Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater is doing well these days. His guitar playing is better than ever, and, he gets to “work” doing what he loves the most: playing the blues he has loved since he was a youngster, in the city he loves. The city of Chicago loves Clearwater back too! He plays live shows frequently around town, and sometimes, around the world. His new album, Soul Funky, self-released on Cleartone Records, is charting and selling well. Recorded live at a show at SPACE in Evanston, IL, it’s really great funky Chicago soul and blues. Clearwater was blessed with the good fortune of having longtime friends Ronnie Baker Brooks and Billy Branch join him for the show. Not bad at all for a 79 year old guitar player.
Born in Macon, Mississippi in 1935, Clearwater’s family moved to Birmingham, Alabama in 1948. As a youngster, he taught himself how to play guitar, upside down, and left handed. After a time he began performing with local groups, including the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama. His uncle, Houston Harrington, offered the young man lots of encouragement, and later invited Clearwater to join him in Chicago where he could meet famous blues players such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Not only did Clearwater meet Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, he went on to meet, befriend, and perform with them, as well as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Elmore James, and Jimmy Reed, just to name a few. His heroes were Chuck Berry and Otis Rush, and as you listen to him play, even today one can hear echoes of them in Clearwater’s fretboard travels.
American Blues Scene recently spoke with Clearwater, discussing his influences, career, friends, and his expectations for the future of the blues.
Barry Kerzner for ABS: Your uncle played a huge part in your early career. Tell us a little about him.
Houston Harrington. He inspired me to play music. He offered a lot of encouragement, so I am very grateful to him for that. He always believed in me, for some reason.
You were a huge Louis Jordan fan at a young age.
Yes, very big. Yes! I grew up listening to Louis Jordan. Yep. That same uncle, he lived in Mississippi at the time, when I was small. He had a little juke joint in Mississippi, and he had a juke box in there. It had 78 rpm records in there, and Louis Jordan was the main feature on that juke box. We’d listen to Caledonia, and a lot of his songs; I thought he was fantastic.
Later on, your family moved to Birmingham, Alabama?
Yes, that’s right. At age 13, my family moved to Birmingham. I stayed there until I came to Chicago. That same uncle came to Chicago and he invited me to come up there to Chicago to pursue my musical career. In the letter he said ‘If you come to Chicago, you’ll get a chance to meet people like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Elmore James.’ So I told him to send me a ticket, I’m on my way. That was all I wanted to hear. It was like going to heaven.
And sure enough, he introduced me to Muddy, Jimmy Reed, and Little Walter. He showed me where Little Walter lived. I was just flabbergasted. I said, ‘This is great stuff!’
So, you met Eddie Taylor too?
Eddie Taylor? Oh yeah. He was playing with Jimmy Reed at that time. ‘Big Time Playboy,’ that was his song.
What was it like growing up in Mississippi, and then Alabama, and then the differences between that, and Chicago?
It was quite a bit of difference. The Southern way of life being, being a country boy from Mississippi, it was different. And then, moving from there to Birmingham, and then to Chicago, it was a BIG difference; a big transition, you know? It was almost like a whole different world. I mean, just the size of Chicago compared to Macon, Mississippi. It was quite an experience, I mean, learning my way around, by myself. I had to do by myself after my uncle showed me a few routes; how to get to certain places. How to get to church, and I got a day job, so he showed me how to go to and from my day job. Then I learned to do it by myself and I started going to some blues clubs.
What was it like, going to blues clubs at that time?
It was quite an experience! I had never gone to a blues club in the south because I was too young; much too young. It was an experience to see, well, later on I got to see Freddie King in person and we got to be good friends. I got to see Magic Sam, and we became very good friends. Just the experience, and the atmosphere, was quite different. It was a very good experience.
Bet it was mesmerizing to sit and watch those two play.
Very mesmerizing. I’ll tell ya, the stuff they were doing man, it was just amazing! Otis Rush also. I would sit and watch Otis Rush, and he was left handed, and I was just totally mesmerized. Every chance I’d get, if I could see Otis Rush, if I had the availability, I’d be sitting front and center, listening to him.
Surely you got to see Jimmy Dawkins too?
Oh, Jimmy Dawkins and I were friends for many years.
