Eddy ‘The Chief’ Clearwater is a blues guitarist from Chicago via Macon, Mississippi. He started playing guitar in 1950 and has shared the stage with such blues legends as Otis Rush, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and a host of others. At the age of 83, he is still going strong with plans to play shows this summer in Europe. He has some great stories of his first job in Chicago, getting his name, playing with some of the greats and so much more. I hope you enjoy this little piece of Chicago Blues history.
Let’s Rock: How are you doing?
Eddy: I’m good. How are you today?
LR: I’m good. Thank you so much for doing this.
Eddy: Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me
LR: When did you pick up the guitar?
Eddy: Oh God. When I was like 14 years old, back in Mississippi
LR: In Mississippi?
Eddy: Oh yeah, Macon Mississippi.
LR: And why did you pick it up?
Eddy: Well, I always had the ambition to play the guitar. I just thought it was very interesting, so I just wanted to play, you know. And later on I got to hear people like Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and later on Chuck Berry. And B.B. King. Don’t forget B.B, King (laughs)
LR: How can you forget B.B. King?
LR: He had the name that suited him well, didn’t he?
Eddy: Oh, absolutely. Yes. Quite well.
LR: And, you moved up to Chicago…?
Eddy: I moved to Chicago at the age 15. I had an uncle that lived here, so he invited me to come to Chicago to pursue my dream. So I wrote him back and asked him to send me a ticket and I’ll be on my way. So, he sent me a ticket on a Greyhound bus for 15 bucks in September of 1950. I’ve been in Chicago ever since.
LR: And according to your bio, you had to work a job as a dishwasher…
Eddy: Oh yeah. My first job was being a dishwasher. Washing dishes and being a busboy in a restaurant. Little Jack’s Restaurant. In Chicago.
LR: Wow, and that led to getting gigs in town?
Eddy: Yeah. See, what happened…At that time, I didn’t have a guitar. I didn’t own a guitar, but there was a pawn shop right next door to the restaurant, and everyday on my lunch hour, I would go over to the pawn shop and look in the window. They had an Epiphone guitar and amp in the window of the pawn shop.
So, I finally got up enough nerve to go in the pawn shop and ask them what the price of it was. They said 175 bucks for the guitar and amp.
I worked washing dishes, and there was a bank across the street, on the next corner across the street. Every time I got paid, I was making 37 dollars a week. And everything over my expenses, I would go over and put it in that bank, in my bank account. I saved up enough money to get the guitar, so I got my first guitar.
LR: Do you still have that guitar?
Eddy: No, I wish I would have kept it. It was an Epiphone. I have an Epiphone now, but it’s a newer one. I wish I would have kept that Epiphone. It was a hollow body Epiphone.
LR: Oh, I’m sure. That would be great to have still.
Eddy: Oh absolutely.
LR: What year was this? 1950…?
Eddy: That would have been 1951 when I got the job at the restaurant.
LR: And around that time, who was playing around Chicago?
Eddy: Around that time in Chicago? People like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and a few other people. That was right before I met (inaudible) and a harp player named Mack Simmons. He (let me play) on the bandstand.
So, I got to see Muddy waters and Little Walker and also Jimmy Reed. They were all playing in Chicago at that time.
LR: Did you ever get to jam with those guys?
Eddy: Oh, absolutely. Many times over, yeah. Quite exciting when I played with them. Very exciting.
LR: I can imagine. Those are some serious legends.
Eddy: Oh God yeah. I was in Blues heaven…I felt like.
Question for you.
Eddy: Is the Rainbow Room still open in Ottawa?
LR: (The Rainbow Room is a blues club in downtown Ottawa, Canada. Having been out of the country for many years, I was unsure if it was still open. Turns out it is.) The Rainbow Room? I think so. Have you played there?
Eddy: Quite a few times. Oh yeah.
Eddy: Oh yeah. I used to play the Rainbow room when I was out East in Canada. I would do Toronto and Ottawa at the Rainbow Room.
LR: When are you coming back?
Eddy: I’d love to. As soon as they invite me, I’ll be back. (laughs) I love Canada a lot.
LR: I’ll get in touch with them and tell them to giv you a call.
Eddy: I really would appreciate it. I haven’t played there now in a few years. I played last year in Calgary though.
LR: So you still get a round quite a bit?
Eddy: Oh, absolutely. Vancouver. I used to play Vancouver a lot.
LR: Now, back to your guitar playing. I’m fascinated by this: you’re a left-handed player, but you just play upside down.
Eddy: Upside down. A right-handed guitar. Exactly.
LR: Why is that?
Eddy: Well, I’m just left-handed. When I was in school, I wrote left-handed until my teacher yelled at me a few times. She tried to get me to be right-handed. (laughs) So, I would do it when I was in school but the minute I got out of school, I went right back to the left hand.
LR: But were there no left-handed guitars back then?
Eddy: Not then, no. I had never seen one.
LR: Oh, really!
Eddy: I just had to play it upside down. Later on I met Otis Rush. And then I met Albert King and I said, well, at least I’m in good company. (laughs)
LR: Do they play upside down as well?
Eddy: Oh, absolutely. Otis Rush…very left-handed.
LR: So, tell us a bit about what the gigs were like back in the 50s when you were playing!
Eddy: Well, back then, gigs in Chicago, on the Westside and the Southside of Chicago, gigs were plentiful. Because, at that time, all the black clubs had Blues. There was no such thing as a Blues club in the white area, which is the North side of Chicago. But later it on, it extended to the North side of Chicago and that’s when it really started to escalate.
