Over the last six decades, Eddy Clearwater has experienced every facet of the blues business.
Not only has he dazzled audiences around the world with his hearty vocals and slashing guitar work—a hybrid of Chuck Berry, Magic Sam, and his own innovations incorporating blues, rock and roll, and a dash of rockabilly—he’s owned his own record label and operated his own blues bar. The proud Chicago blues ambassador is a champion outside the immediate city limits as well. For the last 20 years a north suburban resident with his wife, Renee Greenman, he’s even written a song celebrating his adopted homebase, “Skokie Is A First-Class Town.”
“It’s just a song I had in my head. I was just playing around with it,” says Clearwater. “I said, ‘I’ve been all around the world, when I settle down; I’ll settle down in Skokie because Skokie is a first-class town.’ I was just kidding around. I said, ‘I think I’ll make a song out of that!’” If all goes as planned, it’ll be on his encore album for Alligator, planned as a belated follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2008 studio set West Side Strut (Clearwater released the live Soul Funky in 2014 on his own Cleartone imprint). Skokie will present Eddy with a proclamation on January 2 honoring him for his long residence in the suburb.
Prior to moving to Skokie, Eddy lived in Westmont, the same western enclave that hosted Muddy Waters during his last years on the planet. Westmont granted its former resident a key to the village in 2016. “It was their idea. They came up and said, ‘You used to live here,’ so they gave me a proclamation,” says Clearwater. “I enjoyed being there when I was there.”
Clearwater has plenty going on. He’ll be celebrating his birthday with a show at SPACE in Evanston on January 6, and he’s working with the PCa Blue Foundation to increase prostate cancer awareness. To that end, Eddy is signing a guitar that will be raffled off to raise funds at his January 5 opening slot for Buddy Guy at Legends (he’s also giving a percentage of his royalties to PCa Blue). “My agent is working on a whole bunch of tours for next year,” reports Clearwater. “Europe is definitely included. He’s putting some ideas together now for it.”
Eddy Harrington was born in rural Macon, Mississippi, not far from the Alabama state line. He and his older brother were raised by their grandparents. “I never knew my mom and dad,” he says. “I got to meet my dad twice in my life. My mother, I never even met her. She was killed when I was very young.” Eddy wasn’t the only future bluesman in the family: harmonica wizard Carey Bell Harrington, another Macon native, was his cousin, and his considerably younger cousins Vernon and Joe Harrington later played blues in Chicago as well.
Gospel music was Eddy’s first influence, but that soon changed. “I never heard any recorded music until my uncle had a little country juke joint, and they put a jukebox in there,” Eddy says. “He had his little juke joint, and I would go there on weekends. Friday and Saturday, he’d have people drinking beer and playing the jukebox. So that’s when I got to hear Louis Jordan on the jukebox. That’s the first time I heard recorded music. Louis Jordan, with ‘Caldonia’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens’ and all those songs. I said, ‘This is great stuff!’”
That uncle, Rev. Houston H. Harrington, played a huge role in Eddy’s life. He was responsible for sparking Eddy’s interest in playing guitar. “My uncle had an old acoustic, and I’d hear him playing around with that thing. But I didn’t think it was okay for me to touch it. So I would listen to him and look at it, but I wouldn’t dare touch it without his permission. So they all left the room one day. They left the bedroom and left the guitar lying on the bed. So I sneaked up to it and I plucked the strings a little bit. He walked in and caught me. He said, ‘No, go ahead and play it! It’s okay!’ So when I realized it was okay to pick it up, then I started picking it up.” The guitar was strung for a right-hander, but Eddy was a lefty. He flipped it over and never looked back.
At 13, Eddy moved to the decidedly more urban Birmingham, Alabama. “My other uncle, Willie B., that was his mom and dad who were my grandparents. He wanted them to move to Alabama because he lived in Birmingham, and there was no one there in Mississippi left to look after my grandma and dad. They were getting older, and they were too old to be on their own by themselves,” he says. “My grandma said, ‘Well, we’ll just pack up and move.’”
