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The continuing saga of an underrated maverick

At 77, Swamp Dogg remains an eccentric soul and R&B singer. But his new album marks a mellower turn for the veteran musician

Swamp Dogg performing at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles in November 2013.
Swamp Dogg performing at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles in November 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)

When two veteran musicians—both in their 70s—meet after decades to sing together, magic can happen. And so it is on two tracks on the recently released Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, the 23rd album from veteran soul and R&B artist Swamp Dogg. On two of the tracks, Swamp Dogg (who turns 78 in July) collaborates with another veteran, the country-folk singer John Prine, 73. Swamp Dogg and Prine hadn’t met since the 1960s but in the two songs on the album, they complement each other so perfectly that you would think they have been making music together for ages.

In many senses, it is an unlikely combination. Prine’s music is a brand of witty yet political country music and Swamp Dogg’s soul and R&B is in the style of wild brashness. Yet the duo’s two tracks form the pièce de résistance for the latter’s latest release.

When Swamp Dogg (birth name Jerry Williams Jr) released his first single in 1954, he was 12. Since then the veteran singer has released 23 albums, ranging from straightforward R&B and soul music to blues and blues-rock. He has experimented with synthesizers and electronica, and even dabbled in disco when it emerged in the 1970s. Sometimes his music has been so bizarre that it has earned him the epithet of “gonzo musician". In 2018, well into his 70s, he released Love, Loss, And Auto-Tune, on which (in a satirical nod to the proprietorial pitch-altering device) he used auto-tune to tweak and warp his vocals.

Swamp Dogg’s career has been that of a maverick’s. In the 1970s, after a dalliance with LSD, he released his first full-length album, Total Destruction To Your Mind, a wild record with a cover on which he appears in his underwear, sitting on a heap of trash. Satirical, and even downright vulgar at times, that debut album defied classification. Yet his tight grooves of soul and R&B defined the kind of music he would make through the rest of his career.

Swamp Dogg’s has been a prolific career but one that had garnered him very few commercial successes. All through the 1970s, Swamp Dogg released nine albums, most of which, unaided by aggressive promotion, sold only in modest numbers. Yet they got him a cult following of diehard fans who liked his radical, vocal politics, veering on satire and profanity. In the 1980s, his fortunes brightened. His albums had offbeat titles (I’m Not Selling Out—I’m Buying In!; I Called For A Rope And They Threw Me A Rock; and An Awful Christmas And A Lousy New Year) and his songs were equally unpredictable, sometimes seething with sleazy profanities but always cheeky and fun.

Swamp Dogg’s recording career may have brought him limited fame but he supplemented it with his role as a producer, mainly for lesser-known artists but also for better-knownones such as Gene Pitney and Doris Duke. And it didn’t stop him from doggedly pursuing his recording ambitions, often independently. In the 1980s, mainstream success (and money) came when many hip hop musicians started sampling tracks for their songs from Swamp Dogg’s old discography, and he even began a career of performing live.

More recently, when some of his earlier albums, including the debut, Total Destruction To Your Mind, were re-released, they found a more accepting audience. But Swamp Dogg has remained indefatigable. His enthusiasm to keep recording and experimenting has never waned. And often that has paid off. The latest album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, is an example. Of the two songs with Prine, one is a ballad, Memories, and the other, Please Let Me Go Round Again, a touching duet where the two seasoned and ageing singers plead for a second chance at life. The two also exchange a bit of dialogue, which adds to the spirit of the song.

Funky soul and R&B have always been at the centre of Swamp Dogg’s music but the new album has a strong spirit of southern country music. There are sad songs on the album—on Billy, he sings to his dead wife about how their son is growing up. And there are love songs—Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg. On that track, there are surprises as well: Swamp Dogg collaborates with singers decades younger than him, including Jenny Lewis and Justin Vernon.

Swamp Dogg may not admit it but the new album seems to suggest he has mellowed a bit. In I Lay Awake, he is yearning for a lover who is now with someone else but who, he hopes, will return. But when NPR, in a recent interview, asked Swamp Dogg why he made the new album, his reply was characteristically Dogg-esque: He said he wanted to make more money so that he could buy a new Rolls-Royce! And he is refreshingly self-effacing when it comes to his old records. When asked about his LSD-fuelled debut album from 1970, he dismisses it as “incoherent stuff". He’s funny too. When asked why he changed his name from Jerry Williams to Swamp Dogg, he says, pithily: “I needed an alter ego so that I could sing about everything such as sex, politics, and so on."

Swamp Dogg’s career has spanned nearly 66 years but although he has a long and complicated discography, he has remained relatively unknown. That is a pity. His craft at laying down impeccably groovy soul and R&B, often (as in the new album) with some country influence, deserves a wider audience. And his music, including the weird records that he made through his early career, are worth (re)discovering.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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