December 12, 2020

FTV: John Fogerty

  Back in the fall of 2019, the last round of touring by Creedence Clearwater Revisited (or CCR2 as we referred to them) was chronicled in this space (FTV:  CCR  10-16-19).  The article included the following description of their interview with the original CCR and CCR2 rhythm section:  “When CCR’s Complete Studio Albums Deluxe Box Set was released in November of 2018, Classic Rock Magazine sat down with drummer Doug ‘Cosmo’ Clifford and bassist Stu Cook to discuss what Clifford’s wife calls, ‘the saddest story in rock’n’roll.’  Cook describes it as, ‘the most stupid feud in rock history.’  Fortunately, the joy they found playing the music again helped temper some of the hard feelings, but how does one totally forget when they are party to one of the biggest career crash and burns in music history?”  As the end of 2020 neared, my COVID 19 expanded reading time included John Fogerty’s self-penned biography Fortunate Son:  My Life, My Music (Little Brown Books, 2015).  I thought back to the previous CCR/CRR2 themed article and decided that airing one side of the band’s story was unfair to Fogerty.  This edition of FTV is meant to balance out the scales in that regard. 

     When my high school buddy Mitch Eastman loaned me a copy of Willie and the Poor Boys, the cover led me to think they were some kind of country band.  Once Creedence Clearwater Revival’s music began to dominate the airwaves, it proved that looks can be deceiving.  Sporting a flannel shirt long before the grunge wave rolled out of Seattle, the bushy moustached John Fogerty wasn’t like anyone else that was popular at the time.  I liked their records and my high school band, The Twig, ended up learning a couple of their songs along the way.  I remember Have You Ever Seen The Rain because the little six chord break in the middle perplexed our guitar player Gene to no end.  When I was first learning guitar, those six chords were already drummed into my head from watching bass player Mike mouth the order to Gene almost  every time we played it.  Fortunate Son always got a big reaction at college gigs and high school dances.

     I loved playing I Heard It Through The Grapevine because of the tribal drum beat, plus it was one of the few songs we did in front of a live audience the same week we learned it.  It was a trial by fire inspired by playing a gig in the round.  Being surrounded by a mob of kids literally jumping up and down made us exchange smiles as we charged ahead with something so new to our set list that we had not planned on playing for a few more weeks.

     Proud Mary did not appear on a set list until my second band, Knockdown, and it always went down a riot at the NCO Club at Sawyer Air Force Base.  Our guitar player, Ray ‘The Human JukeBox’ Bennett taught me the ins and outs of singing harmony the first time I remember playing the tune together.  We were auditioning a new keyboard player and Ray stopped the song in mid-chorus and said, “No, no, no . . . we aren’t doing this like a sing-a-long.  I will sing this part, YOU sing the harmony part.”  It was at this point that I realized that I had been singing harmony parts on some of our songs in The Twig, I just didn’t know the hows or whys.  I just thought it made some songs sound better.  Okay, before you start wondering how an article about John Fogerty segued into a bunch of memories about me, it will help clarify things if I can explain why I enjoy reading books about musicians so much.

     I was bit hard by the music bug and between 1965 and 1975, my learning curve involved  more than just learning the drum parts and lyrics to songs.  During this period, I started to dabble in guitar, revisited my long abandoned interest in keyboards (dissecting guitar chords opened my eyes to how they connected with notes on piano scores), and began fooling around with ways to record music on tape.  The older I got, the more I found that this is a typical path taken by amatuer and professional musicians during their formative years.  I paid for my college education playing in bands while attending school full time and working as a dishwasher in the summer.  It was a great way to support myself, but it also convinced me that music as a full time job would be a hard way to make a living (for me, at least).  It could (and did) remain a great hobby once I got ‘a real job’ teaching Junior High Geography and Earth Science.  As a talented musician – songwriter, John Fogerty had what it takes to make a comfortable living in his chosen profession, but it took many years to get there.  Fogerty ‘learned the ropes’ by hanging around studios and experimenting with new technology and sounds.  With that said, I find it fascinating that famous name musicians seem to have similar ‘origin’ stories, the difference being which fork(s) in the road they choose to take along the way.

     John Fogerty grew up with five brothers and a working mother in El Cerrito, CA just across the bay from San Francisco.  Before his parent’s marriage broke up, he remembers them introducing him to music at an early age.  John discovered that he had a certain natural knack for picking out different instruments and nuances in the music he was exposed to.  When he first joined up with (CCR drummer) Doug ‘Cosmo’ Clifford in junior high, it was pretty much the same experience we had when Geno Betts and I first started playing music together in eighth grade:  just guitar and a snare drum playing music together just for the fun of it.  Geno and I  evolved our shared interest into The Twig in which we played together from 1969 through 1971.  John and Cosmo played together as The Blue Velvets, one of the many musical groupings Fogerty would perform with before he hit the big time with CCR.

