Sticking around can pay off in the music business. The popularity of musical forms often rises and falls in cycles, so if an artist fails to make it big the first time, they may stand to gain when the pendulum swings back. This is especially true in R&B, where older artists are often seen to possess an “authentic” quality that labels find attractive. A spurt of singers who were young in the ‘60s and ‘70s have recently linked up with hip record companies, resulting in projects like Bobby Womack and the late Gil Scott-Heron’s releases for XL Records. And Swamp Dogg, a singer, songwriter, and producer, has stuck around longer than most.
Swamp started putting out records in the ‘50s, back when he was just Jerry Williams, and he’s done almost everything there is to do in the music business—and many things most people don’t bother to do, like put a photo of himself riding a giant rat on an album cover. In the first half of the ‘70s, he recorded and produced a string of albums (for himself and others) that have a small but devoted following. According to Spin, Swamp’s 1970 album Total Destruction To Your Mind took 22 years to earn Gold status. Almost 40 years after that period of creativity, he’s suddenly getting a lot of attention—a greatest hits compilation in 2011, an NPR story, a Spin profile, and several reissues, the latest of which are his 1973 album Gag A Maggot and Irma Thomas’s In Between Years, from the same year, which Swamp helped write and produce.
Gag A Maggot shows Swamp’s artistic trademarks—an off-kilter voice, a love of thick southern-soul arrangements, and a consistently dirty sense of humor. Swamp isn’t a traditional sounding vocalist, he’s got the same sort of not-really-a-singer high hoarseness that you can hear in members of the Band, where a guy like Levon Helm just belted it out and didn’t really give a damn. There’s blues and country in Swamp’s voice, gospel too, especially during the extended vocal fireworks of “Mama’s Baby Daddy’s Maybe”, where Swamp just keeps yelling at the lord that he doesn’t wanna know, paternity be damned.
Swamp favors a heavy, full soul sound—a couple guitars, a rhythm section, a keyboard, and some horns—but it always stays loose. This is especially clear on the cover of Wilson Pickett’s famous “In The Midnight Hour”. Pickett barrels though the tune, slamming his way towards midnight, but Swamp’s version is light as a feather, the guitars dancing and prancing, seemingly unconcerned about what time it is. Gag A Maggot is one of Swamp’s tightest albums sonically, never straying far from a southern-soul base, but acknowledging the quicker tempos, snappier drumming, and more elastic bass lines of funk.
And it’s thematically tight as well, focused almost entirely on sex and its aftermath (none of the social commentary of one of his best, earlier songs, “Synthetic World”, it’s all bedroom politics here). “Some men don’t even know that I’m around/ I guess its cause I only work when the sun goes down,” sings Swamp on the album’s opener, “Wifesitter”. Swamp’s world of casual infidelity is universal—he’s only sneaking around with “some man’s wife” because he knows her husband is off doing the exact same thing. “Choking To Death (From The Ties That Bind)” is about the dangers of excessive attachment, while “I Couldn’t Pay For What I Got Last Night” is more on the joys of the carnal. “Why must we fall when we fall in love?” asks Swamp at one point, but he never seems to fall too hard, he knows what he’s falling for, and he always bounces back quickly.
Left to his own devices, Swamp is horny, quick to get in trouble, and just as quick (maybe quicker) to crack a joke. What’s he like when a lady is present? Completely different, if Irma Thomas’s In Between Tears is any indication. Swamp helped Irma write most of the tunes on her album, and now his songs are mainly about hurt lovers, regret, and anger—the flipside to Swamp’s philandering.
Irma Thomas, known as the “soul queen of New Orleans,” had success in the first half of the ‘60s, recording a few classics like “It’s Raining” (with that wonderful “drip-drip-drip-drop”) and “Ruler Of My Heart”, which Otis Redding took for one of his first hits, “Pain In My Heart”. She crossed over into the top twenty with “Wish Someone Would Care”, the title track of her 1964 album, but by the second half of the decade, her chart success was erratic, and by the time she connected with Swamp Dogg, she was putting out music on small labels and not getting much attention.
“Women have a lot in common,” says Thomas at the start of “Coming From Behind”, “we worry about the same things, men.” And In Between Tears is mostly about struggling with men, battling infidelity, poor treatment, and failure to commit. Thomas rerecorded the lonely “I Wish Someone Would Care” for the album, which fits with other moments when she sings lines like, “Stepped on my love/ Just like it was dirt/ And upon my heart/ You put hurt after hurt,” or “You’re The Dog/ But I’ve got to do the barking all by myself.” She’s in a never-ending struggle with loneliness and heartache.
Swamp’s arrangements change accordingly—several songs have weepy string sections, and both the guitars and the horns are less aggressive and sometimes lower in the mix relative to Gag A Maggot. This is true even though one of the guitarists on the album is Duane Allman, who participated in a number of standout recording sessions for female soul vocalists, including Aretha Franklin; it may be him soloing off a bit on “We Won’t Be In Your Way Anymore”. This gives more room to the bass work of Robert “Pops” Powell, whose playing is exemplary.
Despite all the jerks in Thomas’s life, she remains defiant. “She can have you whenever she wants you/ But she’ll never, never be your wife,” she sings to a cheating husband, trying to find some solace in her situation. It’s “Coming From Behind” where Thomas issues her manifesto. Accompanied by a rhythm section, she engages in a lengthy rap, lamenting the male tendency to two-time. But Thomas isn’t sitting at home by the window, crying over her knitting and pining away for her man. “Every time you men two-time, we women can three,” she says, almost sneering. “I know he’s coming back/ he hasn’t a choice,” cause she’s got him hooked. It hurts Thomas now, but in the long run, she’s sure she’s got the upper hand, and it’s hard not to believe her.
Swamp tells a joke, Thomas asserts her power, and both are still going, over 50 years after they started their careers. (Unfortunately Thomas hasn’t gotten the same reissue treatment as Swamp, and she hasn’t put out anything new since 2008.) Longevity can be its own reward. But it’s nice to see to see these artists’ music getting its just desserts as well.