Back in March, out of the blue, David Marchese from SPIN sent me this link to his impressive feature on Jerry ‘Swamp Dogg’ Williams, Jr., a truly independent and amazingingly prolific R&B artist, writer, producer, publisher, label-owner, and walking definition of “gonzo”. I knew various bits and pieces about the man and his career; but the article was a welcome and entertaining overview that taught me more. It is great to know he’s still alive and musically kickin’ it at age 70.
Kudos to David for conveying a sense of Swamp Dogg’s multifaceted personality, along with the talent and savvy that have kept him navigating the back alleys of the music business for over half a century (he cut his first record at 12). Lesser mortals might have packed it in long ago, but he’s maintained the spark and refused to fade away. Read the article and marvel at his, um, Doggedness.
As far as HOTG goes, Swamp Dogg has never had more than a tangential association with New Orleans music;; and 99% of that revolves around his brief but intense collaboration with one of the city’s most revered soul artists, Irma Thomas. In 1970, he was called upon to write, arrange and produce an album’s worth of material on her for the Canyon label, which folded before the LP could be released. Several years later, Swamp Dogg found the means to put it out, albeit briefly, as In Between Tears on his own imprint.
I found my copy in the bins of a Memphis used record store over 20 years ago, and have since picked up several reissues of it, as well as a few of the related 45s; but it took David's solid nudge to get me motivated to investigate the backstory of the project and (slowly) pull together this post.
[Notes: Information herein has been gleaned from my own research and several significant sources: David Marchese’s “The Real Mother****ing Doggfather”, as mentioned and linked above, from SPIN, dated March 5, 2013; Jeff Hannusch’s chapter on Irma Thomas in I Hear You Knockin’ (Swallow Publications, 1985); Swamp Dogg’s notes to the 1993 Shanachie CD, Turn My World Around, and 2000 S.D.E.G. CD, The Little Jerry Williams Anthology (1954-1969); plus Tony Rounce’s fine notes to the excellent 2006 Kent Soul CD compilation, Irma Thomas, A Woman’s Viewpoint: The Essential 1970s Recordings. Also of extreme help is David Chance's massively annotated Jerry Williams, Jr./Swamp Dogg Discography, not to be missed for you completists who don't know about it already.
In Between Tears was first reissued on a Charly (UK) LP in 1981. The also now out of print Shanachie CD noted above contained Swamp Dogg’s Canyon material on Irma, but with certain of the original rhythm tracks replaced by him with newly recorded players. In 2007, he released Two Phases of Irma Thomas, on his own Swamp Dogg Entertainment Group label, a CD compiling the original album along with the 1993 version. Also, Alive Naturalsound Records will soon reissue the original album on vinyl and CD. So, find a way to add it to your collection.]
IRMA’S LATE 1960s DILEMMA
In my February post on Allen Toussaint’s 1965 career reboot, I mentioned in passing that Irma’s promising recording career had several setbacks in the mid-1960s. Imperial Records signed her after their parent company, Liberty Records, bought out Joe Banashak’s Minit label in 1963. Starting in 1964, she cut a string of good to excellent singles for Imperial, recorded mostly in Los Angeles, with at least four songs getting into the charts. Her self-penned “Wish Someone Would Care” was the most successful, becoming a Top 20 hit; but prospects cooled down by 1965, even when Imperial teamed her up with Toussaint back home for the outstanding “Take A Look"/"What Are Trying To Do” (#66137) and other tunes. So, the company let her go.
At that point, Irma went without a recording contract for over a year. As I said in that prior post, I've found nothing to indicate that Toussaint and his new partner in Tou-Sea Productions, Marshall Sehorn, attempted to sign Irma in the interim - a missed opportunity that has never been adequately explained. But, since she had no chance to record, Irma worked the Southern and Gulf Coast circuit playing club and college dates to support her family, also spending nearly a month in 1966 performing on tour in England. She had gone there earlier on the success of ”Wish Someone Would Care” and was still in demand.
