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.
Above: The Lewis Sisters- Rose, left, and Margaret, right, with Dale Hawkins on stage at the Louisiana Hayride.
“In April 1957 Margaret Lewis won 2nd prize at a talent show in Plainview, sponsored by Johnny Horton, the prize being a guest appearance at the Louisiana Hayride at Shreveport. There, Johnny and Tilman Franks introduced her to local businesswoman Mira Smith, who had her own studio and played guitar with young local cats like James Burton. An aspiring songwriter, she took Margaret under her wing, sending her out on the road with local star Dale Hawkins. Margaret and her sister Rose ended up doing backing vocals for some of Dale`s Checker sessions in Chicago, singing on Baby Baby, Mrs Merguitory’s Daughter, La-Do-Da -Da, Superman and most memorably of all the awesome Little Pig. Later she sang on the equally awesome Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby by Dale.”
Bobby Marchan in drag confers with Solomon Burke onstage
On its Sept. 15 kickoff, attendees at the Ponderosa Stomp‘s music conference learned about R&B legend, notorious transvestite, and pioneer rap promoter Bobby Marchan – in a panel led by Alison Fensterstock and illuminated by Marchan’s Manicure Records partner Henry “Palomino” Alexander; Q93 DJ Wild Wayne; and singer Gerri Hall of Huey “Piano” Smith’s Clowns. But before Marchan shared his consummate business acumen decades later with the rappers who founded Cash Money Records as well as chitlin-circuit stars like Sir Charles Jones and Mel Waiters, he made an impression as lead Clown vocalist, an emcee at New Orleans’ Dew Drop Inn and Club Tijuana, and later scored a #1 smash by covering the Big Jay McNeely hit “There Is Something on Your Mind” for Bobby Robinson’s Fire label. Be sure to listen to Marchan’s spoken interlude at minute 2:00 – pure tongue-lashing, sassy flamboyance infused with rap-like cadences.
Friday, Sept. 16, Stomp conference attendees will get a chance to get up close and personal with the man whose version of “There Something on Your Mind” Marchan made his own: Big Jay McNeely. From 2:45 to 3:35, Jason Hanley of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will interview McNeely. For more conference info, click here. Catch McNeely playing the Stomp on Saturday night. Full schedule is here.
“The King of the Sax Honkers,” Big Jay McNeely first topped the Billboard R&B chart in 1949 with “The Deacon’s Hop” on the Savoy label before charting once again in 1959 with the blues-drenched ballad “There Is Something on Your Mind.” Infusing his style with a frantic preacher’s intensity that paved the way toward rock ‘n’ roll, the rabble-rousing McNeely – seen at left playing on his back – became known for his outrageously flamboyant stage antics as much for his trailblazingly torrential sax blowing, recording for many labels including Federal, Vee-Jay, Imperial, Exclusive, Aladdin, and Warner Bros. McNeely played at the inaugural Stomp 10 years ago, and we are pleased to have this legendary rock ‘n’ roll madman returning this Saturday night. Don’t miss it!
Here’s Eddie Floyd – one of the legendary Memphis label Stax’s most successful artists (as both a singer and songwriter) – doing his hit “I’ve Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do).” But with a career that predates his Stax days, Floyd also served in the Detroit vocal group Falcons, alongside Sir Mack Rice (also performing at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp) and Wilson Pickett. The group scored hits with “You’re So Fine” and “I Found a Love.” Signing with Stax in 1965, Floyd helped write “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” and “634-5789 (Soulsville USA)” for Pickett. Indeed, almost every Stax artist recorded Floyd’s tunes, often co-written with Steve Cropper or Booker T. Jones, including Sam & Dave (“You Don’t Know What You Mean to Me”), Rufus Thomas (“The Breakdown”), Otis Redding (“I Love You More Than Words Can Say”), and Johnnie Taylor’s “Just the One (I’ve Been Looking For).” Floyd scored his own successes as a solo artist with “Knock on Wood” and “Big Bird,” (which he reportedly wrote in a London airport while waiting for a plane back to the United States for Redding’s funeral), among others.
