Swamp Dogg first encountered Tyrone Thomas in 1964, when Brooks O’Dell first brought him to his Philadelphia home. Brooks had given Swamp Dogg the hard sell about Tyrone Thomas. Swamp Dogg wasn’t disappointed. He was so impressed that he invited Tyrone into his house. This was the start of a tumultuous musical partnership. As partnerships go, it was more off than on. Somehow though, it lasted until 1973, when Tyrone Thomas using his Wolfmoon alias, released his eponymous debut album, Wolfmoon, which was recently rereleased by Alive Records. Before I tell you about the music on Wolfmoon, I’ll tell you about Tyrone Thomas’ career.
It was in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia that Tyrone Thomas’ musical career began. He was just ten and known as Lil Tommy. Not long after that, Tyrone formed The Teenagers with Major Harris. They quickly established a reputation as a talented quartet. So much so, that they found themselves opening for Sam Cooke, Jimmy Reed, Mary Wells and Fats Domino. Then when The Teenagers changed their name to Lil Tommy and The Parakeets, they won the prestigious Amateur Night At The Apollo. That wasn’t the group’s last name change. No. Lil Tommy and The Parakeets became Lil Tommy and The Out Of Sights. Soon, Lil Tommy would be out of sight.
Having enjoyed success with his various groups, Lil Tommy decided to the time was right to embark on a solo career. Aged just fourteen, he recorded I’m Hurt, which he’d written. This resulted in him embarking on his first tour. He was opening for LC Cooke and The Upsetters. Then when the tour ended, Lil Tommy found himself opening for another artist in Richmond.
This was Brooks O’Dell, another singer from Richmond. Brooks had enjoyed a degree of success as he singer. His biggest hit single was You Better Watch Your Step. That Lil Tommy had been chosen to open for him was fate. Standing in the wings listening to Lil Tommy sing, Brooks knew this was a young man who could’ve a big future. So he phoned a friend of his, Swamp Dogg.
By the time Jerry Williams Jr, a.k.a. Swamp Dogg first encountered Tyrone Thomas in 1964, he was already a successful singer, songwriter and producer. He knew a talented artist when he heard one. Despite this, Brooks O’Dell gave Swamp Dogg the hard sell about Tyrone Thomas. This was unnecessary. Tyrone lived up the hype. Swamp Dogg was so impressed, that he invited Tyrone into his house.
Tyrone moved into the house Swamp Dogg and his wife shared in Philly. The idea was, that Swamp Dogg and Brooks were going to co-produce and co-manage Tyrone. However, Tyrone was far from the ideal house guest. Soon, he was trying Swamp Dogg’s patience. Then when Tyrone recorded two new songs, I’m Hurt and L-O-V-E which Swamp Dogg wrote and produced, their relationship became even more strained.
Not long after that, Tyrone hot-footed it to Richmond, Virginia, where Swamp Dogg claims Tyrone passed the songs of as his own to Mr. Wiggles, a local record producer. That however, wasn’t the last Swamp Dogg heard of Tyrone Thomas.
Five years later, in 1969, Swamp Dogg had signed a lucrative record deal with Canyon Records. He was cultivating the Swamp Dogg, Raw Spitt sound that he became famous for. This meant signing artists who fitted or could be moulded to fit that sound. One artist who fitted the bill was Tyrone Thomas. Deciding to let bygones be bygones, Swamp Dogg signed Tyrone to Canyon Records.
With Tyrone Thomas now signed to Canyon Records, Swamp Dogg set about cultivating his image. Gone was Lil Tommy. So too was Tyrone Thomas. Replacing him, was Wolfmoon. This fitted with the album’s theme. It was a fusion of gospel, R&B and Southern Soul, which Swamp Dogg decided would be entitled Wolfmoon.