Around the start of 1967, Chess Records signed Irma to their roster. The label had developed a prominent soul market presence with Etta James among others others, making the addition of Irma look like a very good move for all concerned. Spurred by Aretha Franklin’s success on Atlantic Records with the Muscle Shoals sound, Chess soon sent Etta, Laura Lee, and Irma for sessions at producer Rick Hall’s Fame [Florence Alabama Music Enterprises] Studios, backed primarily by famed house band, the Swampers. Irma’s sessions resulted in over a dozen finished tracks of fine material written by Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Otis Redding, Maurice Dollison, and Oliver Sain, among others. Her excitement at recording there plus the great musicians and gritty, very soulful material brought out some of the best performances of her career.
But, after releasing only three singles from the sessions, none of which were commercially successful, Chess summarily let her go. As Irma explained it to Jeff Hannusch, the company refused to promote her singles or release any more of them because she would not consent to have her gigs controlled by a budding music business mogul, Phil Walden. His agency in Macon, Georgia had a deal with Chess and other labels to book their artists; but Irma balked in particular at the large cut he took out of the performance fees (some of which probably got kicked back to the label). Though she made a brave stand, it meant that Irma missed out on a lot of helpful national touring exposure, as Walden also managed Otis Redding, and booked Sam & Dave, and, of course, Etta James, among many other names in soul music.
[I need to do a re-post on Irma's Chess sides, it's been almost 10 years since I briefly touched on them when all my vinyl was in storage after moving. So, they're now on the list again....]
By 1968, recording opportunities at home had quickly deteriorated due to the bankruptcy and demise of the only significant local studio and associated distribution operation, both owned by the legendary Cosimo Matassa. Many of the independent labels in the area that he did business with closed down or went on hiatus, leaving Irma no chance to make a record in the once thriving scene. Gigs for R&B artists were scarce in New Orleans, as well, with rock bands ruling the roost and a shrinking list of venues to play. So, she went back to working along Gulf Coast, at least until the devastating Hurricane Camille came down hard on the area in the summer of 1969, shutting down or leveling many of the clubs she regularly played. In the aftermath, Irma parted ways with her band and moved to Los Angeles, working days as a retail clerk to make ends meet and doing pick-up gigs on the weekends, singing mainly cover tunes.
In L.A., Irma reconnected with some New Orleans expatriate musicians and artists who she had known early in her career, including Harold Battiste and Mac Rebennack. That led to some session work as a backing singer, and probably helped bring her to the attention of aspiring label-owner Wally Roker. A veteran of a New York doo-wop vocal group, the Heartbeats, he had subsequently worked around the business as a publisher, producer and promo man for various outfits, and was just cranking up an independent of his own, Canyon Records, as the decade rolled over.
Roker was swift to scoop up Irma for his new venture and put her in the studio with Monk Higgins (a/k/a Milton Bland) arranging and running the session. Higgins had made his mark on the Chicago scene as a saxophonist, writer, and producer/arranger before relocating to L.A. around the same time as Irma. The resulting tracks were issued as her initial Canyon single late in 1969 or early 1970.
Irma Thomas, Canyon 21, 1969
Though displaying #21, this single was really only the label’s fourth release. Roker started numbering at 18, since it was commonly thought to be beneficial to give DJs the illusion that a record company had been around for a while. Higgins co-wrote the top side with his wife, who generally went by Virginia Davis or Mamie Galore on writing credits, and Dee Ervin (a/k/a DiFosco Ervin, Jr). Ms Galore is also acknowledged as writer of the flip along with one Vee Pea, which BMI shows as an alias for....Virginia Bland (she needed two alias on one song?). Ray Brooks (a/k/a Marshall R. Greathouse in the BMI database) also got in on the credits. Obviously, these folks were well-prepared to make an end-run around the IRS, should either of these songs have struck paydirt and generated royalties; but that contingency failed to arise.
While Irma did a fine job on the mid-tempo soul of “Save A Little Bit For Me”, which has a pleasant-enough, generic gospel feel, the song just doesn’t go much of anywhere musically. The real keeper to me is her take on the other side’s deeper and much more engaging “That’s How I Feel About You”. It is simply killer, sounding like something from her Imperial pop catalog in terms of style and instrumentation. Still, neither side registered enough airplay to trigger sales, and left Roker to consider another approach to effectively utilize and display Irma’s soulful assets.
To retool, he turned to a multi-faceted talent who had recently signed on to provide services for Canyon.
