Hail to The Chief
The West Side may not be quite the thriving Chicago blues hotbed that it once was, but the sound it spawned remains as compelling as ever. Magic Sam and Freddy King were the West Side’s leading guitar slingers during the genre’s heyday. Eddy Clearwater was right there too, along with Luther Allison and Jimmy Dawkins, and he hasn’t forgotten the area’s vast influence on his formative years–or its long-ago downhome demographics.“A lot of the people came from the south,” says Eddy. “What happened, a lot of ‘em landed on the West Side, so that was the place you were more likely to be able to receive work and find housing or what have you, being from the deep south. So they just kind of migrated a lot to the West Side. It felt like home. It felt more like the south than Chicago.” The name of the veteran left-handed guitarist’s recent Alligator album, West Side Strut, testifies to the area’s lasting musical impact on his sound. Easily his most contemporary-sounding disc to date, it was produced by second-generation Chicago blues guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks.
“I had some ideas in my head, so then I went to Ronnie Brooks’ record release party,” says Eddy. “I did a cameo appearance on his new release. I just sung a couple of verses on it, so then he invited me to his record release party. So I went, and I really liked the band. I liked his band a lot, and I always knew that he was a very brilliant musician. So I approached him, and I said, ‘Well, how would you like to produce my new CD?’”
Born January 10, 1935 in Macon, Mississippi, Eddy Harrington was raised there by his grandparents until he moved to Birmingham, Alabama at the age of 13. “It was okay, just being a kid in the country,” he says. “I thought it was a fun life at that time. It was hard work, but I thought it was a lot of fun. Just being out in the country, out of school in the summer, running around with no shoes on, just enjoying the outdoors.” That’s where he first picked up the instrument that he’s now so indelibly associated with. “My uncle had an acoustic guitar,” he says. “And I would pick it up every now and then, whenever I got a chance–whenever he’d give me a chance to pick it up.
“I would try and put it all together and see what I could come up with with it,” he says. “I had a lot of inspiration from people early on, like listening to the John Lee Hooker sound.” From the start, Eddy played left-handed, attacking the strings upside-down. “That’s the way I picked it up,” he says. “I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to do it, I have to do it this way!’ ‘Cause at that time, they wasn’t making left-handed guitars.” In those days, he confined his musical pursuits to the sanctified arena. “I played gospel in church,” he says. “I wouldn’t sing, but I’d just play guitar. I was too shy to sing.”
That aforementioned uncle, Rev. Houston H. Harrington, would play an integral role in Eddy’s musical development. “He bought a little disc cutter,” says Eddy. “He bought this back in Mississippi, where you cut little discs on there, little plastic discs. And he just started being interested in the record business. So when he came to Chicago, he started his little label called Atomic-H.” After the good reverend moved up north to Chicago, he sent for his nephew in September of 1950. “He sent me a ticket on the Greyhound bus for $15,” says Clearwater. “I wish I would have kept the ticket!”
Harrington also bought Eddy a guitar at Sears, Roebuck. “It was a Silvertone,” Eddy says. “Silvertone amp and guitar.” And he introduced his teenaged protege to the thriving Chicago blues scene. “He took me around to some clubs. He took me to Sylvio’s to see Muddy Waters, also to see Howlin’ Wolf. At that time, Little Walter was still with Muddy. But I didn’t start playing until I was about 17, I believe--17 going on 18. But I would go around and hear different people. The first band I played with in Chicago was Little Mack Simmons,” says Eddy. “His guitar player got sick or something, so he told my uncle that he needed a guitar player, so my uncle asked me if I would do it. I was glad to do it. After that, I formed a little trio and started doing some auditions around the West Side and the South Side. A couple of people said, ‘Well, okay, come in and play this weekend.’ That’s how I got started just playing. I would have to do auditions, and if they liked the band, then they would hire you.”
