Possessed of a voice that writer Robert Christgau likened to “An Afro-American air raid siren,” Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams is as underappreciated and misunderstood as he is irreverent and irrepressible. Having hovered in and around the margins of America’s musical underground for his entire career, the Dogg’s lamentable tendency for “Buzzard Luck,” as his song so memorably once put it, also happens to be his greatest strength: he refuses to be pigeonholed, is virtually impossible to dilute, and simply cannot be taken sitting down. He is the type of artist who causes commercially-minded A&R men to throw their arms up in sheer frustration and despair. This bristling musical activist didn’t start out this way; he recorded prolifically during the sixties as Little Jerry Williams, helped organize the famed Muscle Shoals horn section and wrote songs and produced records for Irma Thomas, Z.Z. Hill and Doris Duke, to name just a few.
But some time around the apex of the Vietnam War something within him cracked. By 1970 this self-proclaimed “Ph.D. in Niggerism” was mad as hell, and he wasn’t going to take it any more. That year he released Total Destruction of Your Mind under his newly adopted canine moniker and the next two years brought Rat On and Cuffed, Collared and Tagged. The Dogg had arrived and America’s musical landscape would never be the same. Here was a soul philosopher who not only rhapsodized about the mysteries of love and the temptations of cheating, but had a bullshit detector built into his brain — set to red alert at all times — that drove him to confront hypocrisies head-on. The rare artist who can bring his audience from laughter to tears and back again in a single sitting, Swamp Dogg’s one-of-a-kind brand of socially-conscious country soul practically defies description. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover even took note, tapping his phone line and adding him to his secret list of citizens involved in “Un-American” activities.
Here then, are two of his most cripplingly beautiful performances, two critiques of our country that sadly ring as timelessly true today as they did when he first recorded them forty years ago. “Sam Stone,” the brutal tale of the tragic life and death of a returning war veteran, is one of those songs that appear to have been lost in the wilderness shortly after its creation, just waiting for the artist it was destined for to come along and discover it. Written and originally recorded by John Prine, for “Sam Stone” Swamp Dogg was just that artist. Prine’s lyrics are disturbingly, ingeniously graphic – in fact, it’s safe to say that it would be impossible to write a song on this subject as darkly effective as this one – and their brilliance is only matched by the Dogg’s heart-breaking delivery, giving it the voice and gravitas it longed for.
Swamp Dogg” Sam Stone
Torn from the same page of frank and unnerving truth-telling comes “God Bless America For What?,” this time from Swamp Dogg’s own pen. Although recorded before “Sam Stone,” it seems almost descended from it, making its point from a sweeping historical perspective rather than a personal one. With “God Bless America (For What)?,” he tackles the conditions that led to the unraveling and eventual demise of Sam Stone and countless others like him, entreating his audience to unite across color and religious divides to help reconcile the country’s glaring inequities with its founding promises of individual freedoms and justice for all.
Swamp Dogg: God Bless America For What
Now, without further ado, let the Dogg bring you what he promised from the very beginning: Total Destruction of Your Mind.
Margaret Lewis Warwick’s soulful country ballad “Reconsider Me,” penned by Warwick and RAM label owner Mira Smith, reflects the hours the songwriting duo spent together honing a mournful, intimate interplay of voice and guitar. The world-weary lyrics and Warwick’s forlorn, wistful vocal fit like hand in glove with the echoing guitar lines.
Ironically, the pair’s low-key version would set the stage for musical-chart fireworks when interpreted by heavy-hitting vocalists. Country-music legend Narvel Felts, for one, scored a No. 2 hit with his version released in 1975, following earlier attempts by fellow twangsters Ray Pillow and John Wesley Ryles. However, perhaps the version most beloved by local music fans floated from the angelic voice of New Orleans’ own “Tan Canary,” soul titan Johnny Adams, whose soaring 1969 waxing was his biggest hit, peaking at #8 on the American R&B charts and #28 on the pop charts.
Adams isn’t the only Louisiana legend to take on “Reconsider Me.” The recently deceased Jimmy Elledge, who at age 18 burst onto the scene with his Chet Atkins-produced take on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” tackled the song late in his career on a self-released CD. A pianist with a multi-octave vocal range, Elledge delivered perhaps the only take spine-tingling enough to rival the Tan Canary’s.
But tonight, July 17th, at 6 p.m. at the Old U.S. Mint is your chance to hear the original co-composer re-create her version as only she can. Mira Smith has passed, but come see Margaret Lewis Warwick tonight in a presentation by the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation and The Friends of the Cabildo. She will be accompanied by a band that includes Monroe musician Kenny Bill Stinson, known for his dead-on imitation of “The Killer,” Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as for his stint in Louisiana supergroup Lil’ Band o’ Gold.