ENTER THE DOGG
He was one weird dude, but he knew how to take care of business. - Irma Thomas’ nutshell assessment of Swamp Dogg, as quoted in I Hear You Knockin’
Jerry William, Jr. came to Canyon in his late 20s after having worked for Atlantic Records’ new Cotillion label for a frustrating year or so. A recording artist since his teens, he had been on a succession of labels in New York and Philadelphia, and involved in writing and production, too. At Cotillion he cut a few singles himself and produced records for other vocalists, but scored no hits and was unable to deal with the corporate record-making mindset that had become the Atlantic Group status quo. So, he and they parted ways in 1969. Several LSD trips during the period left his creative spigot stuck open and tricked-out his already singular nature with a new attitude, inspiring Williams to write a bunch of new material and head South to record. In his recollections to Marchese, Swamp Dogg pegged the spot for those sessions as Muscle Shoals with the Swampers backing him. But it must have been a slip of the tongue, since they occurred one state over with a different band.
In his liner notes to Little Jerry Williams Anthology (1954-1969), Williams recounted how in 1969 he approached Phil Walden, who had just opened Capricorn Studios in Macon, Georgia, about a partnering in a production deal. They reached an agreement, and Walden gave Williams use of the studio and staff musicians (though not the Swampers, a few had played at Fame) to record artists doing his material to be placed with outside labels. The first projects were albums on Tyrone Thomas (a/k/a Wolfmoon) and Doris Duke. Williams placed the eponymous Wolfmoon LP with Capitol Records; but they soon had second thoughts and killed the deal. As for Duke's album, Williams shopped it around without success, until he went to L.A. and found Wally Roker, who agreed to release it on his new Canyon imprint. The LP, I'm A Loser, and first single taken from it for radio play both charted. Things were starting to pop.
His next production session at Capricorn led indirectly to him doing an album of his own. After recording a local singer, JoAnn Bunn, doing two of his songs with disappointing results, Williams overdubbed his own vocals on the tracks and took them out to Roker, who gave him the green light to make his first-ever LP. He told Roker that he wanted to call himself "The Dogg" on the record to make a break with his earlier career; then, while back in Macon to cut the rest of the material, the session band described the Dogg's sound as "swamp music", which caused him to hatch the full Swamp Dogg moniker - at least that's how he recalled it in 2000.
Swamp Dogg's Total Destruction To Your Mind [newly reissued] came out on Canyon in 1970 along with two spin-off singles and met with near total broadcast indifference, or maybe it was stunned confusion at his Zappa-esque multi-genre approach. In any case, with no radio play to speak of, the records neither charted nor sold. Undeterred, he plunged ahead with productions on several other artists he brought to Capricorn, working almost non-stop on albums by Raw Spitt (a/k/a Charlie Whitehead) and Sandra Phillips (Too Many People In One Bed) that would also be released on Canyon with the same resounding thud of hitting a commercial brick wall.
Essentially the same rhythm section played on all those sessions: drummer Johnny Sandlin, keyboardist Paul Hornsby, guitarist Jesse ‘Pete’ Carr, and bassist Robert ‘Pops’ Popwell. All except Popwell had played in the Hour Glass with Gregg and Duane Allman a few years earlier. Sandlin and Hornsby were young veterans of the Alabama rock and soul scene, and wound up in Macon through their connections to the Allman's, who had signed with Walden's management company and were recording at Capricorn. Carr became a regular session player in Muscle Shoals around the time of these recordings, and was just doing some side work with his old bandmates.
Meanwhile back in L.A., Roker wanted to give Irma a better shot, and contracted with Swamp Dogg to take over the making of her next single, with a full LP to follow. There was no material at hand, so the ever-enterprising producer, as he asserted in the Shanachie CD notes, enlisted a friend, George McGregor, another A&R man, to come up with two good instrumental tracks that SD could write lyrics to and use for the 45 sides. McGregor obliged, supposedly creating and recording them the next day in Muscle Shoals where he was doing some sessions at an unnamed studio. I am assuming the recording was done at Muscle Shoals Sound, recently opened by the Swampers, because the Shanachie CD, which includes those sides, credits certain members of the MSS studio crew for playing on them, along with the Memphis Horns and pianist Spooner Oldham (a former Swamper). That would also explain the high level of playing.