LR: No, at that time, were you writing music?
Eddy: Well, my first song that I wrote was Boogie Woogie Baby.
LR: Boogie Woogie Baby!
Eddy: And Hillbilly Blues. Those were my first two songs that I wrote.
LR: I just saw on your website that you just played a show this month with Buddy Guy…
Eddy: Oh yeah. At Legends. 7th of January.
LR: How was that?
Eddy: Oh, great. We had a great time. Totally sold-out on a Friday night. And the next night was my birthday party at S.P.A.C.E in Evanston.
LR: So, what are you now? 83?
LR: 83 years old and you’re still rockin’ out.
Eddy: Oh, still living the Blues. I wrote a new song for my new album called Never Too Old To Rock and Roll. (Laughs)
LR: (laughs) Ain’t that the truth?
Eddy: Rock and Roll is here to stay, Rock and Roll will never go away. If Elvis was alive, we’d hear him say, you’re never too old to Rock and roll. (laughs)
LR: I guess the rock and roll style that you have came from Chuck Berry.
Eddy: Chuck Berry. My all-time hero. I performed with one time at a club in the suburbs of Chicago called the Manna Lounge (?). We had a good time together. I was quite enthused being in his presence.
LR: I would say that most of the rock music and blues music we hear today is all from him.
Eddy: Absolutely. Yes. To be very modest, Chuck Berry was the King of rock and roll. That’s who really put it on the map.
LR: That’s right. What do you think of all the guys who came after you? Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton?
Eddy: Well, I did one concert with Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
LR: Oh, you played with him?
Eddy: I think it was great because they’re doing a good job with it, causing more young people to listen to the blues by hearing these guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. That’s who the young white kids listen to or they wouldn’t know anything about Lightning Hopkins or John Lee Hooker. But they heard Stevie Ray Vaughan and they said, ah, that’s great stuff, and they come to realize that that’s blues that they’re playing. (laughs)
And Stevie was always saying, right away, he said, I got all my music…I learned it from people like Albert King and Buddy Guy and people like that. Ans Eric Clapton’s the same way. We’d be putting all the praise in the world on him for being the King of the Blues but then a lot of white people listen to it that have never heard of it if it hadn’t been for these people.
LR: So they basically introduced it to a new audience.
Eddy: Oh yeah, exctly. It took the Rolling Stones to introduce the Blues to black people in America. (laughs)
LR: And all they were doing was copying the Blues before them.
Eddy: Right, exactly. Copying the Blues.
LR: That’s right. They were big Chuck Berry fans too.
Eddy: Oh absolutely. Oh yeah. The Stones were big Chuck Berry fans.
LR: Let’s talk about your name. I read an interesting story about how you got your name. Eddy Clearwater. How did you get that name?
Eddy: My one time manager and booking agent, he wanted to sign me to a booking contract, and he said, I wanna change your name from Eddy Harrington to Clearwater. I said, Clear Water. He said, yeah, we have Muddy Waters. We can change your name to Clear Water. And then Sonny Coxton (?) from King Records wanted to sign me to a recording contract. He said I thought you were Eddy Clearwater, cuz Eddy is my first name, as you know. So, that’s how it came around.
LR: And what about The Chief?
Eddy: That was Jim O’neal from Rooster Records. We were gonna do an album in 1980, the album is called The Chief. And the way I got named The Chief, I said to Jim, I wanna ride a horse and wear my headdress for the album cover, the artwork. So Jim rented a horse and we shot the pictures for the album cover. When we finished with the photo session, Jim O’neal said we’d call the album, The Chief. Everyone started calling me the Chief after that.
LR: That’s awesome. Why did it take you so long to make your first album?
Eddy: Opportunity. Looking for the right opportunity. At that time, there were only two well-known record companies in Chicago, at that time, which were Chess and Vee-Jay. Chess had Bo Diddley and Vee Jay had Jimmy Reed and people like that, so that was not a lot of outlets with Blues record companies.
I was a little bit to shy to go to Chess looking for a recording contract cuz everyone called me a Chuck Berry imitator. Until Bruce Iglauer heard my album The Chief, and that’s when he dicided he was convinced, you know. From Alligator (Records).
LR: But that was 25 years after you started?
Eddy: Yeah, right. MY first album was The Chief.
LR: Wow, so were you able to make a living just gigging in Chicago?
Eddy: Oh yeah. Full time. Six or seven days a week. At that time, when a club booked you, they would book you for the better part of a week, say Wednesday through Saturday. And, as a matter of fact, when I first started to coming to Canada, all the clubs did was book you for a whole week, at one club. From Wednesday to Saturday. It was much different from what it is now.
LR: I can’t imagine that. You never get tired of playing seven nights a week?
Eddy: Well, if you like doing what you’re doing, you really enjoy doing it. You’re tired, but you rest up an start over again. (laughs)
LR: How many hours were you doing a night?
Eddy: The standard was three 1 hour shows.
LR” Every night!
Eddy: Every night, yeah. Three 1 hour shows. Five nights a week. Five or six nights a week.
LR: That’s exhausting.
Eddy: It was really exhausting. It’s a good thing I was younger at that time. (laughs)
LR: How many shows do you play now?
Eddy: Well, I’m cutting down quite a bit. When I’m on tour I do three or four nights a week. When I’m touring out of town.
LR: How do you do that. I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning I’m so exhausted.
Eddy: (laughs) Well, I’ll tell you. It has it’s moments you know? You’ve gotta really love what you’re doing, you know? I play music for the love of it. For the love of the music and the love of the people. That’s the main reason to do it.