Cruising through the San Fernando Valley with Swamp Dogg is something else. Clad in creamy khakis that match his Chrysler 600's paint job — as well as a “Swamp” ball cap and a Bluetooth earpiece — the 71-year-old veteran underground soul overlord has the energy of a man 30 years younger, befitting his role as leader of a fervent cult following that has deified this master of offbeat '70s-era psych-funk.
As trailer parks of Sunland slide by, the Virginia-born Dogg cranks up some freshly minted, yet-to-be-mastered tracks from a forthcoming album. His warm, bright tenor deftly surfs atop a cataclysmic tide of churning funk, vocals testifying universal truths of life in the 21st-century New Depression era. Swamp Dogg, whose moniker was forged via late-1960s lysergic inspiration, is prized for his combination of wild topical commentary, an implacable knack for natural-fact Southern soul and for perpetrating what has been called the worst album cover in history, 1971's Rat On!, which depicts him triumphantly riding a giant white rat.
He cuts off the music to take calls on his Bluetooth. “Oh, man! You played so much bass on that” and “Did you get that check yet? No? Me neither. I ain't gettin' shit.” Then he gets one from his mother, herself a singer who still performs at the age of 93.
The Dogg house, a neat, nondescript Northridge bungalow, has walls covered with gold and platinum records; writing and producing are two of his best hustles, and he's made records for Gene Pitney, Andre Williams, DMX and Kid Rock. More than a few of the discs are stone country hits, including several by early-'90s Nashville hat cat Tracy Byrd and Johnny Paycheck's 1971 comeback smash, “Don't Take Her (She's All I Got).” A fiendish flexibility is Swamp Dogg's calling card, and this multifaceted capability has made for an odd and storied career.
A preteen, piano-punishing, soul-rock prodigy who recorded and performed under his given name as Little Jerry Williams starting in the mid-1950s, Dogg's lived in Los Angeles for the past 35 years but is only just now getting around to performing here, with a hyper-rare show at the Echo on Saturday. But he's not exactly looking forward to it.
“This Echo thing is fucking up my head because, before I go onstage, I always wish that the fucking place would just burn to the ground,” he says, his performance anxiety running contrary to his gregarious public persona. “Back in the '60s, before a show, I'd either throw up or get diarrhea, be in the bathroom and it felt like everything I'd ever eaten would come out.”
A master of eccentricity and exploitation and possessed by a chronic, radical defiance of convention, Swamp Dogg's mix of psychedelic shtick, acute sociocultural observation and sheer, naked talent are best exemplified by his music. Hopefully he'll find a wider audience than the underground cognoscenti and European fetishists with a trio of upcoming reissues, by local indie Alive Naturalsound, of classic early-'70s Dogg discs Total Destruction to Your Mind, Rat On! and the incomparable Gag a Maggot.
The CDs are enlivened by Dogg's penetrating insight and surreal, near-novelty whimsy — on “I Was Born Blue,” he cries, “Why wasn't I born like everyone else, with orange skin and green hair?” This approach places him near the habitat where musical comics Rudy Ray Moore and Blowfly reside, but at its core, every Swamp Dogg release is fraught with genuine passion and a legit, self-possessed need to communicate. His messages, about the sins of racism and materialism, the beauty of love, the rancorous reality of politics, always pierce the bull's-eye. “I've got so much music inside me that I can't even get it out,” he says. “So, as a producer, it's like I'm recruiting other performers to help get it out for me. My life is 100 percent music.”
Swamp Dogg has seen much along the way and is not timid. This is the idiosyncratic personality who, following the 2000 Bush-Gore election, released “They Crowned an Idiot King,” after all. But this irresistible impulse to court disaster is precisely what makes him such a compelling artist.
The fact that he's survived almost six tumultuous decades in music, a definite taste for dope and drink (“Quit that shit around '79 — I started liking it too much”) and managed to raise five daughters illustrate the Dogg's ease at the rim of the volcano.
“I've been on the threshold of all kinds of disasters my entire life, but I never fell in the hole,” he says. “It's like the Devil is throwing people into the fire and, come my turn, 'Oh, shit — motherfucker's full!' ”
Swamp Dogg performs at the Echo on
Friday Saturday, July 27.