During the 1950s, Chicago’s West Side was a breeding ground for some of the world’s greatest bluesmen. Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Freddie King and others ruled the clubs. With his fierce guitar playing, soulful and emotive vocals and wild stage shows, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater easily belongs on this list. A Chicago legend, Clearwater is an intense, flamboyant blues-rocking showman. He’s equally comfortable playing the deepest, most heartfelt blues, or rocking good-time party music.
Fast forward to 2018 and Blues Hall of Famer Clearwater has no intentions of retirement. His 2014 release Soul Funky with Ronnie Baker Brooks and Billy Branch reminded the world that he is as vibrant and relevant a showman as he ever was.
We had the opportunity to speak with the 83 year old Clearwater. He’d been up since the break of dawn writing new music, and by the time we spoke with him, his laughter-filled voice and sense of humor were fully charged. He regaled us with stories about his influences, a new project in the works, and how Bob Hope taught him to be grateful.
JD Nash for American Blues Scene:
Mr. Clearwater, you’ve been in the music business for over six decades.
Oh yeah, that would be 60 years at least. I’m still having fun with it though. Once I feel good enough to hit the stage, I strap on my guitar and I’m off and running. I’m ready for it.
And it was just a few years back that you put out the album Soul Funky.
That live album, yeah. That had Ronnie Baker Brooks and Billy Branch on it. Ronnie and I are working on a new one right now. He’s been coming over to my house to work on it. He’s coming over again Monday or Tuesday. We’re working on brand new songs together.
Is that right?
That’s what I’ve been doing since six o’clock this morning, working on songs. I had a song on my mind when I woke up and thought I’d better write it down before I forget. Ronnie had called and kind of yelled at me, “You make sure you got your songs ready now, because I’ll be there next week.” So I’m trying to get them together here. We’re looking at either the end of this year, or the beginning of next year to release the new album on Alligator Records.
On a scale from 1 to 4,000 how good is Ronnie Baker Brooks to work with?
He’s a great guy to work with. He’s very even tempered. He’s a very mild-mannered guy. He’s all about business, but he’s a very nice guy to be around and work with. He’s got very good ideas about arranging stuff.
And Billy Branch?
Oh man, him and that harp. He’s so easy to work with and so talented. He would say “Just let me hear the song,” and he’s ready to go.
Had you ever worked with Lonnie Brooks as well?
Yeah, Lonnie was on my last CD for Alligator Records, ‘West Side Strut.’ That song, “Too Old to Get Married,” had Lonnie both singing and playing on it. Lonnie was a friend of mine for a lot of years.
You’ve probably played with everyone in over 60 years.
There’s been a few of them. More than I can count on one hand, I’ll put it that way.
If you were to choose one of them, that was your favorite artist to collaborate with, who would that be?
That would be Ronnie Baker Brooks. He would be the top guy. There’s something about his spirit. When you’re in his presence, something just seems to come out of him. Like Mick Jagger said, “He starts me up!” I’m always anxious to perform when I get on the stage with him.
Of all the music that you’ve written and performed, what do you feel is the best song you’ve ever released?
I would probably say “Cool Blues Walk,” that I recorded for Rounder Records with Duke Robillard. That’s probably one of my favorite songs. That and “Find You a Job” from ‘The Chief’ album. Those are my two favorites. We played both of them live too on ‘Soul Funky.’
You were inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016. Did you ever see yourself being a member of that prestigious group of people?
I always had the faith and hope that I would. When it happened though, it was a total surprise to me. I was very shocked, but also very happy. It’s quite an honor.
You underwent triple-bypass surgery over 20 years ago. At that time, did you see yourself making a comeback?
Well, I took some time off to recuperate. I think I took six months off after the operation. That was under the advice of my doctor to give myself time to heal. I healed up real fast, but my wife insisted I take that six months off. I haven’t had any trouble since. It didn’t even cross my mind to give up music. In fact, last Tuesday I saw my cardiologist, and he gave me a high five, saying I was in pretty good shape. I said, “Well coming from you, that’s good news!”
You taught yourself to play guitar as a youngster. What got you so interested in playing guitar that you wanted to pick one up and teach yourself?
I always loved the sounds and the tones that you could make with a guitar. I was listening to people like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B. B. King, and later on Chuck Berry who became my number one idol. I’m a big fan of Chuck Berry’s, so I became very interested in it.
