Cult R&B hero and consummate showman Swamp Dogg has thrived for more than a half-century on the fringes of the music business. Although long an outlier, he began his career in the mainstream: He started out in the 1950s as a traditional pop R&B singer, achieving moderate success under his real name, Jerry Williams Jr. In the ’60s, he worked A&R for Musicor; produced top acts at Atlantic with Jerry Wexler and Phil Walden; and with writing partner Gary “U.S. Bonds” Anderson, penned hits including “To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman)” by Doris Duke, “She Didn’t Know (She Kept on Talking)” by Dee Dee Warwick, and “She’s All I Got,” made famous first by Freddie North and later by Johnny Paycheck.
But the mainstream world was not for Williams, and in 1970 he re-invented himself as Swamp Dogg, an irreverent persona inspired in part by the Muscle Shoals sound and partly by the notion that “a dog can do anything, and you still love him.” With a new license to experiment, Swamp Dogg went on to release nearly two dozen albums that showcased sharp satire and subversive lyrics, but also, immense musical talent, insightful songwriting, and authenticity in message.
In 2018, nearly fifty years after his debut, Total Destruction to Your Mind, Swamp Dogg released Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune (Joyful Noise). The nine-song collection, produced by Poliça’s Ryan Olson and featuring vocal collaborations with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, conveys themes of loss and loneliness through a landscape of layered electronic sounds: drum machines, synths, reverb-y guitar. But most striking are the 76-year-old’s world-worn, resonant vocals, manipulated with Auto-Tune to a near-dehumanizing effect.
While Swamp Dogg has been incorporating Auto-Tune effects both in the studio and live, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune marks his boldest Auto-Tune statement yet—starting with the album title. “I call the album Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune because if I hadn’t put Auto-Tune, critics would have been all over me: ‘What is Swamp tryin’ to do with his old ass?,’” he explains. “I threw ’em off with the ‘Auto-Tune,’ not just letting them hear it, but telling them up front what they were in for: the type of songs, and the type of sound.”
Swamp Dogg says that although his tracks are heavily processed, the sound is faithful to his vocal expression—just with a new edge. “It’s still me because I’m phrasing the same way, I’m pronouncing the same way,” he says. “I think it just adds that certain somethin’ that Swamp Dogg needs in order to compete. We just didn’t want to do the same album again, where critics might like it—usually they do: ‘Wow, Swamp Dogg did it again!’—and that’s it. “
“We’ve just been Auto-Tune fanatics forever,” adds Swamp Dogg’s engineer and production partner, veteran funk keyboardist Larry “Moogstar” Clemon. “We’ve been using it a long time, with different vocalists. We use it onstage while Swamp Dogg is performing—you hear background ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ giving him that sound.”
Moogstar says he relies on Auto-Tune as an effect more than for pitch fixes. “We started off with [Auto-Tune] Version 3,” he explains, “then we wanted more, so we went and bought 8. Once we got it, boy, it was like, ‘yeah! I love it.’ We go hard, because it just sounds so good. I like the sound, regardless of the pitch correction. It’s that sound.”
After some initial experiments with Auto-Tune, tracks were sent to Olson to manipulate arrangements, while Justin Vernon reworked vocal effects, adding his own voice to two tracks. “They were already good tracks,” Swamp Dogg explains. “But when you listened to them, it was almost like, ‘I’ve heard this before.’ And before, and before. Ya know? We have to do something different. Moog had started to use the Auto-Aune. After we had put Auto-Tune to the point where it couldn’t tick anymore, that’s when we went to Justin.”
The album’s lead single, and perhaps its most moving track, “I’ll Pretend,” is a vocal collaboration with Vernon, who had famously introduced his own new voice on the heavily Auto-Tune-manipulated 22, A Million. Vernon had enlisted his engineer, Chris Messina, to build a custom Auto-Tune/Ableton Live/Harmonizer MIDI rig that let him create layered harmonizing effects in real-time. “He’s the only one in the world who could actually put Auto-Tune on top of Auto-Tune,” says Swamp Dogg.
Moogstar appreciates the extra presence that heavy Auto-Tune effects give the vocals. “It gives it this exciting sound,” says Moogstar. “You can hear everything clearer, in my opinion. As an engineer, when you’re listening to it, and you listen to a regular vocal, it brings out the high end so that you you can just hear it better.”
In another Vernon-backed single, Swamp Dogg’s take on the Nat King Cole Classic “Answer Me, My Love”—Auto-Tune vocal effects evolve over the arc of the song until they become almost symphonic in texture. “We just turned it loose, and to hear it come back with those embellished things going on…It was perfectly orchestrated, and the way he got into his voice and followed him, there were swells and there are so many dynamics going on,” says Moogstar.
Swamp Dogg admits it took him a few listens to warm up to his new sound, but he came around once it became obvious that they were all onto something. “When I first heard it, I told Moogstar, ‘Well…I am now officially dead as an artist,’” he says. “But then I listened again. And plus, I wasn’t listening to it mixed; I was just listening to it raw. But after we heard it again, and again, I changed my mind about it. I said, ‘They’ve done me the greatest favor in the world.’ Right now, what I’m aspiring to be at this point is the oldest son of a b*tch ever to hit the Top 100.”
Swamp Dogg says he would like to continue experimenting with Auto-Tune, depending how Love, Loss and Auto-Tune is received. “What kind of feedback we get, what kind of sales we get, that will determine how much Auto-Tune we use the next time,” he says, half-jokingly. “If it goes Gold or Platinum, you won’t hear nothing but Auto-Tune on the next album: ‘Where’s his voice? Can’t find him!’”
Music and Technology Writer
Sarah Jones is a writer, musician, and content producer who chronicles the creative and technical forces that drive the music industry. She's served as editor-in-chief of Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician magazines and is currently the live sound editor of Live Design magazine. She’s a longtime board member in the San Francisco chapter of The Recording Academy, where she develops event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.