Today sees the publication of Ben Greenman’s excellent new novel, Please Step Back, which chronicles the rise and fall of a (very) Sly Stone-ish rock/soul pioneer named Rock Foxx. It’s gotten raves from the likes of Walter Mosley, Dave Eggers, and George Pelecanos, but even more thrillingly, it’s also resulted in a collaboration with a real-life rock/soul pioneer, Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams, who “covered” one of the Rock Foxx songs. (You can hear that here.)
Swamp Dogg is – I’ll just say it – a one-of-a-kind musical genius. Last month, even as I wondered aloud if Bobby Womack was “the world’s most underrated r&b artist,” I was hedging my bets. It’s not a knock against Womack, it’s just that he’s hardly an unknown. Swamp Dogg, on the other hand, is a too-well-kept secret, although he’s written and produced hit records over a five-decade span. As he wrote on liner notes 35 years ago, “Where else but in America could a person own a Rolls-Royce, an Eldorado Mark IV, a Mercedes limousine, an estate in Long Island, an apartment in Hollywood and still be considered a failure?”
So what’s the big deal with Swamp Dogg? Oh, I’m so glad you asked. After the jump, a look at what makes him so great.
Cheating songs par excellence: Nobody beats Swamp Dogg when itcomes to epics of guilt and/or betrayal – these are more than youraverage somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs. A title like “Did I ComeBack Too Soon (Or Stay Away Too Long),” for instance, sneaks in theline “it wouldn’t have hurt as much as it did/if it had been anotherman.” And there’s “Or Forever Hold Your Peace,” in which a fatherrealizes why his son’s bride looks extremely familiar, and gut-punchafter gut-punch ensues: “she made sure I didn’t see him alone/I’d haveto kill two marriages/with one little stone” and “someone snickered inthe pews as I walked by/is it really that funny to see the father cry?”And then there are songs like “If You Get Him (He Never Was Mine),”which brings us to…
Writing from the woman’s point of view:As good as Swamp Dogg’s smooth, pleading voice is, it can’t hold acandle to the singing of Irma Thomas, or Doris Duke, or Patti La Belle,all of whom recorded his songs. And they were lucky to have them,because he knew how to construct a guaranteed heartbreaker. Song titlesinclude “To The Other Woman (I’m The Other Woman),” “After All I AmYour Wife,” “If She’s Your Wife (Who Am I),” and “Another Man Took MyHustband’s Place.” Check out Duke’s immortal “He’s Gone” here.
Provocative social commentary:Wondering why Swamp Dogg’s examinations of race relations and classstruggles never made it to radio? Well, there’s the seven-minute “CallMe Ni**er,” the last five minutes of which is an impassioned monologueover banjo. Other titles include “I’ve Never Been To Africa (And It’sYour Fault)” and “Help (God Help America).” And then there’s “SweetBird of Success,” a riotous anthem for cynics, with lines like “dosomebody a good turn/step on a dream today/and if money can’t buy thethings that you wanted/you didn’t need them anyway.” And on a moreearnest note, “Songs to Sing,” recorded by his protégée Charlie “RawSpitt” Whitehead, approaches the heights of “A Change Is Gonna Come.”No exaggeration.
Endlessly entertaining album covers: This montagedoesn’t even include such knee-slappers as “I Called For A Rock AndThey Threw Me A Rock,” “Gag A Maggot,” and “If I Ever Kiss It…He CanKiss It Goodbye!”
After all this, he still knows how to do a mean cover version: Not only is he a great songwriter, he’s a fine interpreter. He’s always seemed to have a thing for white southern songwriters,which would be surprising if “surprising” weren’t his m.o. He’s donejustice to compositions by John Prine, Joe South, and Mickey Newbury,and here he is doing “The World Beyond,” a post-apocalyptic fantasy by Bobby “Honey” Goldsboro.
We could go on and on: There’s so much more to say, about howhis first album opens with the lines “Sitting on a cornflake/riding ona roller skate.” Or about how Bob Dylan covered one of his songs, and it was offered on eBay for $12,500, or about the song he wrote that hit the top 5—on the country charts. Twice. Instead, we’ll just leave you with this great clip, from a concert in the Netherlands. What do you think?