Naturally, you went to see folks play at Biddy Mulligan’s and Theresa’s?
Oh yeah. Theresa’s and Biddy Mulligan’s, which is [was] owned by Chip Covington, who is a neighbor of mine. I used to play there a lot. 7644 N Sheridan Road. Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison; everybody used to play there. It was a good club.
Of course, you were able to see Buddy Guy and Junior Wells play there together as well?
Oh yeah, a lot. My first European tour, was with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. I think it was 1976. Jimmy Johnson was on the tour, and Odie Payne. First tour. 21 days. Yes sir.
You’ve been fortunate to play with some great people.
Fortunate, yes. I feel very blessed. I’ve been able to play with Elmore James, and Jimmy Reed. And, Howling Wolf, of course! He was one of my favorites.
So, you worked with Hubert Sumlin?
Oh yeah! I’ve got pictures of Hubert and myself. Hubert Sumlin was on that tour with us, with Buddy and Junior. Odie Payne on drums, and Dave Myers on bass. He was a great guy. Really nice guy to be around; great disposition, and very easy going. Nice guy, and a great guitar player.”
You also did a lot of performing at the Kingston Mines.
I worked at Kingston Mines for a long time, probably 30 years, off and on. When they first opened, I played there.
Linsey Alexander was one of the people you worked with there?
I know Linsey a long time. He’s a good player. I worked with him quite a bit at the Mines.
What was the atmosphere like back then, when you were playing at the Mines?
It was good. You had BLUES across the street, and a lot of blues fans, from around the world would come there. They come there to hear blues, or they come in town. It’s a lot of tourists. Good atmosphere.
How do you think it has changed, compared to what it was then?
Its changed quite a bit. Its probably been three years since I’ve been in there. It’s a younger crowd now. They still pack them in though.
A lot of it is still tourists. It’s really amazing.
Yeah, it’s just loaded, tons of people. It’s one of the sites that they go to see. That, and Buddy Guy’s Legends.
That’s a great club too.
I play there about three times a year. I just had my record release party there a couple of months ago. I recorded it at my birthday party at SPACE, in Evanston.
Since you have been at this so long, would you share with our readers some of the differences making a record now, as opposed to making one years ago?
That’s quite interesting. You see, back then, you only had, what, four tracks? Or two tracks. Everything we recorded on two tracks. We’d do one or two takes and that’s it. Now, the technology is so, so different. You can do an album with 24 or 36 tracks; as many tracks as you want. You can redo it, and put instruments as you want on there, and they put them all on a separate track. Then, they mix it together. They couldn’t do it that way before.
True, but back then, you wanted to hit a track, and get it right on the first take.
Absolutely. You get the feeling of it. You’re right in the studio together, and you just worked those two, or four tracks, and it would come out feeling more like a live album.
With the new digital aspects, they can try to make it sound like a live recording, but it just doesn’t have that ‘recorded in the alley-behind-the-club just jamming with each other feeling’ that say, “Live at Theresa’s Lounge,” or “Live at the Avant Garde” has.
Nope, not the same. Absolutely not! You were playing what you feel, and feeling what you play. It was just so natural, like John Lee Hooker stuff. It has that warm, natural feeling. It’s very original.
Since you all knew each other, if you got a call to go play on a record, it was more like playing with your friends. It wasn’t a strain or anything.
It was more of a pleasure. You would just jam with your friend. It was a chance to see old friends, and hang out and jam together. That’s exactly what it was.
You were nominated in 2004 for a Grammy Award
Right. For the ‘Rock and Roll City’ album.
That was with Los Straightjackets?
I wanted to do something with a little bit of a twist to it, other than just a straight 12 bar Chicago blues. So I expressed this to John Cain at Rounder Records. I told him I wanted to do something a little different, still blues, but a little different. He asked me what I had in mind, and I whispered into the phone, ‘I wanna do some rockabilly.’ He told me he would call his friend in Nashville, and see if she can get hold of Eddie Angel from the Straightjackets, and see if they want to record with you. When she reached Eddie and asked him, he said ‘Yeah, we’d love to do an album with Eddie Clearwater, cause we do some of his songs.’ So I went to Nashville, we rehearsed for a week, and then we recorded the album. That’s the least one I thought I’d get a nomination for, so I was totally surprised.
