One of the most anticipated blues CDs of 2008 is Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater’s Alligator debut West Side Strut. Known worldwide as a charismatic, consummate blues showman, Clearwater – a long-time giant of the West Side Chicago blues sound – is ecstatic about the record deal. “It’s a dream come true. Recording for Alligator is a dream I’ve had for many years, and it’s worked out ten times better than I expected.”
Born Edward Harrington in Macon, Mississippi on January 10, 1935, Eddy grew up listening to blues and country & western. By the time he was 13, Eddy and his family had moved to Birmingham, Alabama where Clearwater found himself playing guitar with a variety of gospel groups, including the legendary Five Blind Boys Of Alabama. He came to Chicago’s West Side at age 15, where he still played gospel, but soon fell under the spell of the blues, hearing greats like Freddie King, Magic Sam, Otis Rush and others. "The West Side had a lot of blues at that time," Eddy recalls. "There were all these blues clubs...And the West Side was just starting to develop a sound." Magic Sam became a close friend of Eddy’s, and in 1953 Eddy made his move into the blues. Originally under the name of Guitar Eddy, he began working the city’s South and West Side bars. After hearing Chuck Berry in 1955, Eddy immediately adopted the rock ‘n’ roll sound into his blues playing.
With his personalized mix of West Side blues and Chuck Berry-style rock, Eddy was becoming more in-demand by the late 1950s. Nicknamed Eddy Clearwater (a word play on Muddy Waters) by drummer Jump Jackson, the self-taught southpaw guitarist quickly became known as a great showman with the ability to play the hardest blues, the most energetic rock, and a bit of country as well. He recorded a few singles in the early 1960s and never had to look too hard for a gig, as he worked constantly in Chicago-area nightclubs.
It took over 20 years, but by the 1970s Clearwater’s star was finally rising. He toured Europe twice that decade, and appeared on England’s BBC television and made a record in France. His debut U.S. album The Chief was released in 1980 on Chicago’s Rooster Blues label. After two more albums for the label, the tall and lanky Clearwater followed with a steady stream of recordings for Blind Pig, Rounder and Cleartone. In 2001 he won the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Award for Contemporary Blues – Male Artist Of The Year.
A few months before the new CD was released, I called Clearwater at his Illinois home. The soft spoken bluesman was bursting with enthusiasm about the new recording and a series of upcoming gigs. In fact he was so soft spoken I could barely hear him. What follows is a transcription of our conversation.
Tim Holek: You are known as a showman. Tell me about how you took to the stage at the 1998 Pocono Blues Festival?
Eddy Clearwater: There was a couple people who suggested, why don’t you ride in on a horse? So they found a horse farm where they could rent a horse. Then they asked me, if we get you a horse will you ride the horse? I say you bet I will. So they came up with the horse and I couldn’t back out. I said lets do it and I really enjoyed it. [Another time] in South America I took to the stage riding on a motorcycle. [These days] I more or less just walk on. Whatever comes to mind you know? I like to do surprises once in a while.
TH: You’ve played guitar for a variety of groups and as a solo musician since you were 13 years old. If you were not a musician what would your vocation possibly be?
EC: Probably a minister or something like a humanitarian. I was very heavily influenced by the church. It was a way of life where I was from.
TH: Is that why when you write you try to bring out the truth?
EC: Yes and that’s my own way of preaching the Gospel – by preaching the truth and by trying to bring the world closer together. It’s my own way. I’m just doing it through music.
TH: Who were your musical inspirations?
EC: I was very taken by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Louis Jordan. He was one of my highlights and all time favorites. My uncle had a little country café and they had a jukebox there with a bunch of Louis Jordan records on it. I would hang out by the jukebox just to hear Louis Jordan. I would come in and wash up the dishes for my uncle or help to clean up the cafeteria just to hear the music on the jukebox. That was very exciting for me. Many years later Jordan appeared at a club in Chicago and I went to see him. I was so in awe of him. It was quite an experience. It was my childhood dream to see him in person.
TH: Did you seize the opportunity to tell Jordan what an inspiration he was to you?
EC: I was much much too shy to even approach him. It was like approaching the president or something like that. There was no way I could go up and talk to him. I held him in such high esteem. It was something else just to be able to see him live.
TH: What do you recall of the time you spent playing guitar for the Blind Boys?