That first trio was dubbed Guitar Eddy & the Cutaways. “I had a cutaway Gibson ES- 295, a gold-colored one,” he explains. John Hudson played rhythm guitar, Rayburn Williams was on piano, and Richard Rogers was the drummer. “I didn’t have a bass,” notes Eddy, who did have a vocalist. “I was too shy to do very much singing, so Johnny Rogers was singing, and we were just playing.” Johnny was the drummer’s brother; he’d have a ‘55 single on the tiny Ronel logo, “Calling Baby,” and late in the decade he’d wax the jumping “I Am A Lucky Lucky Man” for Atomic-H. “He sounded a lot like Johnny Ace,” says Eddy. “He played the West Side a lot.” Rev. Harrington knew that the market for a non-singing guitarist was limited, so he conspired to cure his nephew of his shyness. “It took me awhile,” admits Eddy. “My uncle is the one that got me out of being shy. He set up a party. On the weekend, he would have people come over to his house and sit around and drink and play music. He’d set up guitars and amps and stuff. So he had a bunch of people over one night. One Saturday night, I never will forget. A whole bunch of people came in, and he said, ‘I want you all to hear my nephew play guitar!’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll play some chords and stuff.’
“So he was setting up a microphone. I wondered, ‘Why is he setting up a mic?’ After he got it set up, he announced it in front of everybody, ‘Now we’re gonna have my nephew sing a song for us!’ Oh, my God! And everybody starts clapping! I said, ‘Now how can I back out of this?’ The first song that I ever sung in front of people was a song that was done by Elvis Presley: ‘I feel it in my legs/I feel it in my shoes/when I get the feeling I get the rock and roll blues! Let’s have a party!’ And that’s the first song I ever sung in front of anyone.” Since “Party” was on the soundtrack to Presley’s ‘57 flick Loving You, that pretty conclusively dates when Eddy got over his mic fright. Once he did, he never looked back.
Until 1957, Eddy’s primary heroes were three of Chicago’s top bluesmen. “Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed,” he says. “I was a big fan of Jimmy Reed.” Then Eddy was driving down Michigan Avenue in his Ford one day when out of the radio leaped Chuck Berry’s “Oh Baby Doll”--instantly changing his life forever. “That’s the first record I had ever heard by Chuck, ‘Oh Baby Doll.’ And I thought his sound was so unique, I started listening for his music. And the next thing I heard was ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘Maybellene,’ and I said, ‘Oh, now this guy is really different. He’s really special!’ So I started to follow his music after that. I started to follow him,” he says. “I just kind of incorporated it in between what like Magic Sam was playing, and Otis Rush, and Chuck Berry. Just kind of mixed it up a little bit.”
Veteran Chicago drummer Armand “Jump” Jackson took an interest in the budding young guitarist’s career, even if he wasn’t too thrilled with that Guitar Eddy moniker. “Jump had been watching my performances, so he had heard quite a bit about me. My name was just getting a little bit around the South Side and the West Side. And he said, ‘I’d like to sign you to a booking contract and become your agent,’ because he had an agency called Rhythm & Blues Booking Agency. So I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘But I’d like to change your name from Eddy Harrington. I’d like to call you Clear Waters.’ So I said, ‘Okay, okay.’ So he got it registered with the Musicians Union. And then he said, ‘I can call you Clear Waters!’
“Muddy, when he first heard about it, he wrote in a magazine, he said, ‘I hear there’s a guy named Clear Waters. I’d like to meet him!’ So we met, and he said, ‘Oh, you’re Clear Waters, huh?’ I’d like to call you my son! Can I call you my son?’ I said, ‘Yeah! I’d be honored if you called me your son!’ So we met, and we got along real good.”
