In a genre as towering and vast as American rhythm and blues, even the cultiest cult figures can feel larger than life.
Such is the case with Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams, a 69-year-old Virginia native whose sprawling discography of rowdy outsider-soul has made him one of R&B’s most unsung journeymen — and perhaps one of the most self-effacing, too.
“Some people have used the term ‘ahead of his time,’ ” Williams rasps over the phone from his California home. “That’s the same thing as not being on time.”
Self-deprecation comes easily to Williams — who performs at the front end of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 30 through July 4 — after six decades spent searching for his place in the music business. Adopting the name “Swamp Dogg” in 1970, he would eventually set up camp on the fringes of popular music, writing ragged, politically charged protest funk that matched the roughest edges of Sly and the Family Stone and early Parliament-Funkadelic.
But before he became an outsider, Williams spent two formative years as an insider. In 1968, he signed a contract with Atlantic Records, both as an artist and an A&R man, making him the first black producer for a major record label. He worked with Patti Labelle, Gary U.S. Bonds and the Drifters. He was tutored by Atlantic super-producers Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler. He claims to have encouraged Commodores saxophonist Lionel Richie to forget about his horn and pick up a microphone. And he didn’t like his job.
“I didn’t realize I was in a corporate setting,” Williams says of his big start. “I didn’t realize I was supposed to be biting the back of the guy in front of me to get his position and continue on up the ladder. . . . Basically, I didn’t fit.”
So he decided to get himself fired.
“Gary U.S. Bonds and I went down to Miami [for a recording session] and ran up the expenses,” Williams says. “At that time, it was astronomical. We must have spent four or five thousand dollars on hotels and cars and parties and another eight or nine thousand on recording.”
The plan worked even better than Williams had hoped. “They gave me a one-month severance check,” he says. “Which was more money than I’d ever had in my life, with those four weeks together.”
He poured the cash into a fresh musical start, but not before tweaking his image. After years of watching the likes of Jackie Wilson, Chuck Jackson and Tommy Hunt charm so many young female fans, Williams decided he’d never be a heartthrob.
“When I walked onstage they’d be putting on two, three pairs of drawers,” he says.
So he rebranded himself as Swamp Dogg in 1970 and quickly released “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” perhaps the fieriest, funkiest album the world still has never heard.
“I had predetermined that Swamp Dogg could do anything he wanted to do,” says Williams.
He continued working as a songwriter-for-hire whose songs transcended genres (Johnny Paycheck took his sugary “She’s All I Got” to the No. 2 spot on the country charts in 1971), but his own music remained as unpredictable and difficult to categorize as it is today.
“I don’t think I’ve changed that much,” Williams says after four decades as Swamp Dogg. “That might be why I haven’t gotten bigger.”
He started off little — as in Little Jerry Williams, a kid who recorded his first single at age 12. It happened in his home town of Portsmouth, a town in the Tidewater region of Virginia where R&B can be traced through the generations from Ruth Brown to Timbaland, Gene Barge to Trey Songz.
Raised by his mother and stepfather — both musicians — Williams recorded his debut 78 rpm single the day his parents schlepped some recording gear home for a quick session. “When they were finished, I kept screaming and hollering about cutting my song,” Williams says. “Might have been only 25 copies, and we gave ’em to a couple of local DJs and a couple of record stores.”
In addition to hosting his first recording session, Williams says he got his musical education in that living room, learning songs and trading stories with the touring soul musicians who frequently spent the night after gigs in nearby Norfolk.
Sixty years later, Williams continues making music to keep a roof over his head.
“It’s very unromantic, but my mortgage and my bills motivate me,” Williams says. “But the music will always be there. . . . I’m very, very happy with what I do, whether I’m making money or not.”