Jerry Williams Jr., the psychedelicized Southern-soul singer, songwriter and producer known as Swamp Dogg, is one of the big dogs at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp.
The Stomp, a music festival that bills itself as a celebration of the cult heroes of American music, landed Swamp Dogg for a Thursday afternoon music history conference interview and a Friday night show at Rock ’n’ Bowl.
Williams’ long underground profile got a boost this year via the re-release of his classic early 1970s Swamp Dogg albums “Total Destruction of Your Mind” and “Rat On!”
In the nearly two decades before his late ’60s conversion to psychedelic soul, Williams tried to be a conventional rhythm-and-blues singer. He even got an R&B hit in 1966 with his smooth, orchestrated ballad, “Baby, You’re My Everything.”
Despite the hit, Williams got stuck in music’s minor leagues. He never was the type of act who, like Jackie Wilson or Chuck Jackson or Tommy Hunt, thrilled the girls.
“You know how you work on a job and you work and you work and, without being egotistical, you know you are one of the best workers there?” Virginia native Williams asked from Northridge, Calif., his home for 35 years.
“And you know how everybody gets praises and raises but you? Well, that’s where I was. People liked my stuff, but I was never going to be the closing act. And I was never going to be the act right before the closing act.”
Williams’ dissatisfaction with his R&B career and his love for the brilliantly inventive music of Frank Zappa combined to inspire his new musical identity.
“It took me a long time to find out who Jerry Williams was,” he said. “Once I found out who Jerry Williams was, I became Swamp Dogg.”
The “Swamp” half of his new name came from Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records executive and producer who nicknamed the great ’60s session musicians of Muscle Shoals, Ala., “The Swampers.”
“The dog part is just that something you love,” Williams explained. “No matter what he does, you give him another chance.”
Swamp Dogg’s 1970s debut, “Total Destruction of Your Mind,” was an underground hit. He followed it with 1971’s “Rat On!” Released by major label Elektra, the album features a cover of the grinning Swamp Dogg riding a giant white rat.
Despite his mid-’60s and early ’70s flirtations with stardom, Williams, the producer, co-arranger and writer of his only hit, “Baby, You’re My Everything,” found his biggest success as a producer and songwriter.
Williams’ production credits include Gene Pity, Andre Williams, Kid Rock and Irma Thomas’ lost soul classic from 1973, “In Between Tears.” Bob Dylan, Patti LaBelle, Tracy Byrd and many others recorded songs he’d written. The more famous of them include Johnny Paycheck’s country hit, “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got).”
Until this year’s re-releases of his underground classics by the Burbank, Calif.,-based Alive Natural Sounds Records, Williams, 71, occupied himself by occasionally writing for other artists and licensing his various songs and productions to film and TV. The reissue campaign has given him a new career as performer.
“The satisfaction for me is still out there on stage,” he said. “So far people are accepting me and loving me. Jerry Williams wasn’t star material. Swamp Dogg is star material, if he can hang around long enough.”