Under his new sobriquet, Eddy cut his ‘58 debut single at Balkan Studios on 22nd Street in southwest suburban Berwyn, Illinois for his uncle’s Atomic-H imprint, which had launched with an obscure 1955 single by “Jick & His Trio” (actually Homesick James). Harrington had specialized in cutting demo tapes for aspiring artists. “He did some demos for Chuck Berry,” says Eddy. When Harrington got more serious about Atomic-H, his nephew was one of his first signings. “He wanted me to record on his label,” he says. “So naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. Just the idea of making a record, I said, ‘Man! Oh, boy!’ So that’s what happened. I recorded ‘Boogie Woogie Baby’ and ‘Hill Billy Blues.’ That’s the first record I ever recorded.” “Boogie Woogie Baby” was a medium-paced jump with Lazy Bill Lucas contributing lively piano. “I started trying to write, and I came up with it,” he says. “Like hearing Louis Jordan, with the boogie-woogie sound.” There were echoes of Berry in the choppy “Hill Billy Blues,” but tinges of the West Side were present too. “I was just hearing different things from like country music, and then hearing what comes from blues, like the chord progressions and so forth,” he says. “So I just kind of mixed it together.”
Eddy was conversant with hillbilly music, having heard his share during his youth. “Non-stop, like Chet Atkins, Red Foley, and Hank Williams. People like that, I used to love just listening to them,” he says. “Over the radio, I heard more country than I heard blues. You wouldn’t hear much blues over the radio, but you’d hear country music all the time. So I would just sit right by the radio and listen to it. I’d stick my head right by the little country radio.”
“A Minor Cha-Cha,” his 1959 Atomic-H encore, is one of the definitive West Side instrumentals. Laid down at Chicago’s Hall Studios and set in a minor key befitting its title, Eddy’s slashing licks and Chuck Smith’s tenor sax were driven by a brisk Latin tempo. “I wanted to do something instrumentally, so I came up with that idea for a minor instrumental,” says Clearwater. It was actually the B-side of the ebullient vocal “I Don’t Know Why.” All four tracks were aboard the 1999 CD version of Delmark’s Atomic-H anthology, Chicago Ain’t Nothin’ But a Blues Band, along with his rowdy unissued rocker “Neckbones Everyday” and a “Hucklebuck”-inspired instrumental, “Jumpin’ At Charley’s.”
Not only was Magic Sam one of Eddy’s major musical influences, he was a good friend. “We were very close, Sam and I. He was my idol, man,” says Clearwater. “He was very unique. What he played and sung, it was really outstanding, the way his music coincided with what he was singing. I just really thought he was a very, very talented man. Plus, his charisma. His charisma around people, he was just–he never met a stranger. He’d just walk right up to you and start a conversation. He was a very friendly guy.”
Eddy was also pals with Freddy King. “A powerful man, very powerful,” he says. “I knew Freddy. We used to hang out together lots, man. I got a kick out of being around Freddy. He was so dynamic onstage, man. He had this abundance of energy.
“He was a real tough kind of a player. He had that real hard edge on his sound. He had a very gritty, gutty sound, the way he come across,” says Eddy. “Everybody would say, ‘Man, you’ve gotta see Freddy King!’ His expression when he played was so dynamic. He’d frown up, and he’d stomp his feet, and oh man! He would take that red Gibson, and man, he’d make you listen to him. If you ever walked in the house, you’d listen to him. He would demand attention.” Eddy’s singular musical amalgam won him gigs in farflung suburban enclaves where local bluesmen seldom ventured and led to a hookup with a transplanted Mexican-American combo from San Antonio. Mando & the Chili Peppers were fronted by Armando Almendarez and also included Jesse “Chucho” Perales on guitar and drummer Pete Perez.
“They had a regular gig at a club on the West Side by 18th and Blue Island,” he says. “They had a steady gig there. And Armando got sick. So there was a sax player by the name of Chuck Smith, he was a black sax player. He was working with them. Mando was the lead singer and the bass player. So he got sick. He had to go to the hospital. So they were asking, ‘Who can we get to be a front man, be a lead singer that can sing and play rock and roll?’ So Chuck Smith said, ‘Well, I know a guy that I could probably get.’ So they said, ‘Well, okay, who is it?’ Get him!’ And Chuck said, ‘There’s only one thing–I have to tell you that he’s a black guy.’” “So they said, ‘Well, we better ask the owner if it’s gonna be okay to bring a black guy in as the front man.’ ‘Cause this was a lot of Hispanics and a lot of hillbillies, that’s just what all came there. So they went in and asked W.T., the owner was named W.T. They told him, ‘Well, we have a guy that could front the band, but he’s a black guy.’ And W.T. kind of hesitated. He said, ‘Ah, what do you think? I don’t know whether this is gonna work or not.’ So he said, ‘Well, okay, we’ll take a chance. Bring him in.’
