Swamp Dogg is the boss, a proper original and individual voice if there ever was one. Jerry Williams, the 75-year-old, Virginia-born singer and musician, best-known by his gonzo soul alias, has called the San Fernando Valley home for almost two decades. For going on half a century, he's quietly ingrained himself in the tapestry of American music, even if he's not one of the obvious living legends.
But he belongs in the pantheon of true American originals, with a catalog that sounds like the Great American Songbook dipped in acid water. His breakthrough debut album — once he ditched his tamer persona, Little Jerry Williams — was called Total Destruction to Your Mind, and it's a psychedelic American opus that feels more relevant with each passing year. The numerous albums that followed are also deep and worth poring over, even though he never quite captured the zeitgeist the way Total Destruction did.
Tonight, he's playing a rare, special 75th birthday set at the Satellite. I rang up the Dogg this week to discuss his serpentine career, which has touched on everything from big band to blues to rock to disco and techno and working with everyone from Bon Iver to future U.S. senate leader Kid Rock.
You don’t play very often in L.A., correct?
No, I don’t. Because nobody asks me to! Last time I played was three weeks ago in Wisconsin. It wasn’t my show, but over two days, it was like 80,000 in attendance. The people that brought me in — I always mess up their name — Ben Iver? [searches for a moment] Bon Iver, that’s it!
I’m going on tour opening up for Bon Iver soon.
You’re based in Porter Ranch still, right? How long have you been there?
Eighteen years. I just liked the area. I didn’t know the area well before I moved here. I was coming from West Hempstead, New York. And Cream Records wanted to sign me, but they wouldn’t sign me unless me unless I moved to California. And they paid everything, moving, storage, bought me a house, the whole nine yards. So I came.
Do you like the energy and psychedelic vibe out in California? Does that still exist to you?
Yeah. It all still exists, as long as I can be the conductor and make it happen. But the musicians out here are capable of playing just about anything and everything. And a lot of them are refugees from New York, Indiana and so forth. You’ve got a mixture of great musicians and they fall into whatever groove is necessary at the time. That’s what I like about it here.
You’ve been inspired by a lot of the creative types over the years out here?
It’s still fresh out here. You still got new people coming in here now. I got a new drummer ‘cause my main drummer is in the hospital now. This new drummer Kenny Williams is better than the drummer I had, and I thought the drummer I had was fantastic. Same thing with the trumpet player. I got a new trumpet player [Darnell Phillips], and he’s super bad … super bad. He’s got ideas!
Who else did you look up to, musically or creatively, over the years?
Most of my inspiration — if you listen to my production — actually came out of the late ‘40s, ‘50s, up to the mid ‘60s. All of that I picked up while in Virginia and in New York. My stuff is very country-oriented … have you ever heard one of my records?
OK, that’s why I use so many horns and go so many different ways, ‘cause some things I don’t want to sound country. But I’m actually country. The only reason I’m not playing country is to make a living, because I’m black. I don’t think another black gonna make it [playing country]. I’m surprised my man made it. What’s his name?
Yeah. He’s makin’ it. But there’s been 3,000 other black [country] singers who are just as good, and they didn’t make it, because there wasn’t no room for them. But anyway, I’m not trying to get onto a soap box. I’m happy for what happens to anybody.
Can you talk about more of your inspirations over these past 75 years?
I haven’t necessarily been in the studio with all these people but people like Lloyd Price had a big influence on my life because I always liked that big band sound. A couple times I went on tour, and I was opening for The Marvelettes and Lloyd when I was Little Jerry Williams.
Lloyd let his band do something that all these stuck-up guys would never do — he let his band play behind me, which made my song sound like the record sounds. I got a little more applause than I normally would have gotten trying to pull this shit off with four pieces, you know? Lloyd Price is one of ‘em. Wally Roker was another influence. I learned a lot of the business side from him. He was the bass singer for The Heartbeats in the ‘60s — you know, “Down on My Knees.” I was influenced by the way Louis Jordan could take a small group of five and scare Glenn Miller in a way that Glenn Miller would refuse to go on stage behind him.
All these big bands used to have 25, 30 men up there, all that shit. Glenn Miller had “Moonlight Serenade.” It was big band jazz. Larry Elgart. All these [big band] guys refused to go on behind this guy Louis Jordan [because he] was one of the baddest motherfuckers to come down the line. I just like the way he thought in reference to presentation of his music. And hell, he was the first to have visuals and all that kind of shit. Even Bing Crosby did a duet with him so that he could capture some of the black market, if you believe it or not. His manager was the president of MCA and they could pull off basically anything they wanted to. They invented YouTube, I guess you might say.
I know you used to be involved in radical politics. Do you still follow politics at all?
The last album I put out was called The White Man Made Me Do It. And it sells a little, teeny bit — same with most of my albums. My biggest album to date is still my very first album, Total Destruction to Your Mind, which is very full of politics. But I hit the politics every now and then in my albums. I guess I’m not really as interested in saving the world as I was [in the past] because the world really don’t wanna be saved, you know? I said, “Fuck ‘em. Let me save Jerry” — you know, who happens to be me.
If anybody wants instructions on how to be saved, I’m willing to sit down and talk to ‘em. But on a large scope, fuck ‘em.
Are you writing a bunch of new music?
On the new record by Santana and the Isley Brothers, they covered “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” which is my song. They did the shit out of it. They did it like I did it! And I love it, and it’s selling. And I’ve got other shit coming out. I’ve been doing a lot of licenses from my catalog to TV and movies. I licensed a song for Silicon Valley, and I got to know Mike Judge, and we’ve got a thing coming out called Tales from the Tour Bus where he and I are sittin’ on a bus, talkin’.
Oh, and I also just did a new album. It’s a techno album.
You made a techno album?
That’s coming out in October. I’ve got a bunch of techno producers [and Bon Iver] working with me. That’s some of what I was doing up in Wisconsin. They think it’s gonna be a gold album or something. I’ll settle for that.
What made you want to do a techno record?
I noticed the few times people had tried to get me to do something, and I didn’t do it — it turned out to be something very, very huge. Like disco. They tried to talk me into producing disco. And I wouldn’t do it. The closest I came was a group called Hot Butter. I don’t know if you remember them or not. They had a hit and then they had a flop. I produced the flop. My mind was still not on disco. But I think the biggest record I’ve been associated with is Kid Rock’s “I Got One For Ya.”
Swamp Dogg's 75th birthday celebration with special guest Wayne Kramer of The MC5 is Saturday, July 15 at the Satellite. Early show: doors at 5 p.m., show starts at 6 p.m.