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
"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
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
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
"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
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 www.bluestrust.com or call (781) 665-3083.
The Cellars by Starlight archive