Swamp Dogg, Part 3
“So I ended up working at a car lot. And my job was to be there every morning at 4:30, and to wipe the dew off the cars so they would shine. He called himself the biggest car dealer in Miami. I think he might have been bigger than he said he was. I’ve never seen so many cars in my life! So I found another job. I didn’t stay at no job over a week. The only reason I was working was my wife was sick. So as soon as she got well, I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m off again!’ But I worked at a place where all they did was make boxes. All I was supposed to do was take this special hammer and hit the motherfuckers on the edges, and those little perforated pieces of cardboard would come off. So that was my job, to knock that off. They had me doing it, and I said, ‘Shit, this is one smooth motherfucking job, here.’ You know I Love Lucy, where she’s working on the conveyor belt?”
Yeah, and she’s eating the chocolates or whatever?
“Yeah! Well, them boxes started coming down twelve of them at a time. And you got to hit them all just right and just hard enough… And I had boxes and shit all over the floor. Because all those motherfuckers had to stop their jobs and come help me. And motherfucker asks me, ‘Can you drive a forklift?’ I couldn’t even drive a car! He says, ‘Can you drive a forklift?’ I said, ‘Yeah man!’ So that motherfucker put me on that forklift. And I picked up a big ol’ pack… or a box… you know, you stick the prongs in the… uh…”
“Yeah, the pallet! And, man, I raised that motherfucker up, and my boss must’ve seen something right away. He knew I hadn’t ever driven one of those motherfuckers. And he jumped right up on that son of a bitch, and pushed me to the side, because I was getting ready to drop boxes on everybody. So he told me, ‘Man, we can’t use you.’ And I said, ‘Man, I need this job.’ So then what he did was put me on the midnight shift, which was real slow.
“There were some places I worked for such a short time that I didn’t even get my check. Like down at the Norfolk Community Hospital?”
“Them motherfuckers still owe me thirty-something dollars. They made it sound pretty good. ‘You’re gonna be on landscaping.’ They put me out there pulling up grass by hand where the lawnmower couldn’t get it. Here’s the thing. There was a bus stop where I was working. And seemed like every motherfucker on the bus knew me. And when the bus would stop in the morning… ‘Jerry! I thought you was in New York! Ain’t you a star? Sitting there picking grass!’ Laughing and shit. Three days later, I was gone.”
That’ll keep that ego in check, won’t it?
“Hell yeah! But, so from Miami, I moved to Queens, New York, and then to Hempstead, Long Island, and then out here to Northridge [California].”
You were producing records up in New York for Atlantic, right?
And then you decided to undergo the name change to Swamp Dogg. Did you just come up with doing Total Destruction in Macon? Was that your idea?
“Yeah, it was my idea. I was sick of Atlantic. It was a whole political reason I was there, and I didn’t even know it… When they called me upstairs to let me go at Atlantic, I had been trying to leave there for about six months, and they wouldn’t let me go. And it wasn’t because I was all that good, it was because the NAACP and the Fair Play Committee was all over the motherfuckers for not having a black staff producer. There were plenty of blacks out there in the field producing music, but they did not have one in-house. So when I came along, I thought they hired me because I had my shit together. But they hired me strictly for political reasons. That’s the reason they didn’t want to let me go. Me and Gary Bonds went down to Miami, and spent a ton of money – for that time – we must’ve spent 10 or 12 grand cutting a couple singles…”
Hell, that’s a lot of money now, so I know it was then…
“Yeah, so we were at the Sheraton. Had a convertible Cadillac, and a convertible Lincoln Continental. Throwing parties at the studio. We got back, the comptroller said, ‘Man, fuck all this.’ So they gave me my severance check. Which was more money than I’d had at one time since I’d been at Atlantic. I think I was making $600 a week. And they gave me a severance check for like $2,400, and some other little monies that had accumulated…”
So you were doing pretty good.
“Yeah. So I took that money, and went home. I told my wife, ‘Look, I’m going to produce my own shit. I can’t be controlled that tight.’ I can be controlled, but I got to have respect for what you’re saying.”
Sure, yeah. I’m the same way.
