As compilations of little known soul artists go, It’s All Good isn’t actually all good.
The current interest in compiling the work of lesser-known R&B singers from the ‘60s and ‘70s has reached the man NPR once called “one of America’s most eccentric musicians”. R&B renaissance man Swamp Dogg, born Jerry Williams, purportedly made his first record in 1954 when he was 11. As Little Jerry, he had a Midwest regional number one record in 1959 with the driving doo-wop of “I’ll Always Remember (Chapel on the Hill)”. Williams was involved in production, singing, and songwriting in the 1960s; in 1970, he dropped his Jerry Williams persona in favor of Swamp Dogg. He released several albums in the ‘70s with spectacular cover artwork—including one of Mr. Dogg riding a giant rat—and an oddball fusion of funk and soul, political frustration and lewd sexual humor. He also wrote a song that was covered by country singer Johnny Paycheck, eventually earning a country music award for its writer. Today, Swamp Dogg’s eclecticism, relative obscurity, and early 70s albums have earned him a cult following—prominent supporters include NPR and novelist/New Yorker editor Ben Greenman. This interest has culminated in a release of a singles collection by the Kent label. It’s All Good: Singles Collection 1963 - 1989, shows Swamp Dogg’s output to be inconsistent. He can play many different strands of R&B, but many singles fail to stand out.
Swamp Dogg has a distinctive voice—slightly unnatural, a little hoarse, existing somewhere between a wail and a croak. It’s not something you usually hear in soul, and its lack of polish seems honest. Swamp Dogg works best when the instrumentation is loose and funky to match the off-kilter vocals. “Creeping Away” has the free playful feel of the Band. The guitar lead, a waterfalling flurry of notes, transitions into concise funk riffs, and horns blurt their support. Swamp Dogg sings “I got a faraway girl, in a faraway land / She’s my faraway woman, I’m her faraway man,” and he plans to be drunk on gin by the time his bus gets him from one of his gals to the other. It makes relationships seem light and carefree, long distance easily conquered with plenty of alcohol. That light attitude also comes through on the blues of “Mama’s Baby—Daddy’s Maybe”, where Swamp is doubting the paternity of his child, not only because her eyes and skin are different, but also because she appears far smarter than Swamp himself, winning bingo and attending PTA meetings at a young age. “Maybe the doctor made a mistake/ and gave the wrong child away?” In the end he throws up his hands and decides (with a hell of a scream) that he doesn’t want to know. Amusingly unconcerned with the fact that his wife may have slept with another man, Swamp Dogg turns blues into comedy.
But much of the time, even Swamp Dogg’s humor and unique voice don’t elevate uninteresting material. Songs hailing from Mr. Dogg’s earlier days—songs like “Baby Bunny (Sugar Honey),” the swinging “The 1965 King Size Nicotine Blues”, the schmaltzy, string-laden “Baby You’re My Everything”, and “Let’s Do The Wobble (Before Chubby Gets It)”—are relatively uninteresting attempts to ride popular trends in 60s R&B. He can’t be blamed for trying to write some hits, but when he tries to come off as a sentimental crooner and downplay his wheeling and dealing, cuckolded and cuckolding side, he doesn’t have much to offer. On “Did I Come Back Home Too Soon (Or Did I Stay Away Too Long)”, our protagonist returns home to find his wife cheating on him with another woman. He again tries to play up the humor of a classic blues situation, but here he sounds genuinely mournful. His performance doesn’t possess the cheekiness that would elevate it above a set piece. The song is mainly of note because his wife cheating on him with another woman, which you don’t often hear about in soul. In addition, the tinny ‘80s production on “Happy Dog Day” doesn’t do Swamp Dogg any favors.
Swamp Dogg has some good ideas, and he is an R&B chameleon. But as compilations of little known soul artists go, It’s All Good isn’t actually all good. It’s better to seek out his early ‘70s albums, where he tried more to be his own odd self rather than somebody else’s idea of a crooner. In that situation, any inconsistency is at least more likely to be funny than boring.