EC: I was real small. My uncle knew them from going to different church schools. My uncle told them that his nephew played guitar. On Sundays, when they would be in need of a guitar player, they’d call my uncle and ask whether I could play with them and he said I’d be happy to. I was pretty excited about that. They’ve changed personnel quite a bit since I performed with them. I never realized at the time that they would become as famous as they are today. The last time I was at the Grammys I ran right into the five Blind Boys of Alabama and it was great. I hadn’t seen them in many years. It was a nice reunion. Needless to say they won and I didn’t but that’s still OK. I got to be there with them.
TH: Chuck Berry was a huge influence on you. What was it about his music or his style of guitar playing that you fell in love with?
EC: He has a very unique style. The things he sung about (“working your finger right down to the bone/teacher won’t leave you alone”) was true to everyday life especially about teenagers going to school. His guitar playing and what he was singing about coincided so perfectly. I was just fascinated by his songs. I got to appear with him once at a club in a suburb of Chicago. He was quite a gentleman and he was funny too. The audience kept egging us on and they wanted me to sing one of his songs. Chuck said c’mon up and do it. Of all of his songs they wanted me to do Johnnie B. Goode. I said oh know but Chuck said go ahead, do it. So I did it after I got his permission.
TH: You’ve been called a Chuck Berry imitator by fans and colleagues for years. How do you feel about that?
EC: To me, in a way, it’s a great complement. I put Chuck in very high esteem but then I also want people to know that there is another side of me. I’m not just an imitator. I like to think I have a sound of my own. I like writing songs in different styles like R&B and straight blues.
TH: You have a new CD out on Alligator. What was it about this new CD that Bruce Iglauer [Alligator’s founder and President] liked so much that he finally signed you to his label?
EC: For many years before Bruce got to know me --- once in a while he’d stop into a club that I’d be appearing at in and around the city. Jim O’Neal [founding editor of Living Blues Magazine], who used to have Rooster Blues, said to me Bruce probably never heard you play blues. Looking back, I guess I was doing more rock ‘n’ roll than blues at the places that Bruce would come and see me. So whenever Jim would mention my name to Bruce, he would say he can’t play blues, he is just a Chuck Berry imitator. Jim further felt that if Bruce would have heard me play blues, he would have signed me up a long time ago. It was just one of those things that never happened up until now. My attorney sent him a copy [of the new CD]. He called my wife [and manager] Renee back and talked to her for close to two hours and said he really liked it and so did the Alligator staff. Bruce is a very nice and interesting person to work with. I’ve been a part of many recording and mixing sessions but I had never witnessed the mastering process. The stuff that I produced before it was already sent out and mastered after I’d got done recording it. That was a new experience for me to be involved with the mastering.
TH: You recorded the album before Alligator decided to release it. So where there any songs that they left off the final version of the album?
EC: You know what? We did all 12 songs. I recorded 12 and Bruce put all 12 on the record. One of them almost got looked over. He wasn’t sure about Rock-A-Blues Baby. But I said Bruce do me a favor and listen to it again. So he did and the next time we spoke he said yeah we’ll put it on because I’m starting to like it better now.
TH: Ronnie Baker Brooks played a big part in this record too.
EC: I’ve known Ronnie since he was a little boy of four or five years old. He is quite a gentleman and he is so talented. I always tell him you are going to go a long way in this business. I hired Ronnie to produce the record. I put up all the money [as executive producer] and hired him to produce. He did a fantastic job. He brought out a little different kind of energy and we wrote a couple of songs together. We wrote Gotta Move On. I had the idea so I called him and asked him to help me work on a couple tunes. He said OK, I tell you what; I’ll be over at your house tomorrow at 12 o’clock. So he set up studio right in my basement and we went to work right from there. We wrote A Time For Peace and then he wrote a song for me called They Call Me The Chief. He also wrote Too Old To Get Married (Too Young To Be Buried). His daddy Lonnie and I are singing together on that one. We had a really good time putting this record together.
TH: Do you think the new record shows a side of you that we haven't seen or heard before?
EC: I hope so but I’ll let you all be the judge. That’s one of the reasons I wanted Ronnie Baker Brooks on the record. I wanted some different, newer, and younger ideas. There is one song that I don’t know exactly what to think of or make of it myself (laughs). All I know is I wrote it and I played it for Ronnie. He said he could work with it, so we did and we ended up recording it. It’s called Rock-A-Blues Baby.
TH: Did you use your road band on the record or studio musicians?
EC: I used Ronnie Baker Brooks’ band. There are a couple songs we added horns to but it’s all his band. I went to his record release party and really got to listen to his band. Right after his release party I said to him I’d like to hire you to produce my next record. He said OK because he had a couple months off so he had time to put the whole record together. I’m on one of the songs on his most recent CD The Torch. The blues will make you laugh but they ain’t saying a damn thing funny. That’s my verse on the title track [of his album]. That’s how we really got connected.