Wolfmoon features ten tracks, seven of which were penned by Jerry Williams Jr. This includes Cloak Of Many Colors, If He Walked Today, My Kinda People, God Bless, What Is Heaven For, Treasure That I Found and The Artist. The other three tracks were cover versions. They were an interesting trio of tracks. Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready, John Fogerty’s Proud Mary and Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes’ If I Had A Hammer. These ten songs were recorded by Wolfmoon with Swamp Dogg and his band accompanying him at a studio in Macon, Georgia. Swamp Dogg also produced Wolfmoon, which wasn’t released for another four years.
Sadly, the deal that Swamp Dogg had with Canyon Records fell through. Canyon Records reneged on the deal. This was a huge disappointment for Wolfmoon and Swamp Dogg. They’d recorded an album, but it had never been released. At least Canyon Records didn’t ask for their money back. It looked like Wolfmoon and Swamp Dogg’s luck was changing.
That proved to be the case. Four years later, Swamp Dogg was contacted by Fungus Records. They wanted Swamp Dogg to set up a record label for them to distribute. It was on Fungus Records that Wolfmoon was released.
Despite the popularity of Southern Soul and soul music in general, Wolfmoon’s release passed almost unnoticed. Since then, Wolfmoon has been something of a hidden gem among soul connoisseurs. Given its rarity, copies of Wolfmoon have changed hands for ever increasing sums of money. That’s what makes Alive Records’ recent rerelease of Wolfmoon, which I’ll tell you about, such a welcome rerelease. Now everyone can hear Wolfmoon.
Opening Wolfmoon is Cloak Of Many Colors, the first of seven tracks penned by Jerry Williams Jr. Here, Southern Soul, R&B, gospel and funk combine head on. Accompanying Wolfmoon’s impassioned, vampish vocal is a stomping beat, piano plus washes and stabs of Hammond organ. Then there’s chiming guitars and the bass that marches the arrangement confidently along. Add to that, dancing strings and the result is a joyous, hook-laden, genre-melting track that introduced the world to Wolfmoon.
If He Walked Today has a thoughtful, understated sound. Just the bass and drums set the scene for Wolfmoon’s heartfelt, soul-searching vocal enters. He breathes life and meaning into the cerebral, gospel-tinged lyrics. His vocal grows in power, as musical genres melt into one. Everything from gospel, soul, funk and rock combine, as the arrangement veers between understated to dramatic. When Swamp Dogg’s band kick loose, it’s a joy to behold. Guitars chime, horns blaze an the rhythm section add the heartbeat. Similarly, when the arrangement takes on an understated sound, Wolfmoon’s vocal takes centre-stage as he delivers a truly compelling and enthralling vocal.
Guitar licks and blazing horns open My Kinda People, where blues, country, rock, soul and R&B are thrown into the melting pot. As horns punctuate the arrangement the rhythm section, searing guitars and piano accompany Wolfmoon’s throaty, rasping and vampish vocal. Soon, he’s unleashing another of his trademark vocals. As he adds hollers and shrieks, he makes this anthemic song his own.
If I Had A Hammer seems a strange choice for Wolfmoon to cover. Its not though. He absolutely transforms the track. Grabbing the song by the scruff of the neck, Wolfmoon breathes life, meaning and energy into the song. Spurred on, Swamp Dogg’s band feed off Wolfmoon. They deliver one of their best performances. Crucial to the song’s success are the grizzled horns, piano and pounding rhythm section. With them for company, Wolfmoon struts his way through the track, turning it into soulful opus.
For anyone covering People Get Ready, there’s only one problem, Curtis Mayfield recorded the definitive version. It’ll never, ever be bettered. So, Swamp Dogg takes a different approach for Wolfmoon’s version. For one minute forty seconds, the band build and build the drama. Then they drop the tempo, and an emotive, spiritual and uplifting slice of Southern Soul unfolds. This comes courtesy of Wolfmoon’s vocal and an arrangement where chiming guitars reverberate into the distance while the rhythm section provide the heartbeat. As a piano adds a gospel twist, a Hammond organ adds an atmospheric backdrop. This is the perfect backdrop for Wolfmoon’s heart-wrenching vocal, which brings the lyrics to life and breathes new meaning to them.