In a town where the question “where’d you go to high school?” is as ubiquitous as “would you like that dressed?” it is appropriate that the Crescent City has its own traditional R&B graduation song, and for thousands of New Orleanians, that anthem is Stark Whiteman’s “Graduation Day,” dripping though it is with sickly-sweet sentimentality, teenage melodrama, and high school clichés. This is the dancefloor dirge that launched 10,000 belly-rubbers for teenage lovers in the New Orleans of the 1960s.
According to Times-Picayune columnist Angus Lind, Stark Whiteman’s 1960 hit was “written by bass player Henry Schroeder and saxophonist Roy ‘Big Daddy’ Wagner. It gained Whiteman, a bass player and a lead singer with The Jokers, a lot of popularity. It was recorded on the White Cliffs label at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in 1959 with three female singers from Nicholls High School who never sang professionally.”
Yat cottage-industry kingpin Benny Grunch, in relating to Lind the story of the song, which inspired Grunch to record a hurricane-themed parody titled “Evacuation Day,” said “Matassa told Whiteman his song would be a hit. Whiteman asked him how he knew and the response was straight out of Yogi Berra’s playbook: ‘If it sounds like a hit record, it’s a hit record.’”
Local writer Robert Fontenot had this to say about “Graduation Day”: “Recorded by an obscure New Orleans outfit, this sad Fifties ballad was a hit in the region but never made the charts. It’s one of the best odes to the day in question, expressing a real, tangible sadness at the idea of leaving your friends behind forever.”
Indeed, let the lyrics themselves attest:
Though we all shall try, we may never meet again
(never meet again, never meet again)
School is almost over. Graduation’s near.
Though we try to hide it, we all shed a tear.
Happy days are over. School is near its end
Though we all shall try, we may never meet again.
As the school year ends, we will surely try
Try to face our friends. Try to say goodbye
Happy days are over. School is near it’s end
Though we all shall try, we may never meet again.
What will happen now is not for us to say.
We will each go on, our own and separate way.
As the years go by, time will have its say
But we will all remember graduation day.
When we stop to look back, we will surely say
The best day of our lives was graduation day.
Not to be outdone by New Orleans, the Acadiana region also has its monster graduation song, differentiating itself from “Graduation Day” by focusing on the nocturnal side of commencement with all its pseudo-majestic pomp and circumstance: “Graduation Night (As You Pass Me By),” sung by the now-legendary swamp-pop singer TK Hulin.
According to the Edsel Records/Crazy Cajun label’s liner notes to a TK CD: “Hulin was born Alton James Hulin in St. Martinville, LA on Aug. 16, 1943. At age 16 he formed the Lonely Knights, making his solo debut the following year with ‘I’m Not a Fool Anymore’; the single, issued on the LK label (a venture co-owned by Hulin’s father and local songwriter Robert Thibodeaux) became a massive hit throughout Louisiana and Texas, and was followed by other regional smashes like ‘As You Pass Me By (Graduation Night).’ According to the Acadian Museum’s bio on Hulin: “’Graduation Night’ was recorded in 1964 and sold over 150,000 copies. Each year around May, one can always hear this famous recording with the song being popular in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.”
Synonymous with the CYO, VFW, and Masonic-hall dances that rocked New Orleans in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the Crescent City’s legendary blue-eyed R&B supergroup the Jokers is reuniting for the first time in 11 years at New Orleans’ Rock ‘n’ Bowl this Sunday from 3 to 7 p.m. (though some reports have the show starting at 2). It will mark the band’s first performance since iconic lead singer Roland “Stone” LeBlanc joined them for their last reunion show (on May 15, 1999, at Kenner’s Pontchartrain Center) before his untimely death in December 1999.
According to disc jockey Poppa Stoppa’s liner notes from the band’s 1992 retrospective CD: “It all started in the summer of 1957 when the JOKERS appeared on the nationally televised Jerry Lewis Telethon. From that moment on, the JOKERS were a dominant force in the New Orleans Music Sound. Their tight, driving musical renditions of popular rhythm & blues songs rocked and rolled people everywhere. What made their show exciting was the introduction of wild stage antics and dancing amongst the crowd during their songs. They were consistent Battle-of-the-Bands contest winners, probably because of this revolutionary approach to entertaining.Anyone who attended one of the JOKERS’ dances will tell you what I’m talking about, but don’t take my word for it…listen for yourself. As you play this CD, featuring the various lead singers of the JOKERS, spend a few minutes reliving that fabulous era. If you were lucky enough to have seen the JOKERS perform, each song will bring back some special memory. Thank you JOKERS, for giving all of us memories we will never forget…and that’s the reason why NEW ORLEANS WILL NEVER FORGET THE JOKERS!”