“So they brought me in. I walked in one night, they called me onstage, and I performed the first set. And everybody just loved it. W.T. said, ‘Looks like these people love you! They say it looks like it’s not gonna be any problem at all!’ So it worked out fine. So I ended up working– Mando must have been in the hospital, I guess over a month. So when he came out of the hospital, he came back to work. So they decided that people liked me so much until they were gonna keep me on as a front man attraction. They would just call me up like on every set to do a certain amount of songs. So I ended up working with them, I guess probably for a year at different clubs. ‘Cause we worked there a lot at that one club. It was like five nights a week we worked the same club.
“During that time is when I met Eddy Bell, because he got to see me doing some Chuck Berry stuff,” he continues. “He thought that was pretty fantastic. So he and I got to be very good friends after that. He told me he had a band called Eddy Bell & the Bel-Aires. So then he invited me to go out to Fox Lake and do a gig with him. So I did some stuff out there with him by the Fox River. He booked me to work with him as a front man. I did this for, I guess, a few months with Eddy Bell. Then we just became very close friends after that. Then he invited me to come and do some recording with him, ‘cause he was doing some rock and roll stuff. He asked me to come in and play guitar for Mercury Records.”
Bell’s real surname was Blazonczyk; before he formed his rock and roll band, the Bel-Aires, he trafficked in another style of music embraced by many Chicagoans. “He left polka to go into rock and roll, and then he got out of rock and roll and went back to polka,” says Eddy. Bell waxed a rocking session for producer Lenny LaCour in 1960 with Clearwater on guitar that generated Bell’s Mercury singles “Knock, Knock, Knock (Knocking On My Door)” and “Hi Yo Silver (The Masked Man),” as well as a blazing “Johnny B. Goode In Hollywood” on LaCour’s Lucky Four logo complete with a Berry-derived Clearwater guitar solo. “We had some good times down there at Universal Studios, doing those for Mercury Records,” says Clearwater. Bell also was responsible for designing his buddy’s leopard skin Telecaster. “He made that,” says Eddy. “He covered the guitar with the leopard skin.” In one memorable promo photo from that period, Eddy combined that flashy axe with a tiger-patterned suit coat. “I don’t remember where I bought it,” he says. “I think it was probably from a store in Jewtown.” Blazonczyk’s return to the polka world was considerably more successful; he and his Versatones have long reigned as one of the genre’s top acts.
Clearwater branched out at the dawn of the decade, landing an extended gig at the L&D Lounge at 71st and Stewart on the South Side. “I used to live right down the street from there,” he says. “(The owner) found out I was a musician, so everyday I would pass there, he was asking me, ‘Come inside, I want to talk to you!’ He would say, ‘Why don’t you bring me a show in here?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ll get around to it.’ ‘Cause at that time, I was playing in the suburbs a lot. “I kept putting it off. So one day he called me in, he said, ‘When you gonna bring me in a show?’ ‘Cause I was working Friday and Saturday. I said, ‘How about Sunday, on a Sunday matinee?’ He said, ‘Okay, we’ll do a Sunday matinee and see what happens.’ So that Sunday we played, the whole place was just jammed with people, like from two o’clock on. It was just jammed with people. Then he said, ‘How about a Friday and Saturday?’ So I did a Friday and Saturday, and it was jammed the same way, jam-packed. So then that’s when I got a contract. As a matter of fact, that’s where I first met Jimmy Johnson, at the L&D Lounge.”
