Creedence Clearwater Revival - Biography
Creedence Clearwater Revival is among the great imaginative achievements of American rock ‘n’ roll. Their music, called “swamp rock” by many, was born far from the Louisiana bayou that supplied the imagery for many of their songs. It was instead a Southern dream that sprang from the mind of the quartet’s triple-threat leader, Northern California-born singer-songwriter-guitarist John Fogerty. From the raw materials of classical rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, Fogerty created some of the most singular and popular rock of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Between their Fantasy Records debut in 1968 and their disbanding in October 1972, the band – known variously as Creedence or CCR for short – released nine top 10 singles; while they never scored a No. 1 US hit, they enjoyed unparalleled ubiquity on American top 40 radio. Two of their seven studio albums reached No. 1; six of them sold more than a million copies.
Despite their massive success, Creedence never attained the respect or admiration of rock tastemakers in their heyday. Even Bruce Springsteen remarked that “they weren’t the hippest band in the world – just the best” when he inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps it was that the notoriously straight, flannel-wearing foursome never attained the hip credibility of such contemporaneous San Francisco acts as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Rolling Stone, the San Francisco-based arbiter of everything cool in rock, viewed CCR as decidedly less far-out bumpkins from the East Bay.
The rap against Creedence never made much sense, in terms of either their music or their sensibility. Though the public at large viewed them as the fabricators of tightly-constructed top 40 radio singles, they were from the first a band that liked to jam; almost all of their albums included an extravagant five-minute-plus showcase for Fogerty’s guitar excursions. And while acts like the Airplane may have been more flamboyantly “political,” Fogerty crafted some of the Vietnam War era’s most biting and outspoken songs, like the singles “Bad Moon Rising,” “Run Through the Jungle,” and “Fortunate Son” (which Fogerty would revive profitably during George W. Bush’s presidency).
The members of Creedence Clearwater Revival always seemed to be on the outside looking in, and it took them years to attain commercial success. John Fogerty, born May 28, 1945, and his older brother Tom, born Nov. 9, 1941, were both born in Berkeley, California, across the bay from San Francisco. They both grew up listening to the fertile mix of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and country beamed by stations in Frisco and Oakland.
As the eldest, Tom was the first to get into playing rock ‘n’ roll, in the high school bands the Playboys and Spider Webb & The Insects. John soon formed a group of his own, The Blue Velvets, with a couple of classmates at Portola Junior High in El Cerrito, California: pianist (later bassist) Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford. In 1960, The Insects did an unsuccessful audition with the LA label Del-Fi Records (former home of Ritchie Valens), while The Blue Velvets, which had been gigging in the East Bay, backed singer James Powell on a single for the local Christy label.
Finally, Tom Fogerty and his little brother’s band joined forces after the elder sibling got an opportunity to record with the San Francisco indie label Orchestra Records. Tommy Fogerty and The Blue Velvets recorded three singles for the company in 1961-62; the 45s, comprising the earliest songs by both brothers, are pretty dismal pop material in a watered-down Ricky Nelson vein.
In 1963-64, following the Blue Velvets members’ graduation from high school, the band soldiered on as The Visions. In ’64, like most other young rock musicians in America, the group fell under the sway of The Beatles and other British Invasion acts. They also learned that there was a Bay Area label that might serve as a proper home for their music, after seeing a documentary about jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” a huge national hit in 1963 for Berkeley-based Fantasy Records.
Run by Max Weiss and his brother Sol, Fantasy had no pop music roster to speak of, but the label decided to take a chance on The Visions. In the summer of 1964, the quartet cut a pair of empty-headed rockers, “Don’t Tell Me No Lies” and “Little Girl (Does Your Mama Know),” which were issued as a single in November. In the interim, however, Max Weiss had rechristened the band The Golliwogs, and they were stuck with this appalling handle for the next four years.
The Golliwogs recorded steadily for Fantasy and its Scorpio subsidiary through 1967. Few future stars have made such unpromising music early in their careers. The band’s music was lyrically dim and imitative, owing most of its style to English units like The Rolling Stones and Them. (They were clearly paying attention to The Yardbirds as well, as later “rave-up”-styled guitar outbursts attest.) Over time, John Fogerty took control of what had previously been his brother’s backup band; he also came into his own as a songwriter, as demonstrated by the 1966 track “Walking On the Water” (later remade by Creedence as “Walk On the Water”).
