December 15, 2022

FTV: John Tristao and CCR


     “Who is John Tristao and why do I not remember him being in CCR?” is no doubt the question that pops into one’s head when reading the above title.  Join the club, because when I first heard his name attached to CCR, it didn’t ring any bells for me either.  Perhaps this will help:  CCR here stands for ‘Creedence Clearwater Revisited’ and not ‘Revival’.  Not enough information?  We last discussed Creedence Clearwater Revisited in 2019 (FTV:  CCR 10-16-19)

As they were making plans to get back on their COVID-19 interrupted touring schedule.  This last go around was special as the plan was to put their version of CCR to bed nearly 25 years after getting their second wind.

     The ‘they’ mentioned above included original CCR drummer Doug ‘Cosmo’ Clifford and bassist Stu Cook who formed what we will refer to as ‘CCR2’ in 1995.  After playing a set of CCR tunes for a charity event, the two original members put their heads together and said, “Hey, why not?  We were part of the CCR legacy, too.”  Ah yes, but the other part of CCR was John Fogerty – the voice, songwriter, and vision of the band.  He was there (along with his older brother Tom) from their first gigs in 1959 through their late 1960s-early 1970s hit making period.  One does not recreate CCR’s legendary sound without the guy who represented 90 percent of the formula.  John Tristao’s involvement with CCR2 was a little rocky at the beginning because he consciously avoided trying to be ‘just like Fogerty’.  Although he exited the band in 2016 after 21 years and was not in the band when they wrapped up their final tour in early 2020, Rolling Stones writer Andy Greene caught up with Tristao in September of 2022 to hear his side of the story as part of a series called King for a Day.

     Growing up in San Jose, California, Tristao was part of the army of kids who caught The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.  The first live concert he took in was Corny and the Corvettes featuring future Doobie Brothers band member Cornilius Bumpus.  Music was always part of his life as John recalled, “I’m Portuguese.  My mother was a singer.  She used to sing in Spanish and Portuguese on the radio when I was a kid.  That’s where I got it from.”  As it  happened with a lot of high school musicians, Tristao cycled through a number of bands like The Rip Tides, The Chosen Few, and Uncle Wiggly’s Philharmonic.  Don’t laugh – the 1960s was a hotbed of strange band names like The Chocolate Watchband, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Marquette’s own Self Winding Grapefruit (one of my favorites).  

     Playing music in California in the late 1960s allowed John to rub elbows with other musicians, some of whom would go on to wider fame.  The drummer for Uncle Wiggly’s, Steve Price, would go on to play with Pablo Cruise.  Tristao’s high school band The Chosen Few opened for acts like the Grateful Dead, the New Delhi River Band, The Turtles, William Penn and his Pals (which included Gregg Rolie of Santana and Journey fame), and Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Janice Joplin knew his name but wasn’t all that friendly to their opening act.  John recalled literally ‘supporting her’ at a Fairground gig.  Joplin was quite drunk and he found himself pushing her up the stairs to the stage when she turned around and vomited what seemed to be gallons of red wine all over him.  Tristao laughed when Greene asked if she apologized:  “No.  She just turned around.  She was kind of going back and forth like she was carsick or had motion sickness.  She just heaved and that was it.  Then she grabbed a hold of the rail and pulled herself back up.  What a woman.”  

     Tristao’s first big break came when he was hired by a band called People!.  Just before he joined, they had a worldwide hit with I Love You, a song written by bassist Chris White of the Zombies.  People! experienced several problems trying to find a follow up hit:  “Our producer at the time was the producer on The Time Has Come by the Chamber BrothersHe really felt that he knew what a hit was.  And he passed up six songs that wound up being huge hits.  He said, ‘This is no good.  This is no good…’  ugh.”  Among the songs their producer passed on were a Neil Young tune (I Believe in You), the Four Tops hit One Chain Don’t Make No Prison (which they did record but the producer did not promote), and Redbone’s massive hit Come and Get Your Love (which underwent another round of popularity recently when it was used in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie).  John said they played a bill with Redbone and the band gave them the song, but their know-it-all producer said, “Nope.”

     The other problems developed because the members of People! were also big into Scientology.  “They would leave at eight in the morning to do their Scientology stuff, and they’d be gone all day,” John says.  “They’d come home at 11 at night.  I was so bored.  I couldn’t take it.  After three weeks, I just said, “I don’t care what it is,  I’m in [laughs].”  As part of the higher echelon wing, Sea Org, they trained as able-bodied seamen.  Their job was going to be spreading Scientology to young people via this private Navy and their music.  Tristao moved on after three years when he was found ‘unfit to be a member’ because he kept getting caught smoking pot:  “I was the first person in history to be drummed out of Sea Org.  When you’re a Sea Org member, you get everything free.  All the courses, all the auditing, all that nonsense.  Well, they said, ‘You owe us $300,000 for all the stuff you did!’  I said, ‘Let me know how that turns out [even bigger laugh]!’”

