Swamp Dogg – Rat On! (1971)

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Swamp Dogg
Rat On!
Original release 1971 Elektra (EKS-74089)
Reissue 2013, Alive Naturalsound Records (0142-2)

Do You Believe     2:50
Predicament #2     3:07
Remember I Said Tomorrow     2:41
Creeping Away     2:51
Got To Get A Message To You     4:08
God Bless America     3:34
I Kissed Your Face     3:51
That Ain’t My Wife     3:15
She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye     3:05
Do Our Thing Together     4:07

Baritone Saxophone, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone – Sonny Royal
Bass, Percussion – Robert Popwell
Drums – Jasper Guarino
Flugelhorn, Trumpet – Mike Stough, Stacy Goss
Guitar, Backing Vocals – Jesse Carr
Producer, and arranged by Jerry Williams, Jr
Piano, Vocals, Performer [Everything Else Of Any Importance] – Jerry Williams, Jr

Engineer – David Johnson
Photography By [Back Cover] – Siegfried Halus
Photography By [Cover] – Willis Hogans, Jr.*

Recorded At – Quinvy Recording Studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Remastered (very well) by Dave Cooley at Elysian Masters

I don’t see what the big deal is about the album cover.  Apparently it frequently makes the top of ‘worst album covers’ lists, but I can think of far worse.  In fact I think it’s a thing of beauty, down to the awful pun (for the non-native English speakers, the title is a pun on how the phrase “right on” might sound pronounced in a black US southern drawl).  It could reasonably be argued that such a silly cover does a disservice to the high quality of music inside.  But it is definitely eye-catching, and leaves you with handful of pertinent questions — what? why? who? and again WHY? – none of which will really be answered after listening.

You see, Swamp Dogg is the artistic monicker of one Jerry Williams, who had been writing and intermittently recording as Little Jerry since the 1950s with little fanfare.  I had no idea there was something of a Swamp Dogg revival going on at the same time that I had been searching for clean copies of the original vinyl for his first few releases.  I scored the third album, “Cuffed, Collared, and Tagged”and had planned to share it here, but even though it was sealed New-Old-Stock vinyl it had a really obnoxious defect where the entire second side has sounds like someone crunching a potato chip with every rotation of the album.  So I was damned delighted to find out that his first three albums (at least) are being reissued.  And listen up closely when I say this, because you know I don’t say it often about reissues – The remastering of this record is REALLY NICE, a nice warm analog glow that keeps all the dynamics.  Bravo.

As with all revivals of between-the-cracks music there are apparently articles springing up in places like Mojo magazine.  Now I have nothing against Mojo, they have some excellent writers working there, I just don’t have time for them.  I don’t mean that dismissively but *literally* – for now and for the foreseeable near future I just do not have the luxury to read music journalism, no matter how engaging.  It’s all I can do to catch up on the stacks of LPs collecting dust here and occasionally shoot off a blog post when I can rub one out.

So while I am sure there are some cool articles out there and that they help fill in the back story of this fascinating, mercurial artist – who is still around and wrote the notes for these reissues – I prefer to focus on just what I am hearing.  And when my eyes passed some press blurbs and quickly glossed over, seeing comparisons to everyone from Sly Stone to Frank Zappa, or calling him “psychedelic soul,” I decided I would just ignore all of that for the time being, digest the music and write about why I find it so intriguing.  Because while phrases like “psychedelic soul” make for good journalistic shorthand (and probably help sell a few units to a niche market), it doesn’t tell us much.  Listen, Baby Huey was psychedelic soul.  Swamp Dogg was just, well, Swamp Dogg.

The convenient and – I hope – more useful analogy that comes to my mind is Eugene McDaniels.  Both had backgrounds in straight-up traditional soul music (obviously Gene Daniels had much more success at it).  It is not difficult to understand how with bizarre album titles like “Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse” or “Total Destruction Of Your Mind,” potential audiences would be at turns put off or alienated, contemporaneous critics would fail to take them seriously or notice them all, and their creative work would occupy those in-between-spaces where so much unmarketable music dwells.  Both of them donned iconoclastic masks for their own records where they could comfortably let loose their creativity with seemingly no concern for generating hummable hits, while both men were also perfectly capable of operating as professionals.  McDaniels was writing successful songs for Roberta Flack around the same time he was making his own unique records; Swamp Dogg produced Z.Z. Hill, Arthur Conley, Doris Duke, Irma Thomas, and wrote a hit song for Johnny Paycheck with his friend Gary “U.S.” Bonds.