What was the difference in how you approached playing on that album, compared to recording a blues album?
I just added my rock and rock feeling, as opposed to a deep country blues feeling. I was focused more on the early rock and roll sound of music, which is still blues, but it’s more up-tempo. I kind of through a little country sound in there. It worked out better than I had anticipated.
Some folks don’t see rockabilly as blues, per se, but really, it’s blues with a joyful feeling.
Absolutely! That’s what it is. There’s a certain kind of energy in it.
There are still myths and legends as to why you wear the headdress, and why you are called, “The Chief.” Would you clear that up, just for those that still believe the urban legends?
It was just an idea I had in my head. I was playing at a club in Westmont called the Trieste Lounge, and a friend of mine, Pat Sweet, tended bar there. She invited myself and the band to her house for a party after the club closed. We walked in her house, and she had this headdress hanging on her wall. So when I walked in, I said, ‘That’s a beautiful piece. I’d like to have that for my stage appearance.’ She told me she couldn’t sell it to me because ‘it belonged to my deceased husband, and I want to keep it for the memories of him.’ So from time to time I would mention it to her at the club, like, ‘I really like that piece that you have on your wall.’
So, she saw that I was really interested, and she said, ‘Tell you what. I won’t sell it to you, but I’ll give it to you as a good luck charm, provided that you never part with it.’ So we shook hands on it that night. She said, ‘OK, it’s yours.’ She gave it to me. So, I started wearing it onstage. When I demoed The Chief album, I said to Jim O’Neal, I’d like to wear my Indian head dress, and ride a horse for the cover. So he called the horse farm so we could take some pictures of me riding with the headdress. We found a farm in Joliet, and we had to go out to Joliet, and spend the whole day, and, it was in the winter time. So I had my guitar, and my hands was ice cold, and I wanted to wear gloves. Jim said I couldn’t wear gloves because you can’t play a guitar with gloves on. So we shot the pictures, and when they did the artwork, Jim O’Neal said that would call the album ‘The Chief.’ So, that’s how the name came around. I am part Indian; my grandmother was full blooded Cherokee.
Everyone knows your biggest influences are Otis Rush and Magic Sam, and of course, Chuck Berry. Is there anyone else over the years that whose playing you’ve come to really enjoy, or maybe influenced you in some way?
In the younger generation, I really like Ronnie Baker Brooks a lot. He has a very nice touch to his playing. He’s one of the younger people I like. He has a depth to his sound. I think he’s quite outstanding. Buddy Guy I like a lot. I like Buddy.
Everybody talks about his playing in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and even now, when you go back and listen to it, it still makes your jaw drop.
Oh yeah. Absolutely!
Yes sir. Buddy is just, Buddy.
Yes. Buddy is just Buddy. Right. That’s the only way you can say it.
As far as Magic Sam and Otis Rush, their style was different from a lot of people too. Is that what attracted you to them?
That’s what attracted me to Magic Sam. His style. Then with Otis Rush, his tone was just outstanding. Yeah, the tones he would come up with man, was just amazing. I would sit there and watch him all night.
You’ve worked with Carl Weathersby?
A lot! Are you kidding? We did stuff in Europe together, and lots in Chicago. He’s one of the guys man, how wonderful he is. We did some stuff overseas together.
He’s such a great player, and very under-appreciated.
Very intense. Very intense.
Is there anyone else that you really enjoy?
I liked Michael Coleman a lot. He just passed away. I liked him a lot. He had a great sense of rhythm about him. I took him to Europe once with me. He was quite a player.
What are your thoughts on the direction that the blues is going in?
It’s gonna escalate at some point. I think it’s gonna surge, and be bigger than what it has been, and more accepted. I’d like to see the blues accepted in the states like it is in most of the European countries. It was born here, and it should be just as popular here, if not more popular than it is in Europe. I just did four dates over there, and three of them were totally sold out. The last one was in Germany, on a Monday night, and it was totally sold out.
Well it has been great being able to visit with you. Thanks so much for spending time with us.
It’s been interesting. Thank you. Good talking with you.