By Martine Ehrenclou
Chicago Blues legend and Grammy Award-nominee, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater is renowned for his fiery guitar work, his soulful vocals, and his blues rockin’ showmanship. He is also known for wearing his Native American headdress in honor of his Cherokee heritage. After hearing Chuck Berry in 1957, Clearwater fused his blues with rock and roll, resulting in what he calls “rock-a-blues.” But that moniker is even too limiting, as Clearwater’s blues music includes elements of rockabilly, country and gospel.
Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016, Clearwater has also been nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Blues Album,” West Side Strut in 2009, a Blues Foundation Award for West Side Strutalso in 2009, “2001 Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year” by the W.C. Handy Awards, and “Best Blues Entertainer” from The Martin International Chicago Blues Awards.
At 83, Clearwater shows no signs of slowing down, maintaining a busy touring schedule and working on his 19thalbum (including live albums and albums released in Europe), to be released later this year. It will be his first album in four years, and like his previous two albums, Ronnie Baker Brooks will produce and play on the album. Clearwater was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to talk to us.
ME: I watched your video for “Soul Funky” and loved it.
EC: Well, thank you.
ME: “Soul Funky” is the title track of your most recent album, is that right?
EC: That’s correct, yes. We’re working on a new CD right now for later this year. Look out for that.
ME: Can you tell me about the new album?
EC: We’re doing all original material, and I’m working with my friend and producer, Ronnie Baker Brooks. We worked together on the West Side Strut album for Alligator Records, and so we’re working on another project right now and seeing which songs seem right and which ones we need to change. I’ve written most of the songs, while Ronnie Baker Brooks has written a couple.
ME: Is Ronnie Baker Brooks producing this new one too?
EC: Yes, he is.
ME: You’re hailed as one of Chicago’s top blues guitarists but you also incorporate rock, rockabilly and funk into your blues. Is the next album going to include some of those flavors?
EC: Yes, it will have a little variety of material. We’ll see what turns out the best and take it from there.
ME: How did you start incorporating the different musical styles into the blues?
EC: I hear different things so I try and implement what I hear in my head. I go to the guitar or the piano and see if I can figure out chord changes that make sense to include. I just kind of take it from square one and see what I can do with it.
ME: Maybe some of these different musical styles came from your influences of Chuck Berry, Freddie King, or Magic Sam?
EC: You hit the nail on the head. Freddie King, Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and John Lee Hooker are all influences. I hear different flavors from different people and I’m just trying to combine those.
ME: How did these influences come about? Were these musicians you played with or listened to?
EC: I got to be very good friends with people Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton and Little Walter. I get inspiration from a lot of different people.
ME: In 2016, you were inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. Can you tell me a little bit that?
EC: That was a real pleasant surprise. It’s better to receive it while I’m still alive. I thank God for that because a lot of people get inducted, unfortunately, after they’re no longer with us. I can at least enjoy the honor and celebrate with my friends. I want to try to do as much as I can for the [blues] industry so I can give back some of what I have received.
ME: Can you tell me about that?
EC: We try to give money to different charities, wherever I see fit. If people are in need and not as fortunate as me, then I try to help people that need help to the best of my ability. I think that’s important.
ME: Yes, absolutely, pay it forward. You’re involved with a prostate cancer organization.
EC: I am. PCa Blue, which Buddy Guy is involved with. I give a portion of my royalties to that organization.
ME: That’s cool. You’ve played with so many great players over the years. In 2004, you were nominated for a Grammy for your work with Los Straitjackets.
EC: Yes, I was totally surprised. I did an album (Rock and Roll City) that was a little bit out of the regular blues format, and I guess it caught their attention at the Grammys. I was very honored that they took favor in it.
ME: That’s great. So what style are we talking, a little rockabilly?
EC: Yeah, rockabilly and a little bit of country.
ME: What did it feel like getting nominated for a Grammy?
EC: Oh, totally surprised, I was shocked out of my mind. When the promoter from Rounder Records called and congratulated me, I was totally shocked. I was really proud.
ME: I see that you’re touring and performing at Buddy Guy’s Legends club in Chicago and you’ve opened up for Buddy Guy at Antone’s Nightclub.
EC: Antone’s in Austin, yeah. And after that, I go to Memphis in May and then to Toronto and London, Ontario in Canada, and after that I go to Austin, Texas and then to Wisconsin. It’s a lot of running around but I enjoy what I’m doing, you know?
ME: Can you tell me a little bit about your live shows? I’ve watched a few videos but I’d like to hear it from you.
EC: I try to produce as much energy on stage as I can because I like the excitement of just putting a lot of effort into it. The more you put into it, hopefully, the more you should get out of it. I just really try and give a good show and give people their money’s worth.
ME: Do you have a set list or do you just wing it when you get up there?
EC: Once in a while, I have a set list, but I like to be more spontaneous and play what I feel at the time. I’ll know the first song or two, but after that, it is kind of an open book. The band always knows which songs I’m going to play next but I like it to be spontaneous, you know?
ME: Does that depend on the crowd somewhat?
EC: Exactly. You said it. It depends on the mood of the crowd, and that’s what I kind of go by. If they’re in a real quiet mood, then maybe I would do a song that’s upbeat. If the crowd is pretty lively, then I might do a blues ballad, something that they might not expect me to do at that point. Catch them by surprise. I just like to keep it interesting, you know? This seems to come across, especially in Europe.
