A Chat with Swamp Dogg, the Founding Father of Idiosyncratic Soul

Usually, musicians with legendary reputations come off at least somewhat narcissistic, but not Swamp Dogg. Though his musical resume is impressive to say the least, he’s the sweetest and humblest talented person you’d ever meet.

When I rang up Jerry Williams Jr., aka Swamp Dogg, he laughed when I called him Jerry Swamp Dogg. “Oh, you don’t have to call me that,” he told me. “Just call me Swamp, I kinda like that after fighting for it for so long.”

The 77-year-old (78 in July) musician talked to me like I was part of his family. He invited me over to check out his record collection and after he found out I lived on the East Coast, he took down my address saying he’d send me some of his personal vinyl from his home all the way in the San Fernando Valley, Calif.

“Oh! I have a great day every day,” he says with the utmost excitement in his raspy bluesy voice. “When I wake up, I jump right out of bed and I’m so happy I’m alive, I don’t know what to do.”

Last year, Swamp released Sorry You Couldn’t Make It on Joyful Noise Records—his 24th full-length album. With relatable lyrics, romantic melodies, tragedy, comedy, and even tracks featuring the late John Prine, I’d say with confidence that it was the most epic album of 2020.

Knowing that he’s worked alongside pioneering musicians like Prine, Gary Bonds, Irma Thomas, and many more, I was more than excited to ask him about his past. It’s clear this man needs a biography written about him. Swamp was born in Portsmouth, Va., and started his career in the ‘50s under the moniker “Little Jerry.” His parents, a musical lounge act, were recording their own record when a preteen Williams decided he wanted to do the same. After begging his parents, they caved and he cut his first single.

“I squalled and cried and hollered and screamed, and when they [Swamp’s parents] said the session was over, they said, ‘look let’s get this crazy mother fucker at least ten minutes,’” Swamp recalls. “So they did, and out of all the things that we recorded, my song and record was the only one considered radio ready.”

After it got picked up in Norfolk, Va. his career started bumpin’. Swamp, still playing then as Little Jerry, started playing once a week opening for acts like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, The Coasters, and many other famous Black doo-wop acts of the time.

Swamp Dogg, “Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg”

After many ups and downs in his career, he officially changed his name to Swamp Dogg in the ‘70s.

“Once I found out I was political and also was different and needed to do something that had some meaning, I went looking for myself,” Swamp says. “People wanted to know like, ‘why you change your name to some dumb shit like that?’ then all of a sudden everybody came out, Snoop Dogg, ya know? I said, ‘see all you silly sons of bitches…’ hell, I was out front! But that’s alright.”

Swamp says he is still writing music and even has enough songs for a new full-length album—perhaps one that could even come out this year.

“I knew I wanted to be in music, I knew I wanted to make records [and] I’m still making records, I’ve got almost 30 albums,” he says. “They just started giving me a category—‘idiosyncratic soul’ is what they call my music now. Finally, after what? 30 years? I finally got a category!”

Hear the entire interview with the legendary Swamp Dogg and his entire new album Sorry You Couldn’t Make It on this week’s episode of The Music Meetup.