The roster of lead singers that have passed through the band’s ranks reads like a who’s who of New Orleans R&B: Roland Stone, 1957-1959; Chuck Cavet, 1959-60; Mike Ancona, 1960-65; Stark Whiteman, 1961-65; Art “Sir” Van, 1965-67; and Harvey Jesus, 1967-75. Led by drummer Edwin “Eddie” Roth throughout its history, the band also featured a strong supporting cast of musicians, including bassist Cullen Landry, now the leader of R&B band Midnight Streetcar; pianist Richie Ladner; and horn players Herman Gilmore, Iggy Campisi, Gene Joubert, and Tommy Alfortish, to name just a few.
Don’t miss this ultra-rare reunion show – and the roll call of hits that have imprinted themselves on the brains and booties of countless New Orleanians who remember those halcyon days of the nascent, still-burgeoning art form of rock ‘n’ roll: “Just a Moment of Your Time,” “There’s Got to Be a Girl,” “Bells In My Heart,” “To Tease and to Please,” “Graduation Day,” “Don’t Break Your Promise to Me,” “I Wish I Knew,” and many more. This type of oldies show used to be more common when the New Orleans Musicians’ Alumni Association was in full swing, but those days are gone. Sunday at Rock ‘n’ Bowl with the legendary Jokers – be there or be square. [For a fuller history of the Jokers, see Bob Walker's tribute site here.]
For many Ponderosa Stomp goers (including this scribe), the highlight of 2010′s event will be the appearance of the fabulous Young Jessie. Best known for the hit “Mary Lou,” Young Jessie epitomized the wild 1950s blend of West Coast R&B and rock and roll—and cut some of the best records of the era.
Born Obediah Donnell Jessie December 28, 1936 at Dallas, Texas, “Young” Jessie was introduced to music by his piano playing mother. When the War broke out, Jessie’s family moved to the West Coast so his father could find a better job. Jessie’s family moved back to Texas in 1950. Jessie however returned to Los Angeles shortly after where he attended Jefferson High, a school also attended by Etta James, Johnny “Guitar” Watson. and Richard Berry.
Berry—of “Louis, Louie” fame, but sadly, not fortune—encouraged Jessie to join his doo-wop group dubbed the Flairs. The group became very popular on the L. A. high school circuit in the early 1950s via dances and house parties. One day the group collectively skipped classes and auditioned for RPM Records—then one of the most successful R&B record labels on the West Coast. RPM owners Jules and Joe Bihari were impressed and set up a recording session for the 16-year-olds.
The group’s first effort “She Wants To Rock,” was produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, with Berry singing lead. A playful recording, Leiber and Stoller would later parlay the Flairs style into gold when they began working with the Robins and the Coasters at Atlantic. The Flairs cut four singles for RPM as well as several more using other group names. The group disbanded around 1955 and Jessie and Berry forged their own careers.
The Biharis brothers suggested the moniker “Young” Jessie and together they struck pay-dirt with “Mary Lou,” a song Jessie wrote about a wild aunt on his fathers side. “Mary Lou” sold especially well on the West Coast and in Texas and Jessie embarked on a series of tours with the likes of Guitar Slim, Bobby Bland and B. B. King. Other RPM masterpieces included “Hit, Git and Split” and “Oochie Coochie.” “Mary Lou” was eventually covered by Arkansas rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins and his version made the national charts in 1959.
Young Jessie – Mary Lou
Jessie briefly joined the Coasters—long enough to record “Searchin’” and “Youngblood”—before waxing the infectious “Shuffle In the Gravel” for Atco in 1957 with his old pals Leiber and Stoller producing. Next stop was Capitol—albeit a brief stop— where Jessie recorded the equally effective “The Wrong Door.”
In 1961, producer Bumps Blackwell got Jessie a deal with Mercury where he waxed the Coasters influenced “Teacher Gimme Back,” and the riotous “My Country Cousin.” Unfortunately, the public’s taste in music was “maturing” and Jessie’s 1950s rocking style wasn’t appreciated. He spent the rest of the 1960s recording great singles for small labels on the West Coast.
Young Jessie was more-or-less rediscovered in the early 1980s when his recording began being reissued in Europe. Since then, Young Jessie has made numerous overseas appearances where he has never failed to please. Eventually, America came on board.
Young Jessie – Hit, Git and Split
Note. Young Jessie should not be confused with a local artist, Jesse Thomas, that recorded under his own name and with Huey Smith and the Clowns in the 1960s. That Jessie often billed himself as Young Jessie in New Orleans. This Young Jessie is the real Mccoy.
Here’s a Stomp sneak peek with a great live performance from Sugar Pie Desanto when she toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. Ponderosa Stomp alum Hubert Sumlin is on guitar!
Below is snapshot of Sugar Pie’s Ponderosa Stomp poster- from the letterpress geniuses at Yee Haw Industries. See Sugar Pie Desanto live and snag her poster on at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans on September 24th and 25th, 2010.