Still, the band was not progressing rapidly, despite a solid Bay Area following; Tom Fogerty continued to work as an electrical lineman, while John Fogerty and Doug Clifford had joined the Army Reserve as “weekend warriors” to sidestep the Vietnam-era draft. But their fortunes changed rapidly after a consortium of buyers headed by Fantasy’s head of sales Saul Zaentz purchased the label from the Weiss brothers in mid-1967. Zaentz quickly approved a moniker change for the group, and their last single for Scorpio, “Porterville,” was issued under the handle Creedence Clearwater Revival – conflating a friend’s name, an Olympia Beer slogan, and the four musician’s hope for a renewed career.
After re-signing with Fantasy in early 1968, the group cut a new single, a version of Arkansas rockabilly musician Dale Hawkins’ 1957 single “Susie-Q.” (The original featured guitar work by James Burton, a John Fogerty favorite.) This jammy staple of Creedence’s live set became a nearly nine-minute studio workout; it was diced into a two-part single, and became the centerpiece of the band’s debut Fantasy album Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968). Initially buoyed by heavy airplay at San Francisco underground radio power KSAN, “Susie-Q” ultimately rose to No. 11 on the national singles chart; the album, which also included searing covers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” and Wilson Pickett’s “Ninety-Nine and a Half,” made it to No. 52.
John Fogerty, who had produced and arranged the debut album, was swiftly developing as a songwriter, and Creedence’s sophomore album Bayou Country (1969) found him writing six of the LP’s seven tracks. (Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” was the lone non-original.) That album bore two compositions that crystallized the younger Fogerty’s romantic vision of the American South: the title cut, a five-minute workout, and the career-establishing hit single “Proud Mary.” The 45, an unforgettable portrait of a “riverboat queen” rolling down the Mississippi River, flew to No. 2 nationally, and lofted the album to No. 7.
Green River (1969) succeeded Bayou Country by just seven months, and became Creedence’s first No. 1 album. It was lifted to the top by two top-five singles, the stinging, near-apocalyptic commentary “Bad Moon Rising” and the title track, a new entry in the band’s bayou mythos. The collection’s other basic, hard-hitting rock tracks included “Commotion” and a raving cover of Ray Charles’ “The Night Time is the Right Time.” A month after the LP was released, Creedence appeared before a festival audience of half a million at Bethel, New York’s Woodstock Music & Art Fair. (However, they would not appear in the Oscar-winning documentary about the event or on its bestselling soundtrack album: Stung by their tardy appearance at 3 a.m. and unhappy with their performance, CCR opted out on the movie.)
Just when it seemed that every rock band was striving to get more far out, Creedence Clearwater Revival tried to get closer to the roots. Willy and the Poorboys (1969) became their third LP to hit the pop chart in the fertile year of 1969. It included the loping “Down On the Corner” and another searing Vietnam-era blast, “Fortunate Son,” as well as down-to-earth readings of the folk standards “Cotton Fields” and “The Midnight Special.” The album, which spent six weeks at No. 3 during a year-plus run, was capped by a fierce guitar-driven onslaught aimed at the Nixon-era White House, “Effigy.”
CCR waited a comparatively luxurious eight months before issuing their next album, Cosmo’s Factory (1970). Drawing its title from their Bay Area rehearsal space, it became their second and final No. 1 album. The album included three two-sided hits, all of them top five entries: “Travelin’ Band”/”Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend”/”Run Through the Jungle,” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”/”Long As I Can See the Light.” The LP climaxed with a walloping 11-minute interpretation of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the double-barrelled Motown hit for both Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye.
With the disbanding of The Beatles in April 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival was arguably the most popular rock band of the moment. Certainly, no one was rivaling them at that point in the production of chart singles. But there was trouble in paradise. Tom Fogerty had begun to chafe at his rhythm guitar role in the band that had once been his backup group. Clifford and Cook were also growing discontented. And Fogerty was deeply unhappy with the lack of respect the band was receiving in the press.
Protracted sessions preceded the release of Pendulum in December 1971. The album’s title was prophetic, for immediately CCR’s fortunes began to swing in the opposite direction. Though the album reached No. 5 and stayed on