In 1961, Jump Jackson launched his own label, La Salle Records. For unknown reasons, he left a sizzling Clear Waters rocker, “Ain’t That A Shame,” as well as his snazzy instrumental “Dancin’ Time” on the shelf. “I guess I did it as kind of like a demo track or something,” says Eddy. “Jimmie Lee Robinson was playing bass on that.” But La Salle did press up Eddy’s witty introductory theme “Cool Water,” a rollicking Berry soundalike cut at Hall Studios with the Chili Peppers and a vocal group dubbed the Clearaires backing him. “Armando wrote the first lyrics to it,” says Eddy. “Armando came up with the idea. He said, ‘I’ve got a song for you.’ So he played a little bit of it on the bass. He said, You want to record it?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ So I recorded it.” The teenage love ballad “Baby Please” adorned the flip.
Veteran pianist Sonny Thompson, whose hitmaking resume included the two-part 1948 instrumental smash “Long Gone” and the original “I’ll Drown In My Tears” in ‘52 with Lula Reed as his alluring vocalist, was in charge of Cincinnati-based King Records’ Chicago office on South Michigan Avenue when Eddy dropped by in search of a more influential label connection.
“A guy named Harry Reeves, he used to be a promoter for Duke Records. So he introduced me to Sonny Thompson,” says Eddy. “He was A&R man for King, which was right across from Chess, their office in Chicago. I had known Sonny for awhile, so I went in and talked to him and told him I’d like to make a record. So he said, ‘Let me hear some of your material.’ I went down and I played some of my stuff for him. Then because of the Chuck Berry influence, that’s why he said, ‘I’d like to sign you up and do some recording over there.’”
That November ‘61 session in Cincy spawned a pair of fine rocking singles for King’s Federal imprint, and for the first time they were released under the name of Eddie Clearwater (even if the spelling of his first name was a trifle off). All four songs exhibited a heavy Berry influence, “I Was Gone” even borrowing one of the Duck Walker’s favorite lyrical conceits–the daring auto chase--as its theme. “Someone from King wrote it for me,” says Eddy, who brought its flip, “Twist Like This,” with him. “That one I wrote,” he notes. “The radio stations played it in Texas quite a bit, but it didn’t get much airplay in Chicago.” His Federal encore, “A Real Good Time,” was another marvelous Berry knockoff. “Another guy that was writing for King, he wrote that also,” he says. “He gave it to me ahead of time. I had a little time with it.” Eddy again supplied the other side, “Hey Bernadine.” “I knew a girl named Bernadine a long time ago,” he says. “She just inspired me a little bit to write it.”
Thompson inked Federal pacts with Chicago’s Syl Johnson, Smokey Smothers, Bobby King, and Freddy King in addition to Eddy. “He was easy going, but he would make you really study your material. He was very particular about that,” recalls Clearwater. “He’d make you really rehearse your songs, make sure you were pretty well prepared before you went to the studio. This was his main thing. After that, it was pretty easy once you got there. He played piano on my early stuff, and he played piano on a lot of the stuff that was being produced out of there. He always managed to be in the session somehow or another.
“Every time I go to Cincinnati, I always think of King Records because I had such a good time. He just took us down for a few days,” he says. “We had a good time. Syd Nathan was working the board, and he was quite a character, him and his little cigar. He was engineering. They had everything under one roof. They would do the recording, they would do the mixing, they would print the labels, they would press the records. Everything was in one building.”
Nathan made quite an impression on the up-and-coming guitarist. “He would sit in that control room in the control booth, he’s chewing on a little cigar so short it’s just a nub of a cigar,” says Eddy. “He’d never smoke it; he’d just chew it all the time. And he’d sit there, and he’d never smile. He never did anything. He would say, ‘Let’s hear what you got!’ If he liked it, he would say, ‘Okay, that’s okay.’ But he was never too complimenting. You never knew really if he liked you or not. If he liked it, he never really let on to you that he liked your material. He was just a very typical businessman type of a guy.
“When we got there, James Brown had just left. He had just finished a session and left. They were trying to get a hold of him, because he recorded a whole album and didn’t leave them any lyrics. He didn’t write the lyrics down,” he says. “They couldn’t understand what he was saying, and then he was gone. He was in California someplace already!”