     While he explored how to play music, Fogerty absorbed the growing genre called ‘rock and roll’ via records and live music events.  He explored the recording field by seeking out small, homegrown music labels in the Bay area which shows he had more than a casual interest in the music business.  By the age of 14, he was picking up hints and tricks around the studios he visited and/or worked at.  His self taught piano skills landed John on some early sides cut by various artists, including his older brother Tom (The Blue Velvets would serve as Tom’s backing band and eventually morphed into the original CCR lineup most are familiar with).  One of the things John remembers about these early days in the studio is that he was the only one who wanted to hang around and learn more when the other guys drifted off to chase girls and other pursuits.  In later years, after the acrimonious CCR breakup, phrases like ‘control freak’ and ‘never listened to anyone else in the band’ were hung on Fogerty to explain why the band went down the tubes.  Fogerty readily admits that he had a stubborn streak (particularly when it came to the music he heard in his head) and wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer when it came to business decisions.  I now have a better handle on why this perception of Fogerty lingers to this day.  

     From a young age, John Fogerty was focused on putting together the pieces needed to get where he wanted to end up in a music career.  Cosmo Clifford became a fine drummer, but he was not a student bent on learning about things about timing, like ‘the shuffle beat’ that John picked up from listening to a lot of R&B and Gospel artists.  Bassist Stu Cook originally came to the band as a piano player, but he was not as invested in learning the craft as well John (Fogerty describes Cook as the “We can’t do that!” guy in the band).  Early on, this early incarnation of the band did not play many gigs and rarely hung out together when not recording.  Cook ended up on bass because Fogerty saw acts like The Beatles thriving on a line-up where everyone played an instrument and bass was not just an afterthought.  He talked Stu into buying a cheap bass and taught him how to play it as they went along.  As John’s musical ability grew, he even managed to get his older brother Tom to learn enough guitar to be a solid rhythm player in CCR.  Yes, Fogerty became the de facto leader of the band (or ‘Tsar’ according to some accounts), but the end results kind of speak for themselves.  John Fogerty would have become a famous musician without the other three CCR players.  It is a shame that the band imploded the way it did, but when they first rose to stardom, the rest of the band was not second guessing their musical direction.  Once they rest of the band insisted that they should write songs as well, the band was heading for the exits.  As John hints several times in Fortunate Son, perhaps if he had learned the business end as well as the musical end during his career, maybe CCR could have had a better ending than it did.

     In April of 1964, Fogerty walked into the Fantasy Record Label office in San Francisco to try and get a record deal.  One of the three Weiss brothers who owned the label, Max, responded to the instrumentals John played him by showing him the Billboard chart for that week.  The top five songs were all by The Beatles so he suggested that Fogerty try writing some songs with words.  They eventually cut a record but when it came out, it wasn’t labeled with their newly chosen name, The Visions.  The Weiss boys decided to call them The Golliwogs.  The label wanted the band’s name to identify with the British bands sweeping the country.  People in some of the countries invaded by England back in the days crafted little voodoo dolls the Brits called ‘Wogs’ or ‘Golliwogs’, at least that is how Max Weiss connected the name to the British Invasion.  The band hated it, but it was just another lesson the band would learn about label – artist relations.

     Fogerty figured out early on that the ‘producers’ picked by the label really didn’t know much about crafting songs.  John had already absorbed a lot of the inner workings of a studio and though not credited (or paid) as such, he took over more and more control of the recording process.  The sound that Fogerty heard in his head created a catalog of radio friendly songs that made them one of the most successful bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Did the band resent John Fogerty acting like the band’s leader?  Not at first.  The bad blood between the band and John did not develop overnight, but rather over time as he took more control of the band’s recording process.  Many people do not know CCR was at Woodstock because John refused to let their set be used in the subsequent movie.  He felt that it had been a poor set, but the rest of the band thought it would have led to a great deal of income over the decades.  They were right and John was wrong in this case.  

    A bad investment deal that the band unanimously agreed to enter into (an offshore bank to avoid paying a high tax rate on their royalties) was another major money loser.  The last album Creedence recorded together crashed and burned when the band demanded more say in the music they would record.  John stepped back and let everyone have a whack at writing songs for the new album and he, for one, was not the least surprised when it tanked.  At the time Saul Zaentz had purchased the Fantasy label (he had been the sales rep when Fogerty first joined the label), he put a new contract in front of the band so they could cut their ties to the Weiss brothers.  Cook’s father was a well known entertainment industry lawyer so the band asked Stu to have his dad review their contract.  Fogerty now thinks that the elder Cook never saw it because when asked about it later, Stu simply said, “It is okay to sign the contract.”  