Many artists have said they took up music as a way out of their current situation. Did you see that for yourself?
I was a farmer from birth, or at least as far back as I can remember, but I always wanted to play music. It’s something I still enjoy. It’s just fascinating to me, that I can make different sounds, and create original songs. I remember hearing Louis Jordan playing “Caledonia,” and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” I decided then that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
If you hadn’t become a musician all those years ago, what do you think you’d be doing right now?
I don’t know. I thought once that maybe I wanted to be a minister, but that was just a passing thought at one time. I like communicating with people and I thought that might be a good way to do that. But, I’m a blues singer, so I’m a blues minister I guess you could say. The blues and Gospel have always gone hand in hand anyway.
In fact you started your music career playing Gospel music right?
Oh yeah, that was part of my upbringing for sure.
Having toured all over the world, can you tell us what your favorite place to play was?
My favorite place, out of the country, would be France, then Amsterdam. Those would be my two favorites. But I really liked playing in Japan too. I played in Japan twice and really liked it a lot.
Do you find that blues artists are received differently in other parts of the world than at home?
It is much, much, much more potent there than it is here. That’s because in the states, it’s taken for granted to an extent. So many blues artists exist in the United States. Most of them have their roots in the same places like Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. They tend to be taken for granted. In France, Germany, Spain, or Italy when a blues artist goes there, they’re highly recognized. Those countries seem to place the music in a more high esteem. For us, the music is a real work of art. Audiences overseas recognize that, and cater to it as art.
It is catching on more and more in the States though. It’s really starting to escalate because younger people are becoming blues fans. There are so many festivals that have blues artists, the young people are exposed to the music. Once they start listening to it, they get to hear what blues is. I find that to be the case in my circumstance anyway. Younger and younger fans are coming out. They come up and ask for your autograph, and show a real concern for the blues, and the blues artists.
I was playing a festival in Arizona and the mother of this little kid came up and said, “My little daughter came to hear you perform today.” I told I thought it was great, and to tell her daughter I appreciate it. She said, “No, she wants to come backstage and meet you.” I said, “Right on, bring her back for Christ sake!” She was maybe four years old and didn’t want to sit in the audience and hear me play, she wanted to meet me.
Why do you think there are so many more festivals now than there used to be?
Musicians are at a place in time where they have to hit the road harder. Festivals provide an outlet to really get more exposure, and hopefully make more money as well. I really love festivals that combine blues with roots music, and folk music. It makes for a diversity and allows me to hear a lot of other stuff as well. For example I played a rock-a-billy festival England that was really good. I’ve also played a lot of roots & blues festivals. They’re very entertaining, and the music is all connected. Blues, rock, folk music – it’s all related. They’re all like second cousins to one another.
I know you owned the club Reservation Blues at one time. Buddy Guy has Legends. Would you ever think about opening another club?
Let’s say if I were to retire from traveling and performing. Then I would think about it. We still own the building that Reservation Blues was in. We have it leased out to another club owner for now. They’ve remodeled it, and made it an upscale bar called the Revel Room.
At this point in your career, do you think it’s possible to get any better as a musician?
I try to practice as often as possible because I feel that I can always improve on something. I try my best to improve all the time.
If you were to have your fans remember you for one thing, what would that be?
I would want my fans to remember me as being a giver, and not a taker. I like to try to give something to help other people. In other words, I don’t just think about what I can get for myself. I always think in terms of what I can give some one else to make their day a better day. I try and work with as many charities as I can. If it’s a worthy cause, I like to be involved with it.
Your life is about more than yourself. It’s supposed to extend way beyond that. The biggest blessing I can receive is a thank you from somebody I’ve helped. When I go out on stage, and I do a song that the people really like, and they give me a nice round of applause, that is a big blessing.
Bob Hope was a famous comedian you know. He was being interviewed one time, and the interviewer said, “Bob, you have all the money you need. You have all the fame that you need. Have you ever thought about retiring and just enjoying your fame and fortune?” His response to that was, “Well, the reason I don’t retire is because fish don’t applaud.” I could retire. I could go fishing. I might even catch a lot of fish, but they won’t applaud.
*Feature image Roban Sobus courtesy of Lappen Enterprises