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Music Review: Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater – West Side Strut

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The great thing about the Blues is how it changes from geographical area to geographical area but still manages to retain enough of its characteristics to be obviously the Blues. In Los Angeles they play what they call West Coast Blues and in Mississippi they have Delta Blues. As befits its pride, Texas has laid claim to its own version of the Blues, while up in Oklahoma and Tennessee they play what they call Piedmont style.

Outside of the Mississippi Delta Blues probably the most well known and established of the sounds is the one that originated in south west Chicago. The origins of Blues in Chicago are tied up in the migration of African Americans leaving the Southern states looking for work. From the time that slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War, until integration was enforced in the 1960s and Jim Crow laws were abolished, Illinois was the demarcation line denoting the end of sitting in the back of the bus for African Americans.

While Chicago still had its establishments that refused to serve "coloureds," at least there was work to be found and there weren't laws that enforced bigotry. After the end of World War II, the flow of refugees from the South turned into a flood as people went north to take advantage of the post-war boom. Chicago had been home to a thriving African American music scene since the early days of the twentieth century that was probably second only to New York City in size. So it was only natural that it wasn't just people looking for regular work that came north, but musicians did as well.
Eddy Clearwater.jpg
Eddy Clearwater was one of those who came up looking for a musical future and it didn't take him long to become a permanent fixture on the Chicago Blues scene. He was born in 1935 in Macon County Mississippi and in 1948 his family moved to Birmingham Alabama. He had to teach himself to play the guitar upside down as he was a lefty. His first break came playing guitar for the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and when he arrived in Chicago his first gigs were with Gospel groups, but gradually he started hooking up with Blues musicians.

He started his career using the name "Guitar Eddy" but changed it for his first recording to Clear Waters (his manager came up with it as a play on Muddy Waters) which soon evolved into Clearwater. He was one of the first Blues players to incorporate Rock and Roll into his Blues, paving the way for him to be able to keep playing in the '60s and '70s when the bottom fell out of the Blues market; at that time he was able to play steadily on the North Side of Chicago for young white audiences more interested in Rock and Roll than Blues.

But no matter how you slice it, if you cut open a Blues man's music you'll always find the Blues at the centre of things, and Eddy Clearwater is no exception. 73 he's just released a new album on Alligator Records called West Side Strut that not only rocks the joint, but reaches back to his Gospel roots and travels deep into his Blues soul. West Side Strut is an intergenerational, family affair, as both his nephew Ronnie Baker Brooks and Ronnie's dad Lonnie Brooks take part. Well Ronnie does more than just take part as he produced the CD and he and Eddy wrote five of the tracks together, and Ronnie contributed "Too Old To Get Married" for his uncle and his father to duet on.

The first thing that you'll notice listening to this disc is how much fun everybody is having. It comes out in the banter that they exchange between songs or even during them as he and Ronnie exchange leads, or Eddy and Lonnie tease each other during their song together. "Too Old To Get Married" is one of those songs that have the potential to be "cute" if handled the wrong way, but not these two guys. They turn it into a humorous take on their own lives and use it to poke affectionate fun at the fact that they're each old men still playing a supposedly younger man's game.

Well, I'd like to see the younger man who can keep up to Eddy's guitar playing. With Ronnie Baker Brooks pushing him, he uncorks some incredibly hot guitar. Yet while he's fast on the fret board he doesn't give you the impression, like so many younger players do, of trying to cram notes into places they don't belong. There's more than just technique that guides his playing; there's the heart and soul of a man whose father picked cotton for a living and who grew up in the South in the '30s.

On "Came Up The Hard Way" Eddy and Ronnie each recount the stories of their respective early years, and they represent the difficulties that have faced and still face today — African Americans coming of age as second class citizens. For Eddy it was the life of a field hand's son and for Ronnie it was growing up in the inner city ghetto. In spite of the difference in environments and a couple of generations separating them their experiences on an emotional level are pretty much interchangeable making it one of the less enthusiastic endorsements for the American way of life and a great Blues tune and the same time.

Eddy also shows the depth of his soul on two beautiful songs, one of them co-written by his publicist, (a woman who I've received work from in the past) Karen Leipziger; the other he wrote with Ronnie. The former is summed up perfectly by its title of "Do Unto Others" the first words of the so called Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you," which hardly anybody abides by anymore. It's a beautiful, Gospel tinged plea, for people to try and show a little more compassion in their dealings with others.

"A Time For Peace" is another song where the title tells the story without too much elaboration needed. It's a heartfelt plea for peace in a world which really seems to have forgotten what that word means anymore. On both these songs Eddie digs deep within himself and shows the empathy that makes him such a fine Bluesman. You can't play the Blues with any sort of sincerity without being able to feel what other people are feeling, and in these songs Eddy shows us just how well he can articulate what so many people in the world are crying out for these days.

West Side Strut is a fine example of the great sound of Chicago Blues, played by one of the old masters. Listening to Eddy Clearwater is an experience that you don't want to miss, and now you have the opportunity to hear him in all his glory. From hard rocking Blues to soul stirring Gospel, this disc covers all the bases, and will have you believing that he really is Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.