     The bad blood between Zaentz and Fogerty grew from this disastrous group decision (and yes, back then, it was a democratic band with all holding equal voto power).  When the band broke up, it was Fogerty who was held to a contract specifying that Zaentz owned the publishing rights to John’s songs and 180 more he was obligated to write over a period of seven years.  Fogerty was disgusted enough with the situation to walk away and refuse to sing his own songs (to prevent Zaentz from making any money from them) for many years.  The rest of the band got along with Zaentz and the label, so as one might assume, there has been a lot of finger pointing and blame being passed around.  ‘The stupidest feud in the music business’ was not all John’s fault.  Sadly, a tainted blood transfusion given to Tom during an operation infected him with AIDS.  He died without the brothers ever resolving their hard feelings over the band breaking up.  Cook and Clifford went on to form Creedence Clearwater Revisited (FTV:  CCR 10-16-19) who were planning to do their final tour just prior to the COVID 19 outbreak of 2020.  When interviewed by Classic Rock Magazine back in 2019, Cook never elaborated on the bad contract they had all signed with Fantasy back in the day or the band’s unanimous agreement to enter into the off shore banking agreement.  Cook just focused on Fogerty’s poor business acumen.

     The one good thing that did come from Zaentz taking over Fantasy was his willingness to let the band come up with a better name than ‘The Golliwogs’.  After the band suggested a host of terrible names, an ad Fogerty saw on TV touting ‘clean water’ put him on track to join the word ‘Clearwater’ with another word they had tossed about:  ‘Revival’.  ‘Creedence’ was originally taken from the custodian at one of their friend’s apartment buildings.  That they briefly considered naming the band ‘Credence Nuball’ after him isn’t important.  The word ‘creedence’ hung around long enough to be joined in John’s mind with the other phrases.  As Fogerty recalled, “[In my head] This was all happening in a matter of a few seconds, maybe a minute or two.  Suddenly, it just popped:  Creedence Clearwater Revival.  I loved it.  But I thought, ‘Wow, that is a mouthful.  It sounded even more American.  It told you this was an American rock and roll band, and it was unique.  So that’s how it all kind of clanged together in my head.”

     Fogerty knew the next job was to sell it to the band:  “I knew the personalities in my band well enough to know that I had to not take ownership of the name.  It had to look like it was in the air and just happened.  The other guys were not all that sure.  I think Tom might’ve convinced them.  No more Golliwogs.  We were now Creedence Clearwater Revival.”  With things now falling into place, the band committed to daily rehearsals.  Before they would jam, they would talk about music as John jotted down ideas for songs in his notebook.  When it came time to actually write the songs, none of the other guys in the band had anything to contribute.  It wasn’t “John forced us to record his songs.“  Fogerty recalled, “I would ask, ‘Does anybody have anything, any new songs?’  and there’d be a silence and some mumbling…So I would show the band what I had come up with on my own.”  It sounds more like John was the rudder of the ship, not the dictator of the band.

     Fogerty recounts a lot more about his life in Fortunate Son:  His first marriage (“We were too young”) and how he ended up getting reclassified from 4-F to 1-A in the military draft.  He ended up avoiding Vietnam by joining the Army Reserves and still has some guilt issues over the decision.  Meeting Vets who tell him how CCR’s music helped them survive the horrors of ‘Nam has helped him come to grips with avoiding the conflict.  The song Fortunate Son has been used by a number of political candidates in the recent past and it still makes Fogerty wonder if they ever listened to the whole song.  He is most definitely pro-American, but his feelings about war run deeper than the ‘patriotic’ stamp put on many of the conflicts America has been involved with.

     Fogerty has been married to his current wife, Julie, since 1991.  He credits her for his success and a new degree of calmness he has worked hard to gain over the past three decades.  Julie was one of the strong voices that convinced him to start singing his classic CCR songs again.  Julie, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison pointed out that, “If you don’t start singing the songs you wrote again, everyone will think Proud Mary is a Tina Turner song.”  John has even mentioned a willingness to revisit CCR with Cook and Clifford if the cards were right.  His former bandmates have stated that they see this offer as merely a way for Fogerty to re-write some of the band’s history so he can polish up his own PR image.  Having now read both sides of the story, I am not so sure that is the final word in the matter of ‘Fogerty vs CCR2’.  

     As I have said many times, “When it comes to bands burying the hatchet and staging reunions, never say never.”  I have always loved his music, but I now have a new found respect for John Fogerty’s career.  He was put into some difficult situations and has survived to enjoy life and music in spite of all the bad stuff.  We could take some lessons about rolling with the punches from him.



Top Piece Video:  Does this version of Green River from 2004 look like John is having fun?