[11 September 2000]
Eddy Clearwater is not exactly a quiet treasure. He’s been known to make the most of his stage entrance wearing a chief’s full bonnet while astride a stallion. While known for his costumes and stage theatrics, he is primarily a blues player. Clearwater has been making his living onstage determined to give the audience a memorable good time.
At age 13, Eddy backed such gospel groups as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. In 1950, at just 15, Eddy took his uncle’s advice and migrated north to Chicago where he soon fell under the spell of Muddy Waters. Performing first under the name Guitar Eddy, he took on the nickname Clearwater as playful spin on Mr. Morganfield’s stage name. Eddy still remembers and talks about the impact of first hearing a Chuck Berry song coming out of a car radio as he was walking down the street back in the ‘50s. Chuck was so undeniably tops, that just hearing him qualifies as a sonic event.
Chuck Berry pretty much broke the mold and made possibilities real. Chuck took 4/4 time, an old timey dance rhythm in the South still heard then on hillbilly records, and began making it his own. Layered onto the loose-as-a-goose, clippety clop rhythm, Chuck laid a mix of blues/R&B guitar with some of the most amiable and vivid story-telling lyrics. He was a masterful showman, too. But most importantly, he had made it. Chuck’s music recorded in Chicago on a label devoted to blues and R&B, in fact the very same label as Muddy’s, was being listened to and broadcast over radio stations everywhere. That made it possible to believe that some others in the neighborhood might be able to do the same.
Eddy still says Chuck Berry was playing the blues. Eddy continues tipping his hat to Mr. Berry by providing a good cover of “Sweet Little Rock and Roller.” Although Berry’s style is a recognizable influence when Eddy composes along a similar vein, the result is a style of playing, not by any means a knock-off or a copy. Clearwater performs his own “I Wouldn’t Lay My Guitar Down,” as much rockabilly-influenced as Berry-influenced. This song soon became a modern guitar standard and was picked up by rockabilly legend Sleepy La Beef, who has covered other Clearwater compositions such as “Hillbilly Blues.” Another tune here with a definite rockabilly base is Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” textured with a blues guitar bridge and low rhythms of R&B baritone sax.
“Find Yourself” is a 2/4 rolling, walking bassline blues reminiscent of the Southside sounds styled by Muddy Waters and Little Walter, but with a great barrelhouse piano provided by Matt McCabe and spectacular harmonica by Carey Bell. This is a fun, tongue-in-cheek philosophizing about the consequences of poor thinking leading to poorer decisions. Trial and error when powered by fuzzy thinking can lead to a lot of personal trials and no small amount of errors, which can be comical only if they’re not happening to you. You can only hope the person in this song gets it right soon and stops causing so much self-made grief.
What I like most about this record is the care given to mixing in the push of the drummer, who certainly does a lot more than just keep time. You can hear his part in driving the music as intimately as if you’re in the same room while it’s being played, with just the right amount of brightness so the cymbals sing and aren’t shrill. This record is a pretty good edition of the Chicago daily blues ala Clearwater, and you do get a good sense of what he must be like on stage. Local players are a major part of grounding the scene and keeping the local clubs going.
At 65, Eddy has been part of the scene there for fifty years. When he’s not touring and playing around the world, he’s performing somewhere in Chicago. He plans to stay and already has an address for his own Blues Hangout in Chicago’s Wicker Park, slated to open next spring. His cousin, harpist Carey Bell is scheduled for opening night. I’d look forward to it, because word’s gotten around about Eddy. He has a quite the reputation of baking a pretty good chocolate rum pie, too.
If Eddy is proud of his friends in the neighborhood who have made especially good, people from the old neighborhood take a certain amount of pride in his contributions to this important part of history, too. I feel privileged to have had more than my fair share of sonic events, but I still find myself wishing there were these sorts of projects when I was in high school.