It was 1965 before Eddy had another single on the shelves. “The Duck Walk,” another romping rocker celebrating Berry’s signature stage move, was pressed up in such minuscule quantities that it’s probably his rarest single of all. USA Records–home to the Buckinghams’ “Kind Of A Drag” and Koko Taylor’s 1963 debut single, just for starters--snuck out Eddy’s “The Duck Walk” so stealthily that it barely even existed.
The USA session, which included two more sides that remain unissued, was produced by Jimmy Reed’s longtime manager Al Smith. “He was okay,” says Eddy. “Al was kind of an odd kind of a guy. He had some strange ideas, but I guess that’s just who he was.” The B-side, “Momee, Momee,” was a cute plea from a lad begging his mother to allow him to attend a rock and roll show ostensibly starring Berry–thus making the whole thing something of a concept 45.
There was another barren stretch in the studio before Bell rode to the rescue, issuing Eddy’s funky 1969 outing “Doin’ the Model” on his Versa label. “He wanted to put out a record on me, so I said okay,” says Eddy. “Things started to move in another direction, I guess.” The track recently saw light of day again on a compilation assembled by Ace Records in England. “They’re sending me royalties on that,” marvels Clearwater. “I never thought I’d see a penny of royalties from that song, but every so often they send me royalties on it.” “I Don’t Know Why,” the impassioned soul ballad on the opposite side of the single, was a distinct departure as well.
Even if few recording opportunities were materializing, Clearwater was seldom without gigs, thanks to his predilection for Berry material. “I got a lot of jobs because of it. They would say, ‘Well, if he sounds anything like Chuck Berry, we’d like to book him,’ you know. That’s why I worked in the suburbs a lot, because people would always associate me with Chuck Berry,” he says. “Before blues got popular on the North Side, I was playing a lot of hillbilly bars, playing country and rockabilly.” At one memorable ‘67 engagement at the Manor Lounge in west suburban Stone Park, Illinois Eddy finally got to share a bill with Berry himself.
“The owner of the club said, ‘Come in the back–I want to introduce you to Chuck Berry!’” he laughs. “So I went in the back, and he took me in the dressing room. And Chuck turned around and said, ‘Oh, my God! I thought I was looking in the mirror!’ So they introduced me to Chuck. We had a good time together.”
Blues was at a fairly low ebb in Chicago during the early ‘70s, but young pianist Bob Riedy helped rekindle the flame. “He just kind of appeared on the scene,” says Eddy. “He got a band together, and he started booking some people. He was responsible for the blues becoming popular on the North Side. He played a big part in it.” Clearwater added his vocal talents to a pair of selections, “Pretty Baby” and “Caldonia,” on a ‘74 Riedy LP for Flying Fish, and the young piano man played on several subsequent Clearwater projects before disappearing as quickly as he had made himself known.
Following in his late uncle’s ambitious footsteps, Eddy established his own label, Cleartone Records, releasing a single pairing his “True Love” and “Lonely Nights” in 1975. “When my uncle passed away, I had done some stuff on Atomic-H,” he says. “I felt there was going to be a family conflict about the outcome of the label, so I said in order to avoid that, I’ll just form my own label, rather than to have to maybe go into court and fight here and there about the name and the rights to the label.”
In 1976, Clearwater laid down a live album at Ma Bea’s Lounge on the West Side for the French MCM logo. A no-frills ‘77 studio set for producer Ralph Bass (eight songs in one day, recorded at Paul Serrano’s PS Studios) was relegated to the vaults, though it finally saw a 1995 U.S. release on Delmark as Boogie My Blues Away. And there were late ‘70s Cleartone sessions at Soto Sound Studio in north suburban Evanston that spawned the British Charly LP Two Times Nine; among its highlights were the hauling Berry-style title item, a chugging “A Little Bit Of Blues, A Little Bit Of Rock And Roll,” and the tortured blues “Came Up The Hard Way.”
