The Boston Phoenix
September 14 - 21, 2000

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Boston Blues Fest

Chicago's Eddy Clearwater and more

Cellars by Starlight by Ted Drozdowski

WEST GREENWICH, RHODE ISLAND -- "I'm like a man out on the desert/Walkin' in the hot sand with no shoes."

Eddy Clearwater tilts his head back just a bit while he sings, closing his eyes. It's actually an unnaturally splendid day -- one of this past February's mid-'60s delights that herald our doom from global warming.

"I took a Greyhound to Chicago/Just to try to find myself a better job/I'm just a farm boy from Mississippi/My childhood life was really hard."

Unmindful of the melting snow outside Lakewest Recording Studio, a concrete bunker located at a rundown resort, Clearwater seems transported as he reaches into his guts for the words.

"I made my reputation/Washing dishes and singin' blues," he continues.

Producer Duke Robillard smiles as engineer John Paul Gauthier gets Clearwater's hard-luck story on tape. Robillard checks spots on his lyric sheet where maybe a little more inflection, clarity, or nuance could better put a line across.

"Plantation, reservation/You may pick any one you choose." Clearwater unfurls the words, his diaphragm pushing against his T-shirt as he reaches the song's climax: " 'Cause if you were raised on either one/You know you really have paid your dues."

"That sounds great," says Robillard, who, like Clearwater, is also a respected blues guitarist and singer. Then it's time for a playback.

Everyone can hear Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater's "Reservation Blues" now that his new CD has just been released by Bullseye Blues & Jazz. And next Saturday (September 23), this colorful and charismatic stage veteran will sing it live on the Hatch Shell as he closes the first day of the annual, free two-day Boston Blues Festival. There Clearwater will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from festival organizer Blues Trust Productions. He'll also dip liberally into his recording career of more than 40 years to muster up a generous set of his own colorful fusion of Chuck Berry and Lowell Fulson -- a little swing, a little rock, a little down-home gutbucket blues with a lot of guitar.

"Reservation Blues," which Clearwater wrote en route to the studio last winter, has become the title track of his latest album. It's also the minimalist version of how this 65-year-old Chicago bluesman got on his life's path. And Clearwater says he was, indeed, transported when he squeezed shut his eyes in order to cut the disc's vocals.

"I was seeing my childhood, where I was born and raised, being a little farm boy watching my grandparents doing the farm duties and trying to learn from them. That was in Birmingham, Alabama, where we moved from Mississippi," Clearwater explains by phone from his home in Chicago.

"My grandmother was a Cherokee Indian, so I grew up on the plantation and I heard about the reservation and learned what being an Indian was about. When I was 15, I took a Greyhound bus to Chicago, so I was picturing that in my mind. That was 50 years ago this month. I did get my first job as a dishwasher and a busboy at Little Jack's Restaurant on Madison and Kedzie. There was a pawnshop next to the restaurant, and they had a guitar and amp in the window. Every day at my lunch hour I looked at that guitar, just wishing I could buy it. It was $175 for the amp and guitar. Every week when I got paid, I put 10 or 15 bucks in the bank, and I finally saved enough money and bought it."

The rest was more struggle than history. With the help of his uncle Houston Harrington, a Methodist minister who also had an abiding love of the Windy City's then-blossoming blues scene, young Eddy met Muddy Waters, Little Mack Simmons, Magic Sam, and others who let him sit in. Soon Clearwater formed his own trio to play South Side parties.

He had graduated to the clubs by 1957 and was earning a reputation as "Guitar Eddy" when he heard Chuck Berry's single "Oh Baby Doll." By the time "Johnny B. Goode" came out, in April 1958, "I was sorta converted," Clearwater recounts. "Chuck Berry was called rock and roll, but it was all blues to me."

He revamped his stage technique, fusing the high-energy guitar showmanship of blues legend Magic Sam (who influenced Jimi Hendrix) with moves like Berry's duck walk and behind-the-head soloing. A lefty who plays his guitar turned upside down, Clearwater also took to wearing cowboy gear and feathered headdresses -- the latter a nod to his Cherokee heritage that would eventually earn him the nickname "The Chief." Another change was made by the colorful Chicago music figure Jump Jackson, Eddy's agent at the time, who replaced his family name, Harrington, with the stage name Clearwater as a play on Muddy Waters.

Although word of Clearwater's talent began to travel beyond Chicago with the release of his first Atomic Records single, "Boogie Woogie Baby" b/w "Hillbilly Blues, and subsequent releases on other little labels like Federal and LaSalle, he was scrapping. "You could play clubs on the South Side and West Side, or maybe a little out of town, often enough, but you were lucky if you got paid. At the end of the night, the club owner would tell you, `Sorry, I didn't make any money so I can't pay you.' You'd have to fight or just learn to focus on the music and hope you got paid. It took real determination to continue."

