There will always be argument about the greatest song title in the history of popular music. Poison’s “I Hate Every Bone in Your Body but Mine” has its supporters, as does Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s immortal “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” But, to these ears, they all pale beside the majesty of the title for a song that R&B mad-genius Jerry Williams Jr. (a.k.a. Swamp Dogg) wrote for a romantic duet in 1981: “The Love We Got Ain’t Worth Two Dead Flies.”
Asked to explain his inspiration, Williams says, “It was a buddy of mine who died recently, a DJ in Philadelphia named Steve Turner. I asked him one day, ‘Man, why’d you cut that girl loose?’ And he said, ‘Man, she wasn’t worth two dead flies with their wings pulled off.’ That kind of stuck with me. I get a lot of song ideas from people I know—I had another friend who was a publicist, and he was with this actress who shall remain unnamed. He thought she had money because she’d been in Clint Eastwood movies or some shit, and she thought he had money because he was a big publicist. Turned out neither of them were well off. So I wrote, ‘She married me for the money/ I took the vow to do the same/ Only to find out we were playin’ the same game.’ They were my subjects, but I already had the concept.”
Like most of Williams’ work over the past 40-plus years, the song proved too hip for the proverbial room. In fact, the closest thing to a hit that he had under his own name was his debut single, 1970’s “Total Destruction to Your Mind.” But that wasn’t just any hit. It was arguably the first song to really integrate classic R&B with acid consciousness, beating George Clinton by a few trips. The legend is that Williams wrote it after his first overpowering experience with the drug. “That’s true and untrue,” he says, “because I first did LSD back in 1966, and right now I do believe that some of my little mental problems are flashbacks from that shit. But in writing, your mind expands and you write some shit that don’t nobody understand but you.”
That song led to a major-label signing with Elektra and a brace of studio work—including the 1973 album In Between Tears with Irma Thomas. One of Thomas’ funkiest and least-characteristic albums, it featured some gritty monologues on infidelity and divorce, more up Millie Jackson’s alley but without the bawdy humor. Williams wrote most of that material with his main collaborator at the time, a pre-comeback Gary U.S. Bonds. “I knew that she had a hit voice, I just wanted to make some hit songs,” Williams says of Thomas. “She can sing anything and it always comes out as Irma; it don’t remind you of no one. Those divorce songs, they were the kind of thing that Gary U.S. Bonds and I were writing at the time—we were into that unfaithful husband shit. Both of us were brought up in houses full of strong women, not little sissy women. So we wanted to write from that standpoint.”
Another legend is that Swamp Dogg wound up on Richard Nixon’s official enemies list after playing some “Free the Army” shows with Jane Fonda. “Far as Nixon was concerned, I’m sure that everybody who didn’t vote for him wound up on that list,” he explains. “And I voted for Nixon, but he was like the guy who comes to town and you let him stay with you, then he’s got bad hygiene and dirty ways and he runs your phone bill up. That’s how Nixon was, an untidy motherfucker. The benefits I did with Jane Fonda, my wife Yvonne put those together—she was the one that was super political. So I would vote from her book, because we agreed on everything—from politics to raising children, everything. Only thing she didn’t agree with me on was me running around sometimes.”
Williams continues to record. His latest batch of demos includes “Where Is Sly?”—a killer tune about the errant Family Stone mastermind. Meanwhile, the Alive label has just reissued four of his early albums. And he still gets sampled by hip-hop artists, which should help keep his name alive.
“You mean, is that how I make my living?” he shoots back when asked about the reissuing and sampling of his work. “It’s partly that I own 90 percent of the music I made from the ’60s up ‘til now. So a label like Alive, they don’t own my shit. It’s rented. I was able to build a very big publishing firm because at the time no one thought I could write. And then if someone like Kid Rock samples me and sells 18, 19 million, that’ll keep the liquor flowing for a week or two. Then once in a while I’ll go to the Netherlands, or to Third World places like Suriname and shit—I draw like a motherfucker over there. So that’s how I make my living. I sure don’t make it from singing, because that wouldn’t give me enough to get on welfare.”Swamp Dogg at the Ponderosa Stomp 11 (Concert Night 1)
with Baby Washington, Chris Clark, Charles Brimmer, James Alexander,
Maxine Brown, Lynn August, Richard Caiton, Sonny Green and The Sonics
Friday, October 4
7:30 p.m. Doors | 8:00 p.m. Show
Venue: The Rock ‘N’ Bowl
3000 S. Carrollton Ave.
More Info: www.ponderosastomp.com