“It’s very blues-oriented, but it’s a mixture of blues and rock and roll,” he said at the time. “That’s where the idea for the song ‘A Little Bit Of Blues, A Little Bit Of Rock And Roll’ came from. So it’s a mixture of blues. And there is some hard blues on there, but we’re trying to come up with a new sound for the blues.”
The mid-‘70s were also notable for introducing Eddy’s donning a Native American headdress on stage. The practice ended up inspiring the title of his acclaimed 1980 Rooster Blues album, The Chief, co-produced by Living Blues co-founder Jim O’Neal.
“That’s the one that kind of put things on the map for me, you might say. We recorded it in one day. We started that afternoon, and we finished like 12 o’clock at night, I think it was,” says Eddy. “I gave Jim a big hug, and he gave me a hug, and he said, ‘Well, I think we finished it!’ I said, ‘We finished it?’ He said, ‘Yeah, except for the mixing.’” The project was no doubt made easier by the dream band that O’Neal assembled: pianist Lafayette Leake, drummer Casey Jones, harpist Carey Bell (Eddy’s distant cousin from Macon) and his wunderkind guitarist son Lurrie, and saxists Abb Locke and Chuck Smith were on hand to help drive home the splendid Clearwater originals “Find You A Job,” “Bad Dream,” “Blue, Blue, Blue Over You,” “Lazy Woman,” “Chills,” and another Berry homage, “I Wouldn’t Lay My Guitar Down.”
“We finished the album at Odyssey Studio,” he says. “I told Jim I’d like to ride a horse and wear my Indian headdress for the artwork. So then Jim said, ‘Okay!’ So he called the horse farm in Joliet, and I went down and we spent half of the day shooting pictures. So then Jim O’Neal said, ‘We’ll call the album The Chief.’ I said, ‘Okay! You think so?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’ll call it The Chief.’ That’s how I got stuck with the name, the Chief.
“I was surprised it turned out as well as it did in one day’s recording,” he continues. “I was really surprised. That’s the first one that (Alligator boss) Bruce (Iglauer) noticed that I made. ‘Cause he came to the release party at Biddy Mulligan’s. So he walked up to me, he said, ‘Well, I hate to admit it, Eddy, but you did a damn good album!’”
Response to The Chief established Clearwater as a leading modern purveyor of West Side blues. He encored on the same imprint in ‘86 with Flimdoozie, which brought in Otis Rush, another of his heroes, as the other guitarist on five tracks. Eddy cranked out a series of solid sets for Black & Blue in ‘89, the 1990 Rooster Blues set A Real Good Time–Live!, Help Yourself for Blind Pig in ‘92, and in 1996, Mean Case of the Blues, which started out as a self-released project on a resurrected Cleartone before it ended up on Rounder’s Bullseye Blues imprint.
“That’s the one I produced, and I let Paul Kahn hear it from Concerted Efforts,” he says. “So he said, ‘It’s a good album.’ I’m going to take it Marian (Leighton-Levy) at Rounder and let them hear it.’ And he did. He took it to Marian at Rounder, and she liked it. She said, ‘I’d like to vouch for this record. I’d like to put it out.’ And they were a little bit slow doing it. And somebody took it to Tone-Cool. Paul Kahn took it to Tone-Cool also, and let them hear it. So then the guy from Tone-Cool went back to Marian and said, ‘Listen to this record on Eddy Clearwater! Listen to this, this is a good record. I’m gonna put this record out.’ He’s saying this to Marian. So Marian said, ‘Oh no, you don’t. We’ve already spoken for that record! We’re putting it out!’ Then they offered me a contract. Then they got Duke Robillard to produce my next album.”
Cool Blues Walk, the initial 1998 Bullseye Blues release with immaculate guitarist Robillard at the helm, was one to savor. “I would say on Rounder, Cool Blues Walk, that stands out,” Eddy says. “Cool Blues Walk is one of my favorites.” The title track was a clever travelog escorting the listener from one local blues joint to the next. “I wrote that one, just being in blues clubs. I really came up with the idea at Blue Chicago,” says the guitarist, who also tipped his cap to Buddy Guy’s Legends and Kingston Mines in its lyrics. “I got it about blues clubs, people coming into blues clubs to have a good time. That’s what gave me the idea.” Much the same team reconvened for Eddy’s 2000 Bullseye followup, Reservation Blues.
