscurity, quietly releasing album after album. He supported himself by producing other artists, including a young Dr. Dre—becoming the first and last person to ever manage the hip-hop mogul—and writing songs for other musicians.

Meanwhile, little by little, Williams’s original music began to gain traction outside of his small, die-hard fan base. Total Destruction to Your Mind finally went gold in 1992, 22 years after its release. Kid Rock sampled a Swamp Dogg song in 1999. Interest in his music percolated, copies of his albums made it into the right hands, and in 2013, an indie label reissued Total Destruction and Rat On!

After spending half a century making records that almost no one paid attention to, in 2018, he finally released one that got its due. After a chance encounter at a party with Ryan Olson of the synth-pop band Poliça, Williams decided to collaborate with him on a new record, one he wanted to be a drastic departure from his earlier work. With carte blanche to experiment, Olson brought on Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as a co-producer, replaced Williams’s relatively straightforward arrangements with deep, heavy synths, and ran his vocals through enough auto-tune to crash a computer. The result was 2018’s Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune.

Critics loved it, from NPR to Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, and it debuted on 11 Billboard charts. That kind of mainstream success—something Williams had never been able to attain—made him feel, at 76 years old, like he was “still alive.”

“In the musical sense, I was still alive. In the casket sense, I was still alive. And young people was lovin’ it,” he said. “Even my old friends, the ones who hang on to the first Swamp Dogg, they loved it. I said, ‘Oh my god. I got somethin’ here.'”

You’d think that after finally having found a sound that worked, commercially, Williams might stick with it. But his forthcoming album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, is a return to his roots. The production is simple and unvarnished; his voice, croaky and textured with old age, is laid bare; his songwriting is endearingly uncomplicated. Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is the sound of an old master letting go of the idea of making music that might chart, and instead making what comes to him naturally. Williams gives us pretty, tender ballads about loss and loneliness, and—especially on the album’s closer, “Please Let Me Go Round Again”—an honest look inside the mind of a 77-year-old who knows that, sooner than later, he won’t be able to do this anymore.

After spending more than 60 years making music, you can’t help but wonder if this record might be Williams’s last. But he’s already dreaming about the next one—and the one after that, and the one after that. By his count, he’s got about 10 or 12 albums worth of music recorded, just waiting to be mixed and mastered.

“I want to keep on going as long as I can,” he said. “Or as long as I can’t. I want my shit to still be released while I’m gone.”

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

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