By 1959, Clearwater had already made his first appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Nonetheless, a short time later he needed to take a job at the Harmony Music Company assembling guitars. He kept that position until a co-worker recognized him from his TV appearance. Embarrassed, he decided to stake his claim on music exclusively regardless of the consequences -- which turned out to be two decades of working in obscurity. Even a session with legendary Chess Records producer Ralph Bass as part of Bass's esteemed "I Didn't Give a Damn If Whites Bought It" series didn't elevate Clearwater beyond his reputation as one of Chicago's hidden treasures.

As it would happen for influential American indie-rockers like the Pixies and Throwing Muses half a decade or so later, Eddy's big break came in Europe in the late '70s. Excited by their discovery of his early singles and his Bass recordings, promoters brought him overseas for a pair of tours that sparked appearances on Britain's BBC TV and a French record deal. In 1980, his first full-length domestic album appeared on the Rooster Blues label. And his next CD, on England's Red Lightnin', won a Handy Award -- the blues industry's version of a Grammy -- for Best Import Blues Album. Since then, he's been a club and festival regular in the US and abroad.

But even with all that, Clearwater's career didn't shift into truly high gear until these last four years. Triple-bypass surgery in 1996 gave him a new lease on his life, and he's been making the most of it by putting a fresh attack in his playing and writing some of his best, most personal material -- songs like "Reservation Blues" and his new disc's call for peace, "Walls of Hate." What's more, Reservation Blues and his prior Bullseye, CD Cool Blues Walk, are hands-down his best albums. The latter opens with such a blistering jolt of six-string dexterity that many listeners thought it was producer Robillard soloing. In fact that salvo of vibrato-stung notes belongs to Clearwater, who admits he's taken his talent "a step up from where it was before.

"Having Duke's band back me up in the studio helped. They're so good and well-organized. Having that foundation lets me build what I really want to do on top." But his surgery also prompted him to fine-tune his focus on his art and life in general. He's about to realize a decades-old dream of opening his own club in Chicago, Eddy Clearwater's Reservation Blues. And he's dedicated himself to raising funds to benefit fellow blues musicians in need, largely through the new Blues Music Association.

Perhaps most important, he says, "I want to leave something for future generations, and the only tool I can accomplish this with is my music. So I want to write songs that are good and meaningful and promote understanding between people. Maybe some day people will perform them and say, `That's an Eddy Clearwater number.' There's too much evil in the world. I want to leave something behind that's good."

Boston Blues Festival organizer Greg Sarni says he's been trying to get Clearwater on the bill "since the first festival. It has taken me five years! When I envisioned the first year's line-up, it included Eddy, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Jack Johnson, and Smokey Wilson. It happened -- just not in the same year."

For Y2K, the festival line-up at the Hatch Shell, on the Charles River Esplanade, is as follows. On Saturday the 23rd, it's local blues and roots outfits Fatwall Jack and Red Beans, Rhode Island swingers Johnny & the East Coast Rockers, Vermont blues jamsters the Seth Yacovone Band, Martha's Vineyard guitar kingpin Maynard Silva, and Eddy Clearwater. On Sunday the 24th, it's the Jones Brothers, Reverend Gary Davis disciple Ernie Hawkins, Boston B-3 wiz Bruce Katz and his Band, R&B showband the Love Dogs, and veteran singer Weepin' Willie, who will also receive a Blues Trust Lifetime Achievement Award for his more than half a century of musicmaking. Performances start at noon both days. Sarni notes that this year's Blues Trust Lifetime Achievement Awards are sponsored by Allaire, a Cambridge-based software firm.

As usual, there are other events scheduled around what Sarni calls "Blues Festival Week." These begin this Wednesday, September 20, with an acoustic showcase at Johnny D's in Somerville's Davis Square featuring old-time blues fiddler Howard Armstrong, Delta and Piedmont stylist Guy Davis, and Ernie Hawkins. Tickets are $10, or $8 with a festival button. (The buttons are available for $10 at all area Borders Books & Music locations, at Coffeeberries in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and at festival-related shows. They're also good for discounts and other perks from co-sponsoring clubs, restaurants, and shops.)

Festival week concludes on Wednesday September 27 with a hot harmonica night at Berklee Performance Center, at the corner of Mass Ave and Boylston Street in downtown Boston. Billed as the Boston Blues Festival Blowout, it features Chicago harp legend Billy Boy Arnold (who will also receive a Lifetime Achievement Award), Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters Band veteran Jerry Portnoy, and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Tickets are $22 and $18 -- $5 off with a festival button.

For more information about the Boston Blues Festival and related events, visit or call (781) 665-3083.

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