“I called Phil Walden and made a deal. I said, ‘You supply the studio and the musicians, and I’ll do the talent and the productions. And, after the studio costs, we’ll split the money 75/25,’ with him getting 25. ‘Cause I knew he was gonna jack the studio up any motherfucking way. And we split all the publishing 50/50. And he said, ‘Fine.’”
After living all over the East Coast, moving back and forth in the music business, you’re back in Macon where you had been arrested just a few years prior. Did you have a sense of unease, since you’ve been away from the Deep South for a few years?
“Naw. It was… [pause]… Let me tell you… I like the South. It just is not… naw, I ain’t going to say that… [pause]… About three years ago, I had bought a house – or was going to buy a house – in Huntsville, Alabama. I was going to go down there, and revamp my shit. And get people into the Southern soul music, and work out of there. But it didn’t work out. I haven’t ever been reluctant to go to the South. As a matter of fact, I ran into a Ku Klux Klan parade in Montgomery, Alabama. We were coming out of Florida. We had Florida license plates. I think that helped us. And the KKK was out there practicing or doing some shit. We had to stop while they went by. And they looked at us, looked at the car. And they ain’t fuck with us. And for some reason, I didn’t get nervous. I’ll tell you, when I get in situations, I get nervous. I have anxiety attacks, all kinds of silly shit. I fear flying, but I do it all the time. Once I get on, and it takes off, I say my prayer, I carry my ass asleep, and I say, ‘What the fuck – if this is it, this is it.’ It’s the same thing I say with the Ku Klux Klan. I said, ‘Well, they’re either gonna leave us alone, or fuck us up. And we can’t stop them. There’s only two of us.’ And they didn’t fuck with us… [pause]… It’s just that a lot of shit that bothers other people doesn’t bother me. Because I know, at the end of the day, I have to complete my mission. I willing to give, be involved. But I still got my mission which is – was at the time – my family. So, whatever it took for me to take care of my family, that’s what I did. If I had to take a lot of racial bullshit… Hey, man, wasn’t nobody more racist than Phil Walden!”
Is that right?
“Fuck yeah. I mean, shit, as soon as Otis died, that name ‘RedWal’ came off the building, and everything became ‘Walden Enterprises.’”
But I guess you were still cool enough with him to record there in Macon?
“Yeah! I mean, I guess if I’d been treated any other way in the South, I would’ve been suspicious. I would’ve said, ‘These motherfuckers got something waiting for me up the road.’ And you also know in the South… or you knew at the time… who didn’t like you. So, you know who to avoid, who to stay away from.”
There was a record that came out around the same time. It’s a different sounding record, but it’s Johnny Jenkins’ Ton-Ton Macoute. Y’all are very different singers and songwriters. But the ways the albums were approached are similar to me in that there’s a liberated sense of playing with different styles and genres. They’re both almost like singer-songwriter albums more than more than traditional soul or R&B records. Did you run into him or any of the Allman Brothers while you were down there?
“Yeah! Yeah, as a matter of fact, Duane played guitar on three cuts on Doris Duke’s album. Rhino/Warner has a seven-CD set coming out on Duane, and they use one of my songs – ‘Ghost of Myself’ by Doris Duke. Yeah, Duane and them came in off the road in the morning, and he didn’t feel like going to bed. He was wide open. So he came by the studio, and he walked in, and he said, ‘Swamp Dogg, now, you mind if I sit in?’ I said, ‘Fuck no!’ He sat down and started playing. I said, ‘Let him play what he wants to. That’s Duane Allman. Whatever he plays is gonna be good.’ And Johnny Jenkins, I met once. But, Martin Mull, he was down there. Remember, he was making records?”
“A lot of people I would run into there. They’d come to the studio because there wasn’t nowhere else to go! Not unless you left town.”
Do you think there was something about growing up in the South when y’all did that shaped the way you perceived the world? That made you ask questions rather than make declarations? I mean, this was the era of protest music – when people were saying, “This is the way it is, and this is the way it should be.” And you always had a more nuanced way of inquiring…
“Yeah, because when you walk into a situation, where you open a door and walk in, you see something, but you don’t really know what you’re looking at until somebody explains it to you. So, I had questions first. You walk by somewhere, and there’s a car accident, and a guy laid out there dead. You don’t right away go, ‘Oh yeah, he always drove too fucking fast. No wonder he’s dead.’ Only to find out that a motherfucker was drunk with a truck, and hit him as he was crossing the street at normal speed. Do you get the parallel?”
