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Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater - West Side Strut
Alligator Records # ALCD 4921

By James “Skyy Dobro” Walker

12 songs; 53:15 minutes; Library Quality
Genre: Chicago Blues with some Rockabilly, Rock and Roll, Soul, and Gospel

Who would have given credence to a Clearwater revival? Two men did: the 73-year-old bluesman himself, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater and Bruce Iglauer, president of blues’ biggest indie label, Chicago’s Alligator Records. After a decades’ long career, Clearwater has released his first album on Alligator, and it just may be his best ever.

“It’s a dream come true. Recording for Alligator is a dream I’ve had for many years, and it’s worked out ten times better that I expected,” says Clearwater in an interview with Jeff Johnson, blues writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Johnson further mentions in the liner notes Clearwater’s “pride” with the album “after previous efforts for the [labels] Rooster Blues, Rounder and Bullseye, among others.”

He was born Edward Harrington (a cousin of late harpist Carey Bell Harrington) on January 10, 1935 in Macon, Mississippi. With music from Blues to Gospel to Country & Western surrounding him, southpaw Eddy taught himself to play guitar left-handed and upside down. After moving to Chicago in 1950, Eddy met many of Chicago’s blues stars, namely “Magic Sam” Maghett, who would become one of Eddy’s closest friends and teachers.

By 1953, as “Guitar Eddy,” he made a strong name for himself working the South and West Side bars regularly. During the 1950s, Chicago’s West Side was a hot bed of some of the world’s greatest bluesmen. Otis Rush, Freddie King, Luther Allison and others ruled the clubs. He met and befriended everyone from Sunnyland Slim to Earl Hooker, picking up licks and lessons along the way. After hearing Chuck Berry in 1957, Eddy added that Rock and Roll element to his blues style, creating a unique sound that defines him to this day.

Drummer Jump Jackson invented Eddy's stage name “Clear Waters” – later just “Clearwater,” as a takeoff on the name of “Muddy Waters” (McKinley Morganfield). “The Chief” is a nickname from often opening shows wearing a Native American headdress as an ode to his grandmother’s Cherokee ancestry.

The album’s title West Side Strut is a tribute to his old neighborhood. “West Side Blues” is frequently mentioned in blues circles, but a good definition differentiating it from other styles is as illusive as a good paying club gig during a recession. The “Classic Chicago Blues” style was developed by fully amplifying Delta blues, putting it into a small-band context. Adding drums, bass, and piano to the basic six-string guitar and harmonica duo created the now standard blues band lineup. Singers, guitarists, pianists, and harmonica players can be the featured performer in front. Later, with newer and younger guitarists taking their ideas from the lead guitar work of truly creative national heroes, the “West Side” subgenre was born. Suggested to be the model used by power-trios like Eric Clapton’s Cream, West Side Blues put the guitar player out front in a strong and powerful role. “You had to have a lot of energy....You had to come on strong, or you wouldn’t be out there,” says Clearwater. With producer Ronnie Baker Brooks and guests, Clearwater demonstrates his ability on the album to play several styles.

The smile inducing first track has clever Clearwater/Brooks lyrics and a Classic Chicago Blues ensemble. With guests Billy Branch on harmonica, Daryl Couts – piano, RB Brooks on second guitar, and Brooks’ band regulars on bass (Carlton Armstrong) and drums (Maurice “Moe” Taylor), The Chief plays lead guitar and sings, I am going to give you (instead of a damn-good-whuppin’) “a damn ‘Good Leavin’ Alone.’”

“Hypnotized” showcases that West Side sound with Brooks peeling off scorching riff after riff in front of Steve Herrman arranged horns. Horns were often used in early West Side sessions, like for Otis Rush on Cobra.

Changing the tempo and mood, the third track, “Gotta Move On” is a plaintive ballad featuring Eddy’s formidable vocals. This track was first to catch me singing along on the second listen. It captivates with swelling organ and horn harmonies and solos courtesy of Dennis Taylor’s saxophones, Earnest Williamson’s clarinet, and Hermann’s trumpet.

Muddy Waters’ “Walking through The Park” and Lowell Fulson’s “Trouble, Trouble” are the only covers with the former being a fun, full-ensemble romp through the park and the latter a slower, heartfelt rendition.

Old friend and father of Ronnie Baker, Lonnie Brooks drops by the studio for a humorous, burning guitar number, “Too Old To Get Married” (but too young to be buried).

Reflecting his more serious side, Clearwater takes us to church twice, first on a Leipziger/Flemming original “Do Unto Others” with vocal guests Otis Clay and Jimmy Johnson on co-leads and Lonnie Brooks on background vocals. The theme of altruism continues in the Clearwater/Brooks song “A time For Peace” featuring what sounds like a full Gospel choir with accompanying organ swells.

A Chicago legend who has recorded for 50 years, Clearwater is an intense, flamboyant blues-rocking showman. With his fierce guitar playing, soulful and emotive vocals and wild stage shows, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, and this album, easily belong on everybody’s Chicago’s A-list.

James “Skyy Dobro” Walker is a noted Blues writer, DJ and Blues Blast contributor. His weekly radio show “Friends of the Blues” can be heard each Thursday from 4:30 – 6:00pm on WKCC 91.1 FM in Kankakee, IL

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