Proud Mary is the last of the cover versions. Originally recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival, it’s given a makeover by Wolfmoon. His vocal is enveloped by scorching, searing guitars and blazing horns, Wolfmoon, with a little help from Swamp Dogg, transforms Proud Mary. As Southern Soul and rock combine Wolfmoon unleashes a vocal powerhouse. Mixing power and passion, he delivers a storming version of a familiar track. In Wolfmoon’s hands, Proud Mary swings.
God Bless is very different from the other tracks on Wolfmoon. With just a piano accompanying his half-spoken vocal, it’s a much more understated track. Even when the rasping horns, rhythm section and swathes of strings join the piano there’s still an understated, spiritual sound. Not only is this a beautiful song about togetherness, but features some of the best lyrics on Wolfmoon.
What Is Heaven For is another of the spiritual songs on Wolfmoon. Written by Jerry Williams Jr, swathes of the lushest strings, braying horns and piano are crucial to the arrangement. The rhythm section are left to provide the heartbeat, while Wolfmoon’s vocal is a combination of power, hope and sincerity. As the song heads to its dramatic and emotive crescendo, it’s as if Wolfmoon means every word.
It’s the piano that sets the scene before Treasure That I Found unfolds. Soon, horns growl, strings sweep and stabs of piano provide the backdrop for Wolfmoon’s vocal. It’s Best described as heartfelt and impassioned. As for the arrangement, it matches Wolfmoon’s vocal for drama and emotion every step in the way. So much so, that Jerry Williams Jr’s arrangement is ying to Wolfmoon’s yang.
Rolls of drama open The Artist, which closes Wolfmoon. The drama comes courtesy of drums and strings. They give way to crystalline guitars and Wolfmoon’s half-spoken vocal. It’s accompanied by blazing horns while the bass and guitars add a thoughtful contrast. From there, Wolfmoon delivers a soul-baring vocal. It’s best described as an outpouring of emotion. Accompanying the vocals what’s one of Jerry Williams Jr’s best arrangements. Given this is a beautiful, emotive and dramatic track, it’s a fitting way to close Wolfmoon.
Four years after Wolfmoon was recorded for Canyon Records, in 1969, it was eventually released on Fungus Records in 1973. Sadly, Wolfmoon wasn’t a commercial success. It passed almost unnoticed. That’s not surprising. In that four year period, music had changed. The sixties, when Wolfmoon was recorded, seemed but a distant memory. As the seventies took shape, the fusion of Southern Soul, R&B and gospel that’s Wolfmoon, was no longer as successful. Soul had taken on a sophisticated sheen. Philly Soul was now seen as the future of soul. The brand of Southern Soul like Swamp Dogg produced was seen as yesterday’s sound. Granted fashion changes, but class is permanent.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Wolfmoon has stood the test of time. A true hidden soulful gem, Wolfmoon’s recent rerelease by Alive Records means a new generation can discover this hidden Southern Soul classic. This is part of Swamp Dogg’s Soul and Blues Collection which Alive Records are in the process of rereleasing. Previously, I’ve reviewed Doris Duke’s I’m A Loser and Raw Spitt’s Raw Spitt. Wolfmoon is just the latest instalment in this series. It’s a welcome rerelease of a hidden gem.
Featuring Southern Soul with a social conscience, Wolfmoon made not just his debut, but his final bow on Wolfmoon. He was no longer Lil Tommy. Nor was he a Teenager. Wolfmoon was all grownup, and looked like forging a career as a Southern Soul singer, Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Wolfmoon released just one album, Wolfmoon. Mind you what an album Wolfmoon was. There was no followup up to Wolfmoon and for forty long years, Wolfmoon has lain unloved, apart from a few discerning soul connoisseurs. Now this hidden Southern Soul gem is available for everyone to discover. So take a tip from me and let the Wolfmoon into your life and record collection. Standout Tracks: Cloak Of Many Colors, If He Walked Today, People Get Ready and The Artist.