Yeah, I do. So do you feel like there’s something about growing up in the South that made you more quick to see other people’s sides?
“Yeah. And growing up in a family that had picked cotton… My great-great-great grandmother – I knew her – she was 102 when she died, and she had definitely been a slave. And almost everybody else but my mama had been through that slavery thing. The kind of pride they had was like, ‘I pay all my bills. I go to the place and pay my bills. I don’t want no white man coming to my house.’ I mean, a bunch of white people came by for one reason or another. And they weren’t treated cruelly, it’s just that the black people were standoffish. They didn’t trust white people. And I’d hear all of this talk. They told me, ‘Don’t you ever, don’t you EVER fuck with no white women. They’ll get you hung, they’ll get you hung like a black motherfucker.’ Like, I got a friend down in Nashville, and he and his wife are so good and cool with me. And sometimes she’ll say, ‘Come on, Swamp. I’m going shopping.’ And I’ll be in the grocery store with her or something, and I still feel a little uneasy because I don’t want nobody to think it’s my wife. And their last name happens to be Williams, also. But she and her husband are so motherfucking cool.”
You talk a lot about honesty, and something that I hear a lot in your songs is a plea for honesty. You have a very honest tone in your songwriting. But I’ve read in an interview that part of the reason you decided to change your name to Swamp Dogg was that you wanted to say things that Jerry Williams wouldn’t be comfortable saying.
Do you think that, as an artist, taking on a persona can actually help inspire honesty?
“I think you either feel, think or act in an honest way, or you don’t. I mean, you can call yourself ‘Jesus Christ,’ and, if you a dirty motherfucker, you’re still a dirty motherfucker. I didn’t become Swamp Dogg for honesty or any of that shit. There were things that I wanted to do, and ‘Jerry Williams’ is a soft name. If you try to scream the name: JERRY WILLIAMS! It diminishes on your ass. By the time you get to the end of Jerry. The only way you can make it happen is with a hell of a soundsystem. Swamp Dogg?! Boy, you can say that so loud! It screams! It screams out of your mouth.”
As a man, Jerry Williams, you’re a friendly, considerate, humble kind of dude. And I’m wondering if, in some way, being Swamp Dogg makes you feel a little bolder.
“Yeah, it does. I go from Clark Kent to Superman. And then after a while, I got to go back to Clark.”
Has there ever been a time when Swamp Dogg was in danger of creeping in on your real life as Jerry Williams?
“Oh yeah. I started getting a big head. I was being not as nice to my wife as I should have been. I mean I never hit her or nothing like that. Well, I did. I slapped her one time, and she balled up her fist like she was Mike Tyson and hit me in my fucking face. Hurt like a sonofabitch! I said, ‘Fuck this! I ain’t fighting this woman!’ That took away all that chastising shit I was going to do. Anyway, it did seep into my life. I became something in my mind that I really was not. This new identity did interfere with the real Jerry Williams. Because Jerry Williams was the husband, the family man, the provider, the motherfucker with some level thinking, the motherfucker who would listen. Swamp Dogg ain’t listening to nobody about shit! I could see myself becoming that, and couldn’t stop myself. I mean, at one point, I had nine fucking automobiles. Rolls Royces, Lincoln Continentals, Eldorado Cadillacs. I don’t need all that shit! I can’t even drive all that well. It’s funny now, but I developed a phobia, about 1980, where I’m afraid to drive on the freeway! Ain’t that a bitch!”
“Aw man, I thought I was everything that I wasn’t! My wife helped me find myself. But in order to find myself, I had lost myself to the point that my wife had to send out a search party. Who turned out to be a Dr. Tanner who was in the Who’s Who of Psychiatry. He helped me find myself, and then it was up to me to keep a tight grip on myself. Now, I keep a tight grip on myself. Over time, you find out that you’re just another motherfucker!”