Singer and producer Jerry Williams explains why he became Swamp Dogg.By Don Harrison
“As Swamp Dogg, I could sing about heroin, whiskey, love, the president — I'd sing anything and you'd say, ‘Oh well, that’s Swamp Dogg' — and that was the reason for the Dogg, because your dog can almost get away with anything. He might [crap] on the rug and you'll might send him outside. But then he'll start whining and look at you with those big blue eyes and you'll let him in. And he'll do it again. ... until you get trained.”
Williams' career in music has hardly been domesticated. In a long and prolific career he's worked with the likes of Irma Thomas, Patti LaBelle, Gene Pitney and the Commodores. His songs have been sampled (profitably) by Kid Rock; he cowrote a No. 1 country song for Johnny Paycheck; he managed the young Dr. Dre. He even wrote a cookbook called “If You Can Kill It, I Can Cook It.”
Swamp Dogg's appearance at the Richmond Folk Festival will be a true homecoming for an iconoclast who the New Yorker recently called “one of soul music's greatest cult artists,” a pioneer who was the first in-house African-American producer at Atlantic Records, a songwriter (and father of five girls) who's celebrated for his feminist soul ballads, a provocative performer who hasn't set foot on stage in his home state in decades.
“Chances are you've never heard of me,” the man says. “But somebody is buying all of these [damn] records.”
Williams was born in 1942, not far from the Great Dismal Swamp in Portsmouth. That's where a popular disc jockey at WRAP radio took the piano-playing teenager under his wing in the mid-'50s. Little Jerry became semifamous in Tidewater as the teenage host of “Rock 'n' Roll Time,” which broadcast on local UHF television. His mom, Vera Cross, performed with him and encouraged his career. “My mother still plays, she's in Vegas,” he says. “She plays drums and keyboards. She had a combo back then, performing cocktail drums.”
He got a recording contract in 1960 and left Hampton Roads, eventually finding steady work writing and producing, as well as writing jingles (for products such as Brer Rabbit Syrup). But his singing career as “Little” Jerry Williams was going nowhere.
He reintroduced himself as Swamp Dogg in 1970, and he's been speaking and syncopating his mind ever since. His first album, “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” became a funk-rock classic — filled with political jokes, philosophy lessons and a Southern funk groove that would serve as a template for a slew of subsequent albums.
“What I was doing was country and R&B fused together — they called it Swamp music. If you took the horns and the background singers off my albums, you'd say, ‘Hey, that black guy’s trying to be country.' But I'm not trying to be country, I am country.”
This trip back home coincides with a return to roots, of sorts. The featured lineup on the Dogg's new CD, “Give ‘Em as Little as You Can as Often as You Have To ... or a Tribute to Rock ’n' Roll” reads like a wedding-singer's set list. But you ain't heard “Johnny Be Goode” done quite like this. Wild, irreverent and consistently entertaining, it's Swamp Dogg murdering the classics.
“I just continue on with Swamp Dogg,” he says, adding with understatement, “All this time and I haven't been pigeonholed yet.”
Friday: 9-10 p.m. at the Ukrop's/First Market Stage.
Saturday: 1-1:45 p.m. at the Ukrop's/First Market Stage.
Saturday: 3:45-4:45 p.m. at the Richmond Times-Dispatch Dance Pavilion.