ME: Why in Europe?
EC: Well, it’s not as common. In America, people take blues more for granted because they can hear blues one place or another every day of the week if they want to. It’s like having flowers in your back yard, but you don’t appreciate it because they always look better in someone else’s yard. The same flowers could be in your back yard but you’re thinking that “I see those every day.” So, you take it for granted. Audiences in Europe are into the art of blues and jazz music–it’s not just music for them. It’s art. The audiences in Europe come to see what you’re doing, the way you’re doing it and what you sound like and so on, the lyrics to the songs. They pay close attention to it.
ME: That must be pretty rewarding.
EC: It is. America is catching on fast, though. It took the British to come back to America and teach the blues to America. And blues is America’s music. Rock bands like the Stones and Eric Clapton, they came to America and said listen to this music, this is blues, this is your music, America. They recycled it and brought it back to us. But America is catching on. I see more and more younger fans, which is a very, very good thing. And with other genres like hip hop, people don’t realize the basic foundation is blues. They just took it to another level.
ME: It’s kind of nice that with the blues, there’s real instruments and real musicians.
EC: Oh yeah, that’s right. I’ll tell you a short story about a song that I wrote in 1962. It was kind of a R&B song-ish and it was called “Doing the Model.” It came out on a 45 but it didn’t get much attention. A month ago, a guy called me from New York and said, “I’m a promoter from Sony Records and we found your song called “Doing the Model,” a song you wrote.” There’s a hip hop group who did a version of it but they had to get my permission. It was produced by Google. They wanted to put it in a commercial and put it on one of their albums.
ME: No kidding.
EC: Yeah, Sony and produced by Google. I own the publishing to it so they had to get my permission to use it. They sent me a copy of it with their version on it and it sounded really hip hop-ish, but it’s a blues song.
The company that originally put it out gave me 40 copies, but I just threw them in my office and figured that was it. I never sung this song on stage or anything, but Sony is paying me for royalties.
ME: What a nice surprise that is.
EC: Yeah, it really is.
ME: I’d love to hear about what you love most about performing live.
EC: I like to try and make people happy, and it seems like people are really happy when they hear me or see me perform, and I like to spread that joy with people. I like being around people and it does my heart good. It’s a big part of my life, that’s what I really enjoy, performing.
ME: You recently had your fifth annual birthday concert celebrating your 83rd birthday, can you tell me about that?
EC: We hold it in January at a club called Space in Evanston, Illinois, and every year it’s sold out. A lot of my friends come and jam with me, like Ronnie Baker Brooks, Billy Branch, and we have a lot of fun, and we end up having a jam session at the end of the show.
ME: I bet that’s really fun to see. Can you tell me a little bit about the evening—do you have a set plan or do you just jam?
EC: I come on with my band and we play for an hour and a half. For the second set, I call all of my friends up and they get up and play with me. They’ll sing some songs and back me on different songs. We just mix it up and have a good time.
EC: I’m just naturally left handed. In school, my teacher tried to convert me from being left handed to being right handed, like writing on the blackboard. I’d write with my left hand, and she would hit my hand with a ruler. When I got out of school I went right back to using my left hand. When I started playing, there were no guitars for people who are left handed so I learned to play with a right-handed guitar.
ME: Do you think there’s any difference in playing an upside down, left handed guitar than for a left-handed guitarist to play a left-handed guitar?
EC: I don’t think there’s any difference. Albert King, that’s how he played. Otis Rush, too. He has a great sound, he’s quite a player.
ME: What’s your number one guitar, the Gibson 335 or do you play other guitars?
EC: Yes, the Gibson 335. Gibson gave me a B.B. King 345, but I don’t use it on stage anymore since B.B. King passed away. I keep it under my bed and close to my heart. I also have a couple of Fender Stratocasters and a Telecaster that I use as back-up guitars.
ME: Do you have a favorite album that you’ve released?
EC: The Chief on Rooster Blues Records is my favorite, released in 1980.
ME: Is that when you were still wearing the Native American headdress? What motivated you to wear the headdress?
EC: It was just an idea I had. I went to a party one night after our gig and a lady that invited us to the party, she had it hanging on her wall in her living room. I remarked how beautiful it was and asked if I could buy it to use on stage. And she said, no, I can’t sell it to you because it belonged to my deceased husband. I kept mentioning it from time to time so she said, I’ll tell you what, since I see you really want to wear it, I won’t sell it to you but I will give it to you as a gift, providing you never part with it. We shook hands on it, and as we speak at this moment, it’s hanging on the wall in my basement.
ME: I also understand you are part of a Native American bloodline?
EC: Cherokee. My grandmother was almost full blood, Cherokee. As we speak right now I’m looking at a picture of my grandma on a wall.
ME: Is that a way of honoring her when you wear the Native American headdress?
EC: Yes, honoring her and the Indian people.
ME: Well, great. I think I’ve gotten through all my questions. I wish you the best with your new album. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
EC: Thank you.
Thanks to Jim Hamilton for the video
For more information on Eddy Clearwater:
PCa Blue website (for fighting prostate cancer): https://pcablue.org/