     There were two brothers who led the band.  When they had a massive falling out (a fist fight, actually), People! began to fall apart.  Another member named Denny Fridkin and John formed a new band featuring three drummers (naturally they called it ‘Drum’) which only lasted about a year.  At twenty-two years old, Tristao was fed up with the music business.  Married and living back in San Jose in 1971, John worked making tire treads, then moved on to janitorial work.  From his desire to do something musical on a part time basis, he and Gary Wineroth began a Fifties throwback project called Daddy-O.  John remembered having a lot of fun with Daddio-O:  “We just started goofing around,  We had a couple of terrible players but people started enjoying what we did.  So I started writing skits.  We got into doing full-blow theatrics and costume changes and that kind of thing.  It was really, really fun.”  Their only other competition for the Fifties gigs was Sha Na Na on the east coast, so Daddio-O pretty much had the west coast to themselves.  “We got a lot of opening-act spots for all the big acts that would come to San Jose:  Alabama, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, Ray Charles.  It was just countless great bands.”

     One of their enduring claims to fame is winning The Gong Show.  At the time the show’s creator, Chuck Barris, came calling, they were doing a brisk business at Disneyland and in Reno.  They told his secretary, “No thanks, we don’t do auditions.”  She called back and said, “Chuck really, really wants you guys on this show.  Come on down.  You don’t have to audition.”  They said ‘no’ again but the third time she called, John got the idea that perhaps they would actually win the thing.  The secretary said, “Come and do the show.  You won’t regret it.”  Winning opened even more doors as Daddio-O found themselves warming up audiences for the likes of Tanya Tucker, Willie Nelson, and Sawyer Brown.  When ‘the usual band stuff’ took Daddio-O to the end of its road in the 1980s, Tristao switched gears but kept performing.

     Working as part of an advertising agency, John started another version of Daddio-O.  He met and married a terrific singer who joined the band.  “A classic mistake,” he says now.  “We had the advertising agency together and with the band, we were together 24/7.  It was horrible.  That’s definitely a relationship-ender, which is what happened.”  A move to Seattle to open a deli/gift shop followed, but this was also a mistake:  “I am not that great with the public.  I had an abusive childhood, so I was carrying a lot of baggage.  I have a short fuse and that’s not good in a public situation, so that didn’t work out.”  John went back to janitorial work where he could mostly be on his own.  He worked nights so his new wife could work days and together they raised a son.  It seems he was finally in his happy place even though it did not involve music.

He was working as a custodian and weightlifting coach at the local high school when Stu Cook tracked him down.  John’s old Daddio-O bass player, Michael Connolly, was running Dean Markley Strings and knew Stu because he was Cook’s only source of long-scale bass strings.  When Cook told him he was having a hard time finding a singer for CCR2, Connolly told him, “Hey, I got the guy.”

     Tristao knew he had a voice that could mimic other singers from his days doing the Fifties thing.  He credits another Doobie Brother, Michael McDonald, for showing him how John Fogerty got the tone he used in his singing voice.  When John asked McDonald, “How do you get up there with that amazing tone?” he was told, “That’s just it.  It’s not a note.  It’s a head tone,  It’s the way Bob Seger does it.  It’s the way John Fogerty does it.  You close your palate and put your air in your sinuses, and you sing with that.  You can actually make a sound that the mind perceives as a note.”  I got close to it, but the problem was John Fogerty was a true tenor, and I’m not, so I fought for every note.”  The ‘hitting the high notes’ would become a problem as John’s 21 year CCR2 career moved on down the road.

     When he auditioned for CCR2, former Cars guitarist Elliot Easton was in the band.  During a break, he told John, “I don’t know how much my vote counts, but you got it as far as I’m concerned.”  Unlike others who were sent home after a few songs, Tristao spent the whole day with the band before they put him on a plane home without an invite.  When he got home, there was a message on his answering machine saying, “You’ve go the job.”  At that point, the pressure hit him full on:  “How the hell are you supposed to stand in for John Fogerty?  He’s the most recognizable singer, on top of being great.  People are going to expect me to sound like him and I don’t.  I sound similar, but I’m not an impersonator.”  Doug and Stu understood and told him, “Look, you do it as close as you can, but don’t copy him.”  Still, John was still intimidated to front such an iconic group at that level.