Eddy played his southpaw guitar in a neighborhood church, briefly backing a group on the fast track. “The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, they asked me to play for them. They asked my uncle if I would consider playing a few Sundays with them, because they had a guitar player, but he was ill and he had to take off. So they asked me if I would fill in for them. So I said sure. But I didn’t know their music. They let me hear some of it, but I just did the best I could,” he says. “I never realized they were going to become as famous as they did.”
But Eddy wouldn’t be in Birmingham for long. In September of 1950, Rev. Harrington, who had relocated to Chicago, invited his 15-year-old nephew to join him. “He sent me a ticket for the Greyhound bus. $15,” remembers Clearwater. “He said I could broaden my horizons and pursue my musical career. That’s what I always wanted to do, so he said, ‘If you come to Chicago, you’ll have that opportunity.’” The early ‘50s were a glorious era for Chicago blues. “A lot of people at that time were playing here, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, and Elmore James. They were all here playing night after night, locally in Chicago.”
Even though he was tall for his age, Eddy couldn’t get into the blues clubs on his own at first. “My uncle took me with him a few times to see Muddy, like at Sylvio’s, places like that,” says Eddy. The reverend bought his nephew a Silvertone electric guitar and an amp so he could start playing around town. Eddy’s first gig was with harpist Little Mack Simmons. “He needed a guitar player. His guitar player, something happened to him. So he let me play. He used to go to my uncle’s and hang out a lot, Mack Simmons. I’ll never forget—it was a tavern on Cottage Grove and 39th,” says Eddy. “I played a few weekends. I was 18 or 19, I guess.”
Eddy had graduated to a gold Gibson ES-295 cutaway guitar by the time he formed his first band, logically christened Guitar Eddy and the Cutaways. John Hudson manned the other guitar, Rayburn Anthony was on piano, Richard Rogers played drums, and Richard’s brother Johnny handled the vocals. “I didn’t have a bass player,” Clearwater says. “A lot of the bands then were just using second guitar. This was before the Fender bass became popular.”
The reverend cured Eddy of his mic fright. “He’d have people over on the weekend, just singing and drinking, having a few drinks. And I had all my instruments set up in his basement, my guitar. So this one weekend, I noticed him setting up a microphone, right in front of where I was sitting. I said to myself, ‘What is he setting a microphone up for?’ And after he got it all set up and plugged in—he plugged it into the amp—he made an announcement: ‘Now we’re gonna have my nephew sing a few songs for everybody!’ People all started clapping: ‘Yeah!” I said, ‘Oh, no!’ I had never, never approached the mic. I was just too shy for that. So they talked me into it. I did ‘Let’s Have A Party,’” says Eddy. “I said, ‘I can’t believe that he talked me into doing that!’ The guitar I was comfortable with, sitting down playing. But the singing, I had never approached the microphone in front of anybody.”
Right after Eddy debuted publicly as a singer with that heady blast of Elvis, he discovered his musical role model. “I was in my little car, riding down Michigan Avenue. Al Benson was the disc jockey, WGES,” says Eddy, who heard Benson spin Chuck’s “Oh, Baby Doll.” “When he finished, (Al) said, ‘That’s Chuck Berry!’ What he was singing, it was coinciding so well with the music and the guitar. I thought it was totally something I had never heard. And then the next one I heard by him was ‘Maybellene.’ And I liked that one. I said, ‘That’s good!’ And then later on, ‘Johnny B. Goode.’”
Veteran drummer Armand “Jump” Jackson recognized Eddy’s potential. “He wanted to be my booking agent,” he says. “He was with the musicians’ union. So I got in touch with him quite early.” Jackson dreamed up a gimmick that would erase the name of Harrington from Eddy’s billing, telling his client, “I want to change your name to Clear Waters,’ as opposed to Eddy Harrington. So I said, ‘Well, it’s fine with me.’ So he registered me with the musicians’ union,” says Eddy. Chicago’s blues king wasn’t upset with his professional handle being nicked. “Muddy said, ‘This guy that calls himself Clear Waters, I’d like to meet him!’” says Eddy. “So we met, and we became very good friends.”