Swamp Dogg / Jerry Williams is, when you get down to it, just good deep southern soul music.   A lot of fun and with a lot more going on than meets the ear.  A balanced mix of mid-tempo groovers and ballads that are sometimes disarmingly poignant.   I’ve seen his stuff tagged as ‘country soul’ and that is a great descriptor, reflecting not only the stuff he heard on the radio growing up but also that the color line was first crossed in recording studios before the civil rights era even got moving, and that the decade of the sixties saw so much productive intermingling between those too genres.  His eclecticism, his off-kilter, sardonic sense of humor, and his occasional raunchiness – Cuffed, Collared and Tagged has a track that consists almost entirely of an orgasm (simulated, I hope) over a riotous funk groove, and then of course there are these infamous album covers.  He was able to be both “out there” and “earthy” at the same time.  Maybe this is what the British mean when they say someone is “a bit bent.”  You can take a song like “Predicament #2” and laugh it off as a humorous anecdote about infidelity, but it is also kind of deep, almost a philosophical reflection on the constraints of monogamy and a person’s ability to love more than one person simultaneously.  At least, that would have been a convenient way to describe it to his partner(s) at the time.  It’s like a less maudlin David Crosby’s “Triad” for soul music.  And of course the typically male double standard rears it’s head when we come around to “That Ain’t My Wife,” but I’m not overly concerned with philosophical consistency here.   The bus-riding protagonist of “Creeping Away”  is also a loveable tramp, when he tells us “I got my bread in North Carolina, and my butter in Tennessee.”  Safado.

From sexual to racial politics to American imperialist war-making, the record was probably too all over the place for most casual fans of soul and too “identifiably black” for crossover success in what had become an increasingly polarized and segregated music industry in post-riots, early 70s America. “Remember I Said Tomorrow” is just plain brilliant, and just as relevant now as it ever was.

Tomorrow we’re gonna pass a law that’ll make everything all right
With equal opportunity for everybody, whether they’re black or they’re white
Tomorrow we’re going to bring the boys home, the end of the war is on its way
Tomorrow you’ll even have freedom of speech, just be careful of the things you say
Didn’t I promise your forefathers they’ll be an end to pain and sorrow
Well then shake off those fears and wipe away those tears
And remember that I said tomorrow.

(In fact I think this song could have been played at Barack Obama’s second inauguration ceremony.)

Swamp Dogg could also lay on some heavy emotional vibes.  “I Kissed Your Face” is an irresistibly pretty and poetic soul ballad with delicate sax runs from Sonny Royal, proving that Williams could “play it straight” with the best of them.  Which brings me to his impeccable choice in handpicking cover tunes, which I think is in some ways a key to Swamp Dogg’s musical  weltanschauung.  Much like the old phrase “he/she is a musician’s musician,” well these tunes are “a songwriter’s songs,” ones that somebody personally familiar with the craft can appreciate in their totality.  The Bee Gee’s “Got To Get A Message To You,” sung from the point of view of a death row prisoner in his final hours, lopes along in a stately, elegiac build-up decorated by lush harmonies (overdubbed by Dogg himself, as far as I can tell).  Then there is an entry from the catalog of that genius of Nashville, Mickey Newbury, with “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye.”  This is the real deal, people.  You probably didn’t expect this from a man riding a giant rat on the album’s cover, but he embodies these down-on-your-luck narratives with genuine pathos.  To be able to look in these dark places and evoke a feeling without relying on sentimentality or other gimmicks is the essence of the best soul and country music, which must be why he sounds completely at home in these songs.  That gentle darkness continued in his next record, which starts with the amazing John Prine song “Sam Stone” and ends with “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” by Joe South.  Dude sure knew how to pick ’em.

I mention all of these before getting around to the massive “God Bless America For What” because they help understand where he’s coming from.  A superficial encounter with this song, still years away from the end of Vietnam, probably would have inflamed the passions of many who heard only an anthem for anti-patriotism.  It’s a small wonder that he didn’t end up like Gene McDaniels with Spiro Agnew tapping his telephone; once again, the giant rat rodeo on the front cover might have persuaded the authorities there was nothing up the sleeve to be taken seriously.  But they would have been wrong, all of them.  The lyrics are defiant and angry but also simple and frankly compassionate – a little over halfway through the tune, the band grooves on a slow vamp as Dogg goes into a spoken passage urging us not to say anything at all in response or rebuttal, but to stop and think about it a little, let it sink in, do some soul searching about where we’ve been and where we’re going.  Ain’t nothing unpatriotic about that.   At the end of the day, Swamp Dogg’s America is a place I wouldn’t mind living in.

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