     The stress began immediately and over the 21 years he performed with the band, some days it bordered on feeling like torture.  “Stu is a very high-pressure guy,  He’s a moody guy, so I never knew which Stu I was gonna get at rehearsal or shows.”  A great night would get a ‘good job’ from Cook but an off night was treated as unforgivable.  Clifford was more laid back and he and John became good friends.  The atmosphere around the band changed when Easton left in 2004.  Any attempt by new guitar players to update the sound was met with strong resistance from Doug and Stu because people expected CCR2 to sound like CCR with as little change in the arrangements as possible.  “Elliot and I grew up with the music so we didn’t have a problem with it.  I think what Elliot did was nothing short of genius.”

     Despite the friction with Cook over good and bad shows, Tristao enjoyed the experience.   Having to drop the tuning a step on songs like Up Around The Bend may have rankled purists, but sometimes it is the only way to go.  Playing a lot of state and county fairs put them in touch with old and new fans.  Corporate gigs were less fun.  John recalled people at corporate jobs being more interested in the buffet than the music:  “We played one where nobody even came into the room where we were playing – they were all at the buffet.  Those kinds of jobs are just a paycheck.”  Performing for 30,000 or more fans at country music festivals would bring out the best in the band so there were enjoyable moments to outweigh the occasional dud gig.  Casinos fell somewhere in between:  “At casinos, the front rows are usually people who got free tickets and the fans are behind them somewhere between the stage and the slot machines.  It is hard to connect with the audience when they are sandwich between the comp tickets and the gamers.”

     Naturally, the most pressure Tristao would face would be from the fans.  Over time, his role was accepted by more and more of them, but there were always some who took it personally.

The ‘how dare you try to replace John Fogerty’ thing was real, but he wasn’t even trying.  John said they were more of a cover band and he was simply doing the songs as close to the originals as he could without trying to replace Fogerty.  When Fogerty briefly tried to make them stop using the name ‘Creedence Clearwater Revisited’ (a suit he eventually dropped), Fogerty’s lawyers accused Tristao of changing his name to ‘John’ when he joined the band.  He had to bring his birth certificate to court to prove his name was actually ‘John’.

     Did Tristao ever tire of playing the same songs every night?  “There is a boredom that tries to set in, but I always did it with the thought of, ‘These people have never seen it before, so I have to do it in a new unit of time.  I have to do it like it’s the first time’.  I kept the life and energy and didn’t go out there and say, ‘Oh jeez, Proud Mary again?’”  Tristao was in the big time and he treated his time with CCR2 as a big deal.  He must have enjoyed it to have played more than 1,800 shows and not tarnish the legacy of the music.  He also wrote a book about his journey entitled Creedence Clearwater Revisitor.  He sent a copy to Clifford but Cosmo took the parts about how Tristao felt he was treated in the band personally.  John tried to explain he was not being critical of their relationship, but sadly, Cosmo hasn’t spoken to him since the book came out.

     Tristao left the band in 2016 when he suffered a dissection [type] B:  “My aortic valve exploded,  I had two aneurysms that popped.  And I’m only one of only three people in the world that’s ever lived through it.  That is why they call it the ‘Widowmaker’.  I was out or in a coma at the hospital when the second one popped and but I remember hearing them saying, ‘He’s not going to make it.”  Besides the heart issue, John’s arthritis was making it hard for him to travel and perform so he was replaced.  The timing wasn’t great, however, as Stu called him just after his surgery to tell him, “We’re gonna move on and put Dan McGuinness in the seat.  Thanks.”  Ah yes, the compassion shown by some band leaders to their hired guns can be negligible, but Tristao wasn’t surprised.

     The medical bills topped out at $2.4 million and he and his wife had it whittled down to about $700,000.  John’s wife was painting a heart surgeon’s home and when he heard the story of how their insurance company had dumped them, the good doctor apparently took it upon himself to intervene.  He called an old friend who happened to be the insurance commissioner for the State of Washington. In what Tristao calls ‘an act of divine intervention’, he has not received another bill.  He is broke and unemployed save a volunteer turned paying job at a local hospital, but still thankful for what CCR2 did for him:  “I’ve met most of my idols.  We played with Paul McCartney at the Super Bowl.  Ringo invited me to a show.  Some of the best bands in the world opened for us, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Doobie Brothers, Deep Purple.  I mean, Paul Rogers!  It’s indescribable.”  We would have to agree with you John.


Top Piece Video:  CCR2 with John Tristao performing LODI