Rev. Harrington had established his own label, Atomic-H, to record local gospel groups and an occasional bluesman (Homesick James Williamson did a single for him under the odd handle of Jick & His Trio). Naturally, he asked his nephew to record for him. So in 1958, the newly christened Clear Waters debuted on Atomic-H wax with “Boogie Woogie Baby” and the Berry-tinged “Hill Billy Blues.” The single was cut at Balkan Studios in west suburban Berwyn with Lazy Bill Lucas on the 88s and Eddy’s regular rhythm section. The action shifted to Chicago’s Hall Studios for his ‘59 Atomic-H encore, pairing the choppy “I Don’t Know Why” with the quintessential West Side instrumental, “A Minor Cha-Cha.” “I just had an idea for an instrumental, so I started kind of plucking around with it, (saying), ‘Let’s put this on tape and see what happens,’” Clearwater says.
African-American tenor saxist Chuck Smith, who had been on “A Minor Cha-Cha,” introduced Eddy to a Mexican-American band originally from San Antonio, Mando and the Chili Peppers, who were holding down a gig at a tavern at 18th and Blue Island. Bass-playing bandleader Armando Almendarez had taken ill, and the band needed a quick replacement. Despite initial trepidations about mixing the races, everything went fine. “After he was sick and he came back, they said, ‘Why don’t we just keep Eddy in the band, and let him come up on each set and do a few songs?’ They all agreed to it, so that’s what happened. We did a few years together.”
Almandarez was on bass and fellow Chili Peppers Jesse “Chucho” Perales on guitar and Pete Perez on drums when Eddy cut his Berry-inspired 1961 single “Cool Clear Waters,” a tribute to the man himself, for Jump Jackson’s LaSalle label. “Armando wrote that, as a matter of fact,” notes Eddy. A ballad, “Baby Please,” adorned the flip. The single got Eddy a lip-synched bow on Jim Lounsbury’s local Bandstand-style TV show. “They invited me to be interviewed,” says Clearwater. “At the last minute, they said, ‘Come on, Eddy, we’re gonna have you perform!’ I said, ‘Perform? On TV?’ So spontaneously, I had to get up and do it.”
The Chili Peppers introduced Clearwater to local rocker Eddy Bell. “He was a big Buddy Holly fan,” says Clearwater. In addition to gigging with Bell’s Bel-Aires around Fox Lake, Eddy played on Bell’s rocking 1960 Mercury single “The Masked Man (Hi Yo Silver)” as well as Bell’s followup the next year on Lucky Four, “Johnny Be-Goode Is In Hollywood.” In addition to blues joints, Clearwater was now making the rounds of local sock hops. “Every Sunday, all of the kids would come out to the record hops,” says Eddy. When rock and roll failed to make Bell rich, he became a polka star under his real surname, Eddie Blazonczyk.
Pianist Sonny Thompson, King Records’ Chicago A&R man, recruited Clearwater in 1961 to join the Federal label, just as he had West Side powerhouse Freddie King the year before. Eddy went to the company’s Cincinnati headquarters and cut four sides, again exhibiting Berry’s influence. The band was an all-star Chicago aggregation, with Bobby King on the other guitar, Jesse Anderson on sax, Emmett “Tut” Sutton on bass, and producer Thompson tinkling the ivories as Clearwater rocked through “I Was Gone” and its plattermate “Twist Like This.” He encored with “A Real Good Time” and its B-side “Hey Bernadine,” Federal finally included his first name on both singles, misspelling it “Eddie.” King label owner Syd Nathan left a lasting impression with his nub of a cigar. “He was chewing on it while he was behind the board,” laughs Clearwater.