In short order, McGregor caught a flight to L.A. to deliver the tapes to Swamp Dogg, who claims to have written lyrics for both sides within a few hours of getting them (with help from Troy Davis on the B-side). He then rehearsed with Irma for a couple more, cut her vocals, and delivered the masters to Canyon by the next afternoon. Even if he hyped that timeline just a bit in the telling, obviously Irma was right about his work ethic. Her second Canyon single hit the streets in a relative flash.
Irma Thomas, Canyon 31, 1970
That these songs have a country music feel to varying degrees is likely no accident. Williams may have ordered them up that way, as he has acknowledged being strongly influenced by country artists he heard on the radio while growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia. Generally, that manifests in the lyrics he writes with their down-home turns of phrase and strong narrative elements - characteristics that both country and soul music share.
For “I’d Do It All Over You”, McGregor [who, strangely, got no writing credit for either song] designed an upbeat, straightforward, rockin’ country sounding romp. The Memphis Horns pulled the feel over to the R&B side, which Irma reinforced with her own soulful, throwdown-hoedown delivery. Still, the song’s jokey title line hook kept it fairly lightweight.
Once again, the B-side proved to be more impressive. Musically, “We Won’t Be In Your Way Anymore” has a great mid-tempo soul feel and arrangement, augmented by a repeating section with a rock progression and some hot lead guitar riffing that serves as the intro, the lead-up to the third verse key modulation, and the ride-out. Irma sounds perfectly in her element here, investing much grit and emotion into the song’s strong storyline about a marriage breaking-up, while she deftly navigated some tricky, at times prolix, wording. If indeed she only had a few hours to learn these songs before cutting them, her talent and professionalism deserve even more props than usual. She showed herself to be a worthy match for Swamp Dogg’s go-for-it attitude.
Upon completing the 45, the producer took Irma to his home in New York to work up material and rehearse for the forthcoming album sessions. [I can only assume that Roker was picking up the tab for all the production-related travel expenses Swamp Dogg and his associates were racking up.] They spent about a week in preparations, then went down to Macon for the sessions at Capricorn. As noted earlier, the studio band were pretty much the same players who worked with Swamp Dogg on his other Canyon projects there, with the addition of Duane Allman [uncredited on the original LP cover] on two tracks. The drummer, shown only as “Squirm”, is a question mark, though. I’m unsure if that was Johnny Sandlin, who was doing more engineering and producing for the studio and new Capricorn label. Bill Stewart might be another possibility.
Once the majority of the tracking was done, Swamp Dogg sent his boss a reference copy to hear; and, after reviewing it, Roker called Capricorn and cancelled any further sessions, declaring the album complete and perfect as it was. Even though some additional overdubs (“sweetening”) and a final mix had not been done, SD says his outsized ego led him to agree with Roker’s assessment; but, as it turned out, there was another motive for the sessions being cut off.
Canyon was deep in debt, its finances depleted. Before the album could be released, Roker took the company into bankruptcy and quickly out of business. The only Canyon/Swamp Dogg success stories had been Doris Duke’s album and first single [both still highly regarded by soul fans], which reached respectable levels on the charts; but sales were insufficient to cover the production costs for the label’s many other records that did not register at all with radio and the public. Not wanting to see his efforts go to waste, Swamp Dogg purchased the master tapes for Irma's album from Canyon, probably at liquidation sale prices It would take several more years, but the ardent over-achiever kept hustling and eventually found a way to get it released.
At some point before the transaction, Roker managed to press up one more 45 on Irma, using two tracks from the Capricorn session tapes. He put it out on his own very short-lived, self-named label, seemingly set up in hopes of having a Hail Mary hit that would get him back into the black - the independent record business, of course, being nothing more than hard core gambling by another name.
Irma Thomas, Roker 502, 1970
This is one of only two songs from Irma’s Canyon sessions that Swamp Dogg did not have a hand in writing. Composed by Lynne [sometimes shown as Lynn, but simply misspelled on the label credit] Farr, it featured the same fine production treatment as the rest of the tracks and a top notch vocal by Irma. What the tune lacked was a truly engaging melody and structure that could have made it a sure-fire radio standout. As we will see, there were others to choose from that could have better fit the bill.