TH: You are a much diversified person in your blues, as evidenced by the record and tour you did with Los Straightjackets.
EC: That was a fun record to do. We did it in Nashville. I wanted to do something a little bit different. I told my label Rounder [at the time] I wanna do some rockabilly, not entirely rockabilly but something leaning towards that. They called my publicist in Nashville Karen Leipziger and she called Eddie Angel of Los Straitjackets to see if they’d consider recording a record with me. He said they’d love to because they do a couple of my songs Hillbilly Blues and I Wouldn’t Lay My Guitar Down. So I flew to Nashville and rehearsed with them for about a week and then we recorded the album Rock ‘N’ Roll City.
TH: Both yourself and Koko Taylor used to have blues clubs in Chicago. But neither one of you has a club now.
EC: I had a club and it was opened for about three years. You have to be able to be at the club all the time and with me being on the road so much, it didn’t allow for that. My wife (and manager) accompanies me on the road. We decided it wasn’t going to be possible to keep the club opened unless one of us or both of us could be there. So we sold the business but kept the building.
TH: What is the overall state of health of the remaining Chicago blues clubs that are still opened?
EC: It took a little dive but it seems to be coming back again to where it normally should be. The future is starting to look healthier. There are a couple clubs that have opened in the suburbs of Chicago. There is a club in Evanston called Bill’s Blues. I’m an investor in that. It’s close to my house. I go into Bill’s Blues once in a while just to hang out. Every Tuesday is a jam session. Once in a while I‘ll go into Legends or Kingston Mines or B.L.U.E.S.
TH: Do you always take advice from your manager and agent on accepting gigs?
EC: I like either my manager or agent’s opinion because if I just make the decision it may or may not be as solid a decision as if it were based on more than one opinion. I pay them a lot of attention. Whenever they tell me something, I give it a lot of thought. Sometimes I’ll sleep on it and the next day give my answer.
TH: You were named Clear Waters as a takeoff on Muddy Waters. What did Muddy think of that?
EC: Muddy and I we got to be such good friends. He used to always call me son when I would walk into clubs where he was performing. He’d say, my son Clear Waters is in the house. He’d be joking around. So he was quite ok with it.
TH: What are your favorite topics to write a song about?
EC: Anything that’s interesting. It could be a very good experience. It could be a bad experience but there is always something in it that can be turned into good. I get inspiration from all different walks of life. I used to work for Blue Chicago and the owner used to have a slogan he would say to different musicians. He would say I’m a club owner and you are a musician. It looks like we picked a hard way to make an easy living. So I wrote a song based on that. I get ideas from different facts of life and different walks of life.
TH: In addition to your new CD West Side Strut, last year you released a live DVD. How did that all come about?
EC: I did an appearance at a festival in Poland and Polish National Television filmed it. As part of the contract they provided me with a master copy of it to use for promotional purposes or whatever I wanted to do with it. So I brought it home and I reviewed it. I kept reviewing it and thought I’d like to put a portion of this out as a live DVD. So I had my attorney write Polish National Television a letter to give me the rights to put it out. They made a deal with me. They gave me the rights to put it out for commercial use. Originally it aired in a longer format on Polish National Television. It isn’t being distributed; it’s only available for sale on my website www.eddyclearwater.com and at my gigs.
Alligator Records say West Side Strut is a typically energetic Eddy Clearwater mix of edgy Chicago blues and fiery old-school rock injected with a tough, up-to-the-minute contemporary edge. Guests include Eddy's old friends Lonnie Brooks, Jimmy Johnson, Billy Branch, Otis Clay, and young firebrand Ronnie Baker Brooks. According to Alligator president Bruce Iglauer, Eddy’s addition to the Alligator line-up is a perfect fit. “It's a great honor to have an artist with Eddy's legacy and talent join the Alligator family. This is a special album; the combination of Eddy's soulful West Side guitar playing and Ronnie Baker Brooks' contemporary production and his tough, young band makes for some real fireworks. Plus, Ronnie's guitar playing really inspired Eddy to some of his very best guitar work on record ever.”
Having heard West Side Strut myself, I can tell you the record lives up to all of its hype. It is the perfect mix of young and old, traditional and contemporary, today and tomorrow. It may just be this year’s blues record of the year.
Thanks to Bruce Iglauer and Marc Lipkin of Alligator Records for the Eddy Clearwater biographical and promotional materials and allowing me to quote liberally from them throughout this feature.