Things got sparse for Eddy on the recording front after that. He had a 1966 single on Chicago’s USA label that barely saw light of day, the imprint reverting to his old “Clearwater” handle with no first name as the guitarist waxed a double-sided tribute to his musical hero. “The Duck Walk” waxed rhapsodic about Berry’s favorite stage move, while he described a teenage girl begging her folks to attend a Berry concert on “Momee, Momee.” The single was produced by Jimmy Reed’s manager, Al Smith. “He was a little short, stubby guy, and he played a big upright bass, just like Willie Dixon,” says Clearwater.
Even if recording opportunities were sparse, Clearwater had no shortage of gigs. The Western suburbs were prime stomping grounds. “Ralph Capone, he had a club in Lombard, the Ball and Pin,” recalls Eddy (yes, from the infamous Capone family). “He’d walk around with his big cigar: ‘Get hot!’ He used to call me Hot Water!” One 1967 night at the Manor Lounge in Stone Park, Eddy came face to face with his hero. “I wore my hair long. I looked a lot like Chuck,” he says. “Even he said so. Chuck said, ‘I thought I was looking at myself in the mirror for a minute!’”
The hillbilly bars of Uptown loved Clearwater’s brand of rock and roll. One mid-‘60s booking at the Starlite a Go-Go, located at the corner of Sheridan and Leland, found him opening for Jerry Lee Lewis. “I was playing there on weekends,” says Eddy. “They were bringing Jerry Lee in. And it was a real pleasure to work with him. He pounded that piano, man!”
After a funky 1969 single, “Doin’ The Model,” that came out on both Atomic-H and Blazonczyk’s Versa logo, Clearwater took things into his own hands during the ‘70s by inaugurating his own Cleartone label. But it was Jim and Amy O’Neal’s Rooster Blues imprint that issued The Chief, the album that earned Eddy full-fledged blues stardom. All 10 of its dynamic selections were cut at one marathon session in November of 1979, “from 12 o’clock in the day until about 12:30-1:00 at night,” says Clearwater. “Jim O’Neal came in the room, and I was in the studio. He said, ‘Well, I think you just finished!’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ Boy, was I worn out.”
Its title stemmed from Eddy frequently wearing a Native American headdress onstage that he’d acquired from a bartender in Westmont. “I said, ‘That’s a beautiful piece—I’d like to have that for my stage appearance. Can I buy it from you?’ She said, ‘I can’t sell it to you because it belonged to my deceased husband,’” he says. “She said, ‘I won’t sell it to you, but I’ll give it to you as a good luck charm.’ And I shook her hand. I said, ‘I promise I’ll never part with it.’”
There were plenty of fine Clearwater albums after that. Flim Doozie (1986, with fellow southpaw Otis Rush guesting on guitar) and “A Real Good Time” Live! (1990) for Rooster Blues preceded 1992’s Help Yourself on Blind Pig and a string of CDs on Bullseye Blues: Mean Case of the Blues (1996), Cool Blues Walk (1998), Reservation Blues (2000), and Rock ‘n’ Roll City (2003), the latter a rockabilly outing with Los Straitjackets in romping support.
The title of Reservation Blues referred to Clearwater’s blues club of the same name in Wicker Park, which was in business for three years. “The reason we got out of it is because I didn’t want to stop touring, so I had to make a choice between staying home running the club or going on the road touring. So I chose to stay with my career,” says Clearwater. “You have to really be there to run a club. If not, it goes to hell.”
Clearwater is by no means ready to hang up his rocking shoes. “I’m very attracted to rock and roll,” he says. “To me, rock and roll is just another part of the blues.” He’s very optimistic about the future of the blues. “I think it’s starting to escalate,” he says. “It’s going to reach higher, because there are so many young players coming up, younger players. So that’s going to bring it into a whole new chapter.”
Meanwhile, Eddy continues to rack up career honors, notably his 2016 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. “I really felt proud about that,” he says. “It’s good to get the flowers when you can smell ‘em instead of saying, ‘Wait ‘til he dies, then we’ll give him every honor that he deserves.’ I’d rather receive some of it now.”
Check out Eddy’s website at: www.eddyclearwater.com
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.