Sporting a full Native American headdress while bending the strings of his left-handed guitar in a way that defines his unique sound, Chicago’s Eddy Clearwater has been an iconic blues figure for over 60 years. The 82-year-old Clearwater was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016, alongside Elvin Bishop, John Mayall, The Memphis Jug Band and his old friend, Jimmy Johnson.
Clearwater is equal parts blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and describes his hybrid style as “rock-a-blues” “I think they are the same music really,” he said of the two styles. “It’s just that blues is sometimes slowed down a bit and rock ‘n’ roll is played a little faster.”
“I’m ready to bring all my blues energy to Griffith this weekend,” said the man whose global collective of fans call him “The Chief.” That nickname came about because the Macon, Georgia native was raised by his Cherokee grandmother, and in 1976 he took to wearing a traditional headdress as he enters on stage.
“It’s a way to honor her and my roots,” he said of his now trademark adornment of feathers. Clearwater said that now many promoters even put it into the contract for him to wear the headdress. “It’s the first thing my wife packs when I do shows, even before my clothes,” he laughed. “I don’t leave home without it.” The audience loves seeing Clearwater dance onto the stage wearing it, usually while breaking into his namesake song, “They Call Me the Chief.”
That “energy” Clearwater plans to bring to Griffith can be found all over the grooves of his 2014 release, “Soul Funky,” a live album featuring some impressive performances by guest guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks. “My wife suggested we tape my birthday show, and that show is what became the album,” said Clearwater. “We had so much fun that night and you can really hear that when you listen to the record.”
“Fun” is a word Clearwater uses a lot in conversation. “I have a lot of fun playing my music. I love performing for people,” said the octogenarian who started his musical journey when he was age 13 as a means to impress girls. “I started playing because a friend of mine back home played guitar and girls used to gather around him,” laughed Clearwater of his earliest inspiration to make music. “My first real guitar was a Silvertone parlor guitar that I bought form Sears-Roebuck.” Being left-handed, the youngster had to learn to play upside down on a right-handed guitar.
He later came to love the music even more than the attention it brought him, which is when he moved North to Chicago in 1950.
“Chicago is where everybody was,” reflected Clearwater, who went on to play alongside such greats as Magic Sam and Otis Rush, among others. “I saw ‘em all and played with many of them,” he said of the early Chicago blues pioneers.
Those guys greatly influenced Clearwater, who in those days went by the name of Guitar Eddy, before acting on the suggestion of his manager at the time. He changed his professional name to Clear Water, as a play on the name of Muddy Waters. After recording a few singles, he reclaimed his first name and has been Eddy Clearwater since the 1960s.
Clearwater admits there is a lot of the late Chuck Berry’s riffs in his rockier songs like his early hits “Cool Water,” “I Was Gone” and “I Wouldn’t Lay My Guitar Down,” as well as his latter-day fan favorite “Old Time Rocker,” from his 2004 Grammy-nominated album “Rock ‘N’ Roll City.” “Chuck was a very big influence on me,” he said, adding that he was part of a Berry tribute concert just a few weeks ago.
The secret to having a career that lasts a lifetime is simple according to Clearwater, who still enjoys every minute he spends on stage. “You need to love the music and love the people you are playing it for,” advised Clearwater. “A lot of people might play for the pay, but its more than that for me. If I can feel that people are enjoying me playing, I can feel the energy and it makes me want to give them the very best I have. It makes me want to put my best effort forward.”
Clearwater is currently writing songst for what he said will be a blues album in the tradition of another of his influences, the late B.B. King. “I’m working on songs now for that,” he said. “It may be my last album, it may not, but I’m going to approach it (the recording) as if it were, because I want it to be a great record.” Clearwater expects that new album will be released via Alligator Records, the home of his last studio album “West Side Strut,” produced by Ronnie Baker Brooks. More: eddyclearwater.com