Though Eddy has traditionally made most of his recordings in his hometown, working with Robillard meant journeying out east to Rhode Island to do the sessions. “It was a good experience, ‘cause we just stayed in the hotel, and got up and went to the studio every day, like 12 or one o’clock,” says Clearwater. “And that was a full day for us, just recording. It took us a little over a week to do each of ‘em.”
In 2003, Eddy reexamined his ‘50s roots on Rock ‘n’ Roll City, a stomping collaboration with the guitar-wielding masked marauders known as Los Straitjackets. “That was just an idea I had off the top of my head,” he says. “I was feeling in a kind of a rockin’ blues/rockabilly mood, and I expressed to John Cain from Rounder, I said, ‘I want to do something with just a little bit different twist from just normal straight blues.’ So he said, ‘What did you have in mind?’ And I whispered in the phone, ‘I want to do some rockabilly!’ he said, ‘Did you say rockabilly?’ I said, ‘Yeah, something in that vein.’ So he said, ‘Let me call Karen and see what she thinks.’
“So he called Karen Leipziger. She said, ‘That may be a good idea. I’ll call Los Straitjackets and see if they’d be interested in recording with you.’ So she called Eddie Angel from Los Straitjackets, and he said, ‘We’d love to record with Eddy, because we do a couple of his songs in our repertoire.’ They do ‘Hillbilly Blues,’ and they do ‘A Real Good Time.’ He said, ‘We do a couple of his songs!’ So then we got together. I flew down to Nashville and rehearsed a couple of days, and the next time I flew down, we recorded it. It took us about a week. So it was fun. It was a different experience.”
Not so coincidentally, Reservation Blues was also the name of Clearwater’s now-defunct bar in Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, which lasted for nearly two years. “We could have sustained, had I had enough time to be there,” says Eddy. “But my wife and I, we travel together, so when no one is there to take care of your business, you know what can happen with that. As they say, ‘When the mice is away, the cats will play!’ You come back, there’s no liquor and no money either! So that’s the reason. We leased it out. We still own the building.”
Eddy’s wife, Renee Greenman, is heavily involved in every facet of her hubby’s career, including his management. The coosome twosome met at one of Eddy’s gigs at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. “I came to work at B.L.U.E.S. one night, came in to set up my equipment, and she was sitting there,” he remembers. “Just sitting there at a table, right in front of the stage. And I said, ‘Oh, she looks like she might be a nice person!’ So I went up and played a set, and I came down. I went over and spoke to her. She said, ‘You look real nice under the lights!’ I said, ‘Thank you very much. You look pretty nice yourself!’
“So the next gig I played a couple of nights later was at Shades in Deerfield. And Leroy Brown, we were standing out in front of Shades. And Leroy said, ‘That lady that just got out of the car, that’s the same lady that was at B.L.U.E.S. the other night.’ I looked, and sure enough, it was her. So then I escorted her inside and bought her Cokes, and the rest is history.”
The March 2007 death of Eddy’s longtime sidekick Leroy Brown was a blow to the guitarist. “That was a real shock to me,” he says. Brown, a former member of the Five Du-Tones (they scored a national R&B hit in 1963 with their frantic dance raveup “Shake A Tail Feather”), was a fixture at Eddy’s shows, singing harmonies as he had on Eddy’s The Chief album. The two went back some three decades after meeting at either the Peanut Barrel or Biddy Mulligan’s, two long-shuttered far North Side clubs (Eddy can’t recall which).
Unlike many of his peers, Eddy has no plans to scale back his performing itinerary, continuing his travels as a roving global ambassador for the West Side sound. “Bruce has got me spread all over the place,” he says. “He talked to my agent, and he said, ‘I want Eddy on tour as much as possible!’ So they’ve been booking me like crazy overseas.
“I love it,” he enthusiastically concludes. “Absolutely.”