The flip side, “Woman’s Viewpoint”, was simply an excerpt from the extended monologue Swamp Dogg wrote for Irma that was part of a lengthy medley [discussed below] taking up the majority of the second side of the LP when it was finally released. Though the monologue wasn't prime radio material either, Irma has used it as part of her stage act for many years.
None of the handful of singles on Roker, including Irma’s, brought about the desired miracle, each quickly falling by the wayside, as another label bit the dust. Yet Roker the man survived the ordeals and worked in the music business for decades thereafter.
Following the Canyon debacle, Irma had a rebound fling with Atlantic Records, whose Cotillion subsidiary came courting as 1971 rolled around. It is tempting to think that Swamp Dogg recommended her to the label; but I have no hard evidence to back that up. According to Tony Rounce, Cotillion recorded her at several locations over the next year, including Detroit (!?), where sessions for a potential LP took place, as well as Miami (at Criteria), Philadelphia (at Sigma Sound), and, finally, Jackson, Mississippi at Malaco. For reasons unknown, probably corporate dithering, out of all that tape, the only two songs Cotillion got around to releasing came from her one Malaco session. “Full Time Woman”/“She’s Taken My Part” appeared on a lone single (#44144) issued late in the year, and were decent tunes well-produced by Wardell Quezergue during his incredible run at the studio [covered here in 2011 and 2012].
Despite impressive performances from Irma, the record was not pushed and went nowhere. Rather than give her another chance and more promotion, Cotillion mysteriously showed her the door instead. From what Rounce relates in his notes to the Kent CD, her many other tracks for the label remain tied up in corporate legal limbo and probably will never be available for issue by anybody. We will never know what treasures there may be slowly oxidizing on some shelf.
BRINGING FORTH FUNGUS
Around 1973, Swamp Dogg somehow convinced the North American division of the BASF Corporation, a huge German chemical manufacturing company that made myriad industrial products, to back his new record label, Fungus. [How I wish I could have been at that presentation meeting. I imagine him promising that it would spread widely and be hard to eradicate.]. With a seemingly modest financial infusion from BASF, he was finally able to release the languishing Wolfmoon LP [which he has described as “pop gospel”] and Irma’s In Between Tears, plus a new album by Charlie Whitehead, along with several related 45s; but none took hold on the radio or in the marketplace. It appears that Swamp Dogg was not able to secure national distribution for his label or an adequate promotional budget to propagate his product.
Thus Fungus never thrived, persisting for only about a year before BASF, whose closest prior brush with the music business had been making recording tape, thought better of their tentative venture and cut off Swamp Dogg’s cash flow - a move that consigned the label’s few offerings to the realm of future collectables.
For Irma’s long delayed and finally realized album, the failure of Fungus was tragic. Despite trippy but amateurish cover artwork that didn’t well represent the content, In Between Tears held songs that effectively showcased her talents and deserved to be heard by the public at large. Here is some ample proof that she and Swamp Dogg were a good match in the studio.
Irma Thomas, from In Between Tears, Fungus 25150, 1973/1974
Another of Swamp Dogg’s collaborations with Troy Davis, this strong title song was worthy of Irma’s emotive, utterly engaging vocal treatment. It was also released on a Fungus single (#15141) in 1973, the second of only two spun off from the LP, and certainly merited radio play and a place in the charts. Instead it got the commercial cold shoulder, even though the entire album had a positive mention in the “Also Recommended” section of Billboard’s “Top Album Picks” during September, 1973, as well as a mini-review in their July, 1974 “Recommended LP’s” listings. Both rightly noted this song as one of the stronger offerings.
Listening to the cut on the original album, it is hard for me to fathom why Swamp Dogg later lamented that the album was "unfinished" and became so dissatisfied with his production work that he replaced much of the rhythm section parts with new players for the Shanachie CD some 20 years later. One can always second guess here and there, but the solid arrangements and session playing done at Capricorn still stand up well. Obviously (and thankfully), he had a change of heart, as his Two Phases of Irma Thomas CD in 2007 contained both the first version and its remuddled counterpart; and the latest reissue goes back to the source tapes with just up-to-date remastering.
