Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Beauties & The Swamp Dogg

Swamp Dogg might be Soul's quintessential ladies man. Being one almost comes with the job subscription when it comes to Soul. The genres seductive quality is one of its major appeals. Many men have tried to impress their girlfriends with a nice bottle of wine, some candle light and Teddy Pendergrass' suave sounds oozing out of the speakers. Quite a few men have had Soul's greats do the seducing for them, have let Marvin Gaye do the talking, reaping the fruits. But the Dogg isn't that kind of man. His own erratic records are hardly the silky records you'd spin hoping to get lucky. Swamp Dogg's commitment to women goes a little deeper than that, throughout his career he gave women a voice few performers could. Producing for the likes as Doris Duke or Irma Thomas, he spoke for them and through them. Swamp Dogg connected to the very Soul of women, leaving many men looking like clueless fools in the process.

Born Jerry Williams in 1942, Swamp started his career as "Little" Jerry in 1954. A forgettable 78rpm titled HTD Blues (Heartsick Troublesome Downout Blues) issued by the Mechanic label. What is striking however is that Williams wrote the song himself at age twelve. Aside from the question how the hell a twelve year old knew anything at all about heartache, an R&B artist writing for himself at any age was far from the rule. Williams showed he had potential from the very beginning. A potential he'd sadly never silver in any commercial sense. His erratic behavior, or strong headed character and bad luck, took him on a bumpy ride across numerous labels. As an artist his albums never fully materialized, as a producer he got stuck with the B roster at most companies. His records, performed or produced, seldom got any promotional push, so his big successes were very few indeed.

What Williams lacked in success he made up in spades with artistic merit. Amongst the hard core Soul devotees, such as Dave Godin, Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams is widely heralded as one of Soul's best writers. Numerous reissue labels have collected the work he's done for the various labels over the years. Endlessly repackaging them. I wouldn't be surprised if Williams records sell better now than they did when first marketed. No label has done Swamp's work with the ladies as much credit as the UK based Kent records. So far they've issued comprehensive collections of Dogg's work with Irma Thomas, Doris Duke and recently Sandra Philips and Bette Williams.

"I'm a Loser: The Swamp Dogg sessions" collecting his work with Doris Duke in 2005 was the logical starting point. Amongst collectors her sides and her first two albums with Williams are still highly sought after. The opening song on the "I'm a Loser" album, "He's Gone", demonstrates perfectly what Swamp Dogg is about. This isn't Soul for the faint hearted. The song, the arrangement and Duke's voice cut to the bone. The sides cut for Doris are harsher and grittier than the already very Soul deep releases on Stax. In his song writing Williams doesn't spare the listener and Doris Duke was his perfect vessel. Even on the lighter and breezier songs like "The Feeling Is Right" there's a pleading quality that is rare even in the world of Soul. In Williams and Duke's hands the optimistic lyrics turn into desperation. Doris turns it into a song on love out of reach, a song on unsatisfied graving. Yet Williams doesn't stop there, with Doris Duke he seemed determined to shed light on the entire female experience. There's the defiant and resilient "Feet Start Walking", a song dealing with female pride in Doris' hands. On the other end of the spectrum there's "I Don't Care Anymore", a prostitutes lament, a story of a woman broken down. Jerry Williams reunited both ends in his work with Duke. On "How Was I to Know You Cared" Williams and Duke add a little of love's alienation to the mix. Williams' songs carry none of Pop's rose color clouds, their appeal is in their messy realism. Williams' brand of Soul is as adult as you can get, not for those of us stuck with the romantic notions of our teens. Since a large majority of the record buying public prefers illusions it is no surprise Jerry's work never hit big.

Next to Doris Duke sides, the work Williams did with Irma Thomas almost fades in comparison. Kent records' release "A Woman's Viewpoint" collects their collaboration together with some other sides Thomas cut with other producers in the seventies. The Swamp Dogg and Irma Thomas collaboration suffer somewhat from the latter's incredible sixties output. Even Williams songwriting could hardly compete with the Allen Toussaint productions on Minit. Not helping the fact was that the singles were released on Williams' own Fungus subsidiary on the already struggling Canyon records. If there ever was a label more horrible and unappealing in name, I haven't heard about it. To top it off, the "In Between Tears Album", the center piece on Kent's compilation, arguably has the worst looking album sleeve in the history of Soul. And that's saying something. With Canyon going belly up, Irma's Swamp Dogg sides never amounted to much. Hearing them now it is a mystery they never did. Irma's clout and the sheer quality of the title track should have resulted in yet another smash for Thomas.

The third, and for now final, installment on Kent, "Swamp Dogg's Southern Girls", covers the work of Sandra Phillips and Bette Williams. Two of Swamp's more obscure artists. Yet listen to the opening notes on Phillip's "Rescue Song" and you'll realize Kent struck gold here. The collaboration with Phillips is an odd one in the world of Soul. Swamp Dogg produced a stand alone album for Sandra, "Too Many People In One Bed" with no singles to promote it. Possibly because the Canyon label simply didn't have the money for it. The album was released shortly before Canyon kicked the bucket. Dee Dee Warwick would later make "She Didn't Know (She Kept On Talking)" into a solid R&B hit, so who knows what the material could have done for Phillips and Canyon. One can only guess what would have happened if a 45 had hit the market. The material Williams did with Sandra Phillips is by far the most accessible of all his Canyon work. That doesn't mean the Phillips material is lacking in depth. It's just that in comparison to the Doris Duke material the Phillips sides sound clearer, better played. No sessions details survived, but the band backing Philips is very accomplished indeed. Phillips' voice is smoother than Duke's making the harsh realities in Williams' songs easier to digest. The hurt and pain in Swamp Dogg's classic adultery songs such as "To The Other Woman" (I'm The Other Woman)" is disguised better, softening the punch without taking away the sting. The second artist on the compilation, Bette Williams, is somewhat more raggedy by comparison but no less impressive. Very little is known about Bette, she never gave any interviews and her sides were never reviewed. But thanks to Kent her timeless sides have now been saved from obscurity.

Doris Duke "I Don't Care Anymore"
Irma Thomas "In Between Tears"
Sandra Phillips "Rescue Song"
Bette Williams "If She's Your Wife (Who Am I)"

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