Hailing from Chicago, Eddy Clearwater is a blues music hall of famer. Blues Rock Review caught up with Clearwater to discuss his life in music, a new record, and more.
Thanks very much, Eddy, for taking time out of your busy life to speak with me. Can you just clarify how you got the surname Clearwater?
My one time manager, Jump Jackson, who owned The Rhythm and Blues agency wanted to sign me up with his agency. He said that my birth name Eddy Harrington was to long, so he shortened it to Eddy Clearwater. I am still thinking about that one.
According to my math, you’re into your 40th year of recording, just had your 83rd birthday earlier this year, is it not ‘pipe and slippers’ time ?
I have been in the business for 65 years, recording for 59 years. My first record was a 78rpm entitled “Boogie Baby” on one side and “Hillbilly Blues” on the other side. I owned a record store in my twenties and did some record house cleaning. I threw out 200 of these records. They were taking up to much room which I needed for something else. A very well known record company’s owner reprimanded me, because he told me that in the future the 200 copies would be a collector’s item and very valuable. As they say, “you learn as you go.”
You were born in Macon, Mississippi and raised by your Cherokee grandmother (correct me if I’m wrong!), listening to gospel music, what first drew you to the Blues?
Listening to gospel music is about life. It was spiritual, sounded good and felt good. When I listened to Muddy Water’s “Catfish Blues” and “Baby Please Let Me Go,” that was gospel in my heart and I was hooked.
Like Hendrix, did you have to turn the guitar upside down to play left-handed?
No, I just take a right handed guitar, turn it upside down which means the first E string is on the top, and the E 6th string is on the bottom. Comes natural after a while. Like at school my teacher instructed me to use my right hand instead of my left, and I did, but right after school I changed to my left hand. That was trecherous. I can write my name with my right hand, but that’s about all.
How important, career-wise, was your move to Chicago in the early 50’s?
Moving the Chicago was the epitome of my life musically. Chicago is where my life came together musically. With the great amount of musicians at that time such as Muddy Waters, Howl’n Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Elmo James, they were all in Chicago at that time playing in blues clubs on the south and west sides which were opened seven days a week. You could work at one club for seven days if you wanted. This was my number one dream to be be in the blues world with these legendary artists. Now I feel like I am in blues heaven-alive.
In the 50’s there were a fair few black musicians breaking the musical barriers, in particular Chuck Berry, how much did they influence you?
Chuck Berry was my number one idol in the business. Not to take anything away from Muddy Waters, because he was my and still is the foundation I sought after to play like. They were my teachers.
I’ve interviewed many younger blues/rock guitarists who draw their influences from the likes of the aforementioned Chuck Berry, also Little Richard, pre internet, did those guys get the credit they deserved?
People like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino all gained recognition which became well known, worldwide, but they never received the respect players of that magnitude got at that time being black artists. Take Chuck Berry, for instance, if Chuck had been a white artist with the musical talent and brilliance he had musically, he would have been recognized 10x more than what he received. When Chuck would do a concert in a big auditorium holding ten thousand people, after the concert he would have to find a room or boarding house in a part of town that would accept him. All of the black musicians , including myself, would have to look for a black boarding house. We were BIG on stage, but no respect off stage.
You’ve toured extensively around the world, how do blues audiences vary on different continents?
Europe and Asia are highly appreciative of blues and jazz music. They are an attentive audience. They come out in droves and cater to the American blues artists. As odd as it may seem, It took the British to come to America to reintroduce the blues to America. Thank you Rolling Stones and Beatles! In Africa on the Ivory coast we were highly accepted. They knew all the blues history. In South America we were also highly accepted with very attentive audiences. They knew the lyrics to my songs as well as I did. Australia has big blues festivals with all the great blues musicians playing their hearts out to the wonderful audiences.
You’ve played with so many great players, tell us about the Grammy nomination back in 2004 with Los Straitjackets, not often you get nominations for blues artists!
Receiving the Grammy nomination was a total shock to me. I had the Grammy’s in my dreams, but when it happened, it was a total shock. I didn’t know how to react..laugh, cry or just jump in circles. I hope that there is still room for me to receive a Grammy. I didn’t give up yet.
On the same theme, who would be your dream band to share a stage with, living or dead?
My dream band would be to play a gig with Carlos Santana and his band. B. B.’s band is terrific, and I enjoyed playing with Muddy’s band, and I would have loved to work with Cab Calloway, Lional Hampton’s band and with Louis Jordon’s band.
In 2016 you were inducted into the Memphis Blues Hall Of Fame Class, a great honor?
Being inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame was a dream I thought I would never receive. That dream came true while I was alive being able to smell the flowers. Now I have my name listed in the Blues Hall of Fame amongst the greatest blues legends.
Coming up to the here and now, you released the live Soul Funky in 2014, I heard that there could be a new album on the horizon?
You heard the truth. I am concentrating on a song I am putting in my next album titled, “Skokie is a First Class Town” the village I live in. “I’ve been all around the world, but guess where I settle down, I settled down in Skokie, because Skokie is a First Class Town.” The second verse is in my head while I write to you.
Can audiences in the UK look forward to seeing you sometime soon? My agent, Casey Scott, from Highway Keys blues agency is working on that right now for autumn. The last time I was in Britain I played The Rhythm Riot, a rock and hilbilly festival, in Rye. Years ago when my cousin Cary Bell was still with us, we played a gig at the Hammersmith Theatre and Dingwalds club. I must have had a super time to remember that out of all the places I played in Britain.
Interview by Clive Rawings