Swamp Dogg wrote this punchy slice of Southern soul with two other of his collaborators, Gary “US” Bonds and Charlie Whitehead. He put it on the B-side of Irma's first Fungus single, with the deeper “She’ll Never Be Your Wife” on the topside.
One of the first things you notice on “You’re The Dog” is a heavier grit that builds in Irma’s voice as the song goes along. The quirky lyrics call out the so-called man in her character’s life for not living up to his part of the bargain. As with many of the album’s other numbers, it’s theme relates to the emotions and resilience of a woman wronged in a relationship - a worthy concept perhaps inspired by Irma’s personal story. Another notable feature of this track is a taste of Duane Allman’s lead guitar playing. That’s him bending strings with a touch of distortion during the ride-out, counter-punching with Irma’s outright screams.
Making a case for infidelity, this composition by Swamp Dogg and Charlie Whitehead strays from the general theme I just mentioned, but is one my two favorite cuts in terms of song structure and production values, ranking up there with the title track. The high class arrangement brought in a tympani drum; and the string section, used tastefully throughout the record, has a more prominent role here.
However gonzo Williams wanted to appear on his own records, with Irma he was a sympathetic producer intent on providing material and arrangements that would display her talent to its best advantage. In the case of “What’s So Wrong”, he again gave the music a radio-worthy, mainstream sound, while Irma’s earnest, soulful delivery of the subject matter kept the track real and relatable.
This all too brief closing track of the LP comes after a lengthy (almost 14 minutes) medley on side 2 featuring the extended monologue, “Coming From Behind”, and an over 7 minute reworking of Irma’s own classic composition, “Wish Someone Would Care”, that gets so intensely deep that you almost need to be in a pressurized suit to listen to it.
On “Wish”, Swamp Dogg stretched her performance to the point of excess, pushing Irma to her vocal and emotional limits for the sake of the theme mentioned above; and she showed herself to have the incredible strength and stamina to take it that far. Impressive as that is, the long track makes for demanding listening, and does not lend itself to frequent plays.
Instead of leaving the downtempo medley as the album’s final statement, SD used the much more upbeat “Turn My World Around” as the thematic closer. It’s no lightweight throwaway, even though the lyrics seem a bit more like an afterthought. The production values were as high and substantial as on any of the other cuts; and Irma's performance is just as worth taking in - so much so that the fade-out really is at least a minute premature.
* * * * * * *
When considering the collaboration of these two great artists, one takeaway for me is that, ultimately, Swamp Dogg’s creative efforts and skills in crafting an album that allowed Irma to shine were undone by his lack of the marketing clout needed to get the best songs onto the national airwaves for maximum exposure. Irma's old fans and prospective new ones lost out on some great music and the many pleasures of hearing her in her prime [which she's still in, btw!]. It’s an all too common story of the pitfalls of independent record-making, where having a worthy product is only half the battle.
Had a larger label taken the record over from Fungus, repackaged and pushed it, In Between Tears might have given the singer’s career a needed boost during a decade of record-making doldrums.
How disappointing and frustrating it must have been for Irma to have cut great performances for a succession of labels, many of which were not released; with the ones that did make it to vinyl not getting heard, either. As Irma told Hannusch back in the early 1980s,
At this point I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never have another national hit.You’ve just got to have big bucks. It’s been my luck to be with [either] a small company that can’t promote, or a big company that won’t promote. I honestly don’t know what to record anymore.
Fortunately, a few years after she said that, her world finally turned around. She began to fully come into her own as a recording artist and concert performer when Rounder Records, a rare breed of independent label with their own distribution network, came into New Orleans on a mission to lift some of its greatest musical artists out of their relative obscurity into the national spotlight. With their support and a gifted producer, Scott Billington, her popularity has continued to grow through a string of excellent albums; and in 2007, she received a Grammy Award for her Rounder CD, After the Rain.
It is also gratifying to see Swamp Dogg getting attention again, too, through new reissues of his own records and productions for others. His belief in the value of In Between Tears and enduring appreciation of Irma's gifts kept the album alive in various forms over decades by way of licensing and repackaging. May the latest versions bring still more fans to both of them and finally win accolades for the masterful product of the serendipitous pairing of their soulful talents.