As some Louisiana lagniappe, here’s Alex Chilton, a fellow son of Memphis and a frequent sideman at the Stomp, offering up his version of the same song, backed by Teenage Fanclub.
With Tropical Storm Lee having battered the central Gulf Coast, specifically south Louisiana, for all of Labor Day weekend, today’s Song of the Day continues the rain theme, with three versions of “Raining in My Heart” by Excello-related artists (or their sidemen) who will be appearing at this month’s 10th annual Ponderosa Stomp. First up, the Excello swamp bluesman who created the anthem, Slim Harpo. Though Harpo is now jamming in that great jukejoint in the sky, Harpo’s primary guitar players — James Johnson and Rudy Richard — are both scheduled to appear at the Stomp’s Excello reunion this year. According to musicologist John Broven in his book “South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous”:
“Rainin’ in My Heart” changed everything for Slim. For a start, The Cash Box warmed to the record: “Slow moaning, earthy blues proves the artist’s meat as he takes the tune for a tuneful ride. A real weeper.” … The mesmerizing “Rainin’ in My Heart” more than justified the reviewer’s optimism. After climbing the R&B charts the record crossed over to the popular ratings and reached No. 34 on the Billboard 100 in the summer of 1961.
Warren Storm, left, with fellow swamp-pop legends, the siblings Van Broussard and Grace Broussard
Next up, a version by brother Warren Storm, who logged many an hour in Jay Miller’s legendary Crowley recording studio playing drums on records by Lazy Lester and other artists with the likes of fellow hired guns: pianists Carol Fran (appearing at the Stomp this year) and Katie Webster; bassist Bobby McBride; guitarists Guitar Gable, Al Foreman, and Pee Wee Trahan; and fiddler/bassist Rufus Thibodeaux, among others. Here is Storm’s own version of “Rainin’ in My Heart”:
And finally, here is a live 1989 version of “Rainin’ in My Heart” by Ponderosa Stomp inspiration Lazy Lester, looking as resplendent as ever in a red Dixie beer baseball cap, now a collector’s item in the wake of the landmark Tulane Avenue brewery’s decimation by Hurricane Katrina and looters galore. We still have a tear in our beer over Dixie’s relocation above the Mason-Dixon line to Wisconsin, which now brews the beverage (presumably) sans its key ingredient of muddy Mississippi River water:
With a tropical weather system churning in the Gulf of Mexico and drenching south Louisiana for the weekend, what better Song of the Day than the unofficial national anthem of the state of Louisiana, “It’s Raining,” sung by national treasure Irma Thomas and written by Allen Toussaint, who produced the song for Minit and played piano. Toussaint is making his official debut at this month’s 10th annual Ponderosa Stomp, though he has been spotted in the audience at previous Stomp-related events. The Thomas-Toussaint partnership included several other major songs, such as “Ruler of My Heart,” which was later reinterpreted by Otis Redding as “Pain In My Heart.” Imperial Records acquired Minit in 1963, and a string of successful releases followed. These included “Wish Someone Would Care” (her biggest national hit), its B-side “Break-a-Way” (later covered by Tracey Ullman among others), “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” (co-written by the young Randy Newman), and “Time Is on My Side” (a song previously recorded by Kai Winding, and later by the Rolling Stones).
The oldest still-performing bluesman, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, passed away Monday, Aug. 29, just shy of his 96th birthday, on the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and a little less than a year after gracing the Ponderosa Stomp with his historic presence. The great bluesman worked with all the legends of the genre, from Robert Johnson and Big Joe Williams to Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf. For his Stomp bio, click here. For his New York Times bio, click here.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by McCullough Funeral and Cremation Services, 851 E. 75th St., Chicago, IL, 60619. Visitation is Thursday (Sept. 1) from 6 to 9 p.m., while private services will be Friday (Sept. 2). Call (773) 488-8900 for more information or visit his Web site.
We present to you, as Song of the Day, Honeyboy Edwards performing “Wind Howlin’ Blues.”