Creedence Clearwater Revival: Three of a kind

by Chris M. Junior

In terms of artistic achievements and commercial success, 1969 was a very good year for Creedence Clearwater Revival.

In ’69, Creedence released three studio albums, scored seven Billboard Hot 100 chart entries and made multiple TV and rock festival appearances — all told, more than most bands achieve in an entire career.

But while 1969 was both a breakthrough and watershed year for CCR, all was not perfect behind the scenes.

Pressure and friction was developing within the ranks, and the events of 1969 would have a lasting impact on group dynamics and relationships throughout the rest of the band’s career.

Heading into ’69, Creedence Clearwater Revival was a moderately successful quartet from the fruitful San Francisco-area music scene — and the band certainly had paid its dues.

For most of the previous decade — first under the name Tommy and the Blue Velvets, then The Golliwogs — CCR singer/guitarist John Fogerty, guitarist/singer Tom Fogerty (John’s older brother), bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford performed and recorded songs that were deeply influenced by rock’s 1950s pioneers and the 1960s British Invasion. Despite making some quality music, the best that the El Cerrito, Calif.-bred group could do was make a little noise around Northern California.

The switch to the Creedence Clearwater Revival moniker circa 1967 coincided with John Fogerty taking over as lead singer and chief songwriter, as well as the emergence of a slightly different sound. It featured a hybrid of mostly American influences, and that blend, which would later be combined with Fogerty’s lyrical references to New Orleans and its surrounding area, led to the CCR sound being dubbed “swamp rock.”

“When we were growing up, it was post-World War II in the Bay Area, and there was a tremendous diversity of music available on the radio,” Cook explains. “During the war, people from all over the United States had come to the Bay Area to work in the heavy industry that was necessary for the war effort. And they brought their musical heritage with them.

“So what happened was, radio stations came into existence that focused on and catered to those audiences … you got your rhythm-and-blues stations, your country-and-western stations, pop stations — a complete spectrum of American music that you could listen to.”

Pressure cooker

CCR released its self-titled debut album in mid-1968 on Fantasy Records. It featured only eight songs, but two of them — “Suzie Q.” (a cover of “Susie-Q,” a 1957 hit for Dale Hawkins) and “I Put A Spell On You” (a rendition of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins signature tune from 1956) — made the Billboard Hot 100, reaching #11 and #58, respectively.

“We were lucky to have some success, but it still wasn’t 100 percent ours,” Clifford says. “We had a hit single, but it wasn’t an original single. The album had peaked and our second single had failed, basically.”

Leading up to the recording of CCR’s second album, Clifford says the pressure was on to have a single that was an original composition.

“We knew that if that didn’t happen on the next album that we would probably be one of many one-hit wonders,” he adds.

John Fogerty acknowledged in a 2007 interview with the Pitchfork Web site that he felt CCR was facing the possibility of that very fate. Viewing his band as an underdog on “the tiniest record label in the world,” without a publicist, manager or financial backing, he determined that the best shot at getting somewhere was to step up his game.

“What I saw was people who could make music that was basically coming from me,” Fogerty told Pitchfork’s Joshua Klein. “I don’t mean that to sound full of myself; it was just an honest appraisal. Basically I wanted to do what The Beatles had done. I sensed that I just had to do it myself.

“So I got very, very busy,” he added. “Every night I worked on writing songs from about 9 o’clock until about 4 o’clock in the morning. I had a routine … the music was coming really quickly, and it was really good. That was the amazing part. There was so much stuff at a really high level.”

Recorded at RCA Studios in Los Angeles with Hank McGill, CCR’s second album, Bayou Country, was released in January 1969 on Fantasy. Like the first Creedence album, it included outside material — a spirited take on Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” But it was “Proud Mary,” a John Fogerty original, that became a hit single for the band, and it would spend 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #2.

Clifford remembers that the ominous, intense “Born On The Bayou” was supposed to be the A-side of that single — not the upbeat, hook-filled “Proud Mary.”

“I didn’t think ‘Proud Mary’ was that good, if you want to know the truth about it,” he says. “I just didn’t like it. I liked ‘Born on the Bayou’ — to this day, it’s still my favorite Creedence song. It’s nasty, and I was disappointed when [the single] got flipped.

“I must say I’ve had a change of heart over 40 years, and I love ‘Proud Mary,’” Clifford adds, laughing.

Bayou Country, which reached as high as #7 in America, also was notable for its out-of-focus cover shot, which Clifford describes as “a good mistake.”

“It’s just like when you’re playing golf and you hit a crappy shot, but it somehow manages to roll up on the green,” he says. “What happened there was zoom lenses were just starting to happen, and the photographer had spent a large amount of money for one of these zoom lenses. I think it was one of the first shoots, if not the first shoot, that he had used this thing.

“He was trying to get it to work … it took the photograph while the lens was moving, so that’s why it’s out of focus and looks three-dimensional, but it looks really, really cool.”

The ‘RCA setup’

Creedence didn’t waste much time getting to work recording a follow-up to Bayou Country. This time around, the band stuck close to home and used Wally Heider Recording, at that time a relatively new facility in San Francisco. CCR’s experience at Heider up to that point consisted of a single session to record the instrumentals “Glory Be” and “Briar Patch.”

“My impression of the band was that these guys can work fast, and they did,” recalls engineer Russ Gary. “They came in one afternoon, recorded those two things and were gone — maybe in four-and-a-half hours.”

When Creedence booked time in Heider’s Studio C to record the songs “Green River” and “Commotion,” Gary was given the assignment to engineer that session as well as the subsequent sessions for the rest of the songs that would be on the Green River album.

According to Gary, basic instrumental tracks were recorded with all four musicians playing at the same time. CCR positioned its equipment so that the drums were against the studio’s back wall, straight across from the control-room window, and the amplifiers were set in a small circle directly in front of the drums.

Gary, who was curious about the way everything was arranged, asked John Fogerty about it.

“He said, ‘This is the way we did it at RCA,’” Gary says. “So I call it the RCA setup — it worked well, and that’s the way I’ve done it ever since.”

Once basic tracks were finished, Cook, Clifford and Tom Fogerty would disappear, Gary says, leaving John Fogerty to handle all of the instrumental overdubs and vocals — and that’s just the way John wanted it.

“Evidently, once they started to be successful with the Bayou Country album, the other guys wanted to have input on more bass, more drums, more this, more that,” Gary says. “And [John] felt that they were his songs and they should be the way he wanted them to be. So that’s when they had their discussion that resulted in the fact that they would leave once the basic tracks were done, and John could just finish them off.”

CCR released a pair of singles prior to the arrival of the Green River album. First was “Bad Moon Rising” backed by “Lodi,” then “Green River” backed by “Commotion.” Both singles were two-sided hits, with the A sides spiralling to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Going to Woodstock

Green River, CCR’s third album overall and second of ’69, was released in August, which also was a big month for the band concert-wise.

With three major music festivals already under its belt through July ’69, CCR had two more in August. The first was the Atlantic City Pop Festival in Atlantic City, N.J., on Aug. 1, starring fellow San Francisco-area bands Jefferson Airplane and Santana, among other acts.

That was followed by the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in upstate New York, which was a memorable experience for the band in more ways than one.

As Woodstock was getting started on Aug. 15, Creedence was taping a segment for “The Andy Williams Show.” Technical problems plagued the shoot, causing the band to catch a red-eye flight to upstate New York.

“We flew all night and got there Saturday, and by the time we got there, it had become a free concert,” Cook says. “We had no idea what was going on or what we were going into. I thought it would be like all the other ones, I guess.”

Clifford initially thought the same.

“We’d seen crowds of 100,000 or 150,000 people before,” he says, “and we didn’t believe there would be half a million people at this thing.”

After their plane landed, the band members had to take a bubble-top helicopter the rest of the way in order to get to the stage area. They went two at a time, and it wasn’t exactly a lesson in aviation safety: Clifford and John Fogerty shared a seat, with half of Clifford’s body hanging outside of the helicopter as he held onto Fogerty’s safety belt with his left hand.

The view from the helicopter did enable Clifford to see for himself how big the crowd really was.

“We were flying low,” he says, “and as we came over this rise and looked out at the crowd, I said, ‘Oh my God, there are at least half a million people here,’ just by virtue of what we had seen before.”

While fans had to deal with muddy grounds thanks to heavy downpours, the bands had comfortable backstage accommodations, Cook says, complete with food and drink. But the rain did lead to onstage technical issues, which impacted the beginning of CCR’s set.

“Once we got those sorted out, it was just about playing and knowing there were a lot of folks out there,” Clifford says. “We had to energize them, because it was so early or so late [when we went on], depending on your perspective.

“I could literally feel the energy there,” he adds. “It was a unique time in history that something like that could happen. In the worst of conditions, people got along fine.”

Leaving Woodstock was just as challenging as getting there. Clifford remembers they paid a farm boy $100 to drive the band away from the site in order to make a gig in New Jersey with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Green River became the first CCR album to hit No. 1 in America, and John Fogerty was quickly establishing himself as one of rock’s premier songwriters. Unbeknownst to the public was Fogerty’s motivation for cranking out so much material in such a short period of time.

Cook recalls Fogerty having an “almost morbid fear of being off the charts,” and with Creedence as “the only artist really releasing product of any consequence on Fantasy,” the label was not about to tell the band to ease up on its output.

“If [Fantasy] didn’t release it immediately, they certainly would have released it at some point on their own schedule,” Cook says. “If we could have done five [albums in a year], maybe the label would have released all five. It wasn’t the same at Sony or Warner Bros. … it was a different situation for us, and I think we fell victim to it.”

Clifford also remembers Fogerty’s belief that “if we ever went off the charts, we would be done.” With Creedence releasing so much material so quickly, Clifford felt that it not only took a toll on the band but also took away its leverage from Fantasy.

Clifford also remembers there were other sources of stress on CCR’s bandleader during ’69.

“John was doing the managing, trying to do everything, and that was a mistake,” Clifford says. “He didn’t have any experience [with managing]. He’s a great talent, and there’s no question about that, but he didn’t have a clue about the business. Deals were made that weren’t good, and deals that were good weren’t made.”

There also was a strain between the Fogerty brothers, according to Clifford. After Tom gave up the role of lead singer when the band became CCR, Clifford says, “John wouldn’t allow him to even sing a cover song, and we did [12] covers [in our recording career]. Tom felt that he had been slighted, but John wouldn’t let him submit any song material — just basically said, ‘Play rhythm guitar and shut up.’ ”

Blue-collar sound

CCR returned to Heider’s facility to record Willy And The Poor Boys, which Fantasy released in November 1969. The band’s Billboard Hot 100 presence continued through the end of the year thanks to the two-sided hit single “Down On The Corner” (which peaked at #3) backed by “Fortunate Son” (#14).

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of “Down On The Corner” is its wall of backing vocals. It was common practice for Gary to run the tape machine at less than normal speed during the recording of backing vocal overdubs “just to spruce them up a little bit.”

“You record them a tad slow,” Gary explains, “and when they are played back, they have a little crisper edge on them. And that’s why those vocals are so precise and pinpoint, because we always recorded the background singing a little slow.”

Like previous CCR albums, Willy And The Poor Boys was blue-collar in sound and in content, and that theme also was reflected in the album’s artwork. When Clifford, Cook and the Fogerty brothers set up in front of the Duck Kee Market in Oakland, Calif., for the cover photo, they were joined by some unexpected visitors.

“Those are kids from the neighborhood — they just wandered up while we were having the photo shoot,” Cook recalls with a laugh. “We met the photographer at the label office and walked across the street — Willy and the Poor Boys were a corner band, with a bass, washboard, rhythm guitar and a harmonica. That was the band. The idea was that we played on that corner for nickels and quarters.”

As for the music, Clifford counts the hit “Fortunate Son,” John Fogerty’s no-holds-barred take on the inequities of the draft, as one of his favorites, as well as the album’s closer, the haunting “Effigy.”

“It’s so powerful, and it’s taking a shot at the powers who were running the whole mess at the time,” he explains. “It sort of set the tone for the following albums, I think.”

As far as CCR’s output in 1969, “There wasn’t another band out there that I know of that ever put out three albums in one year, so it was both good and bad,” says Clifford, who these days plays with Cook in Creedence Clearwater Revisited. “It was good to have the success, but it would have been better for everyone had we spread it out a little bit more and not had so much pressure to be on the charts.

“We did the best we could with what we had,” he adds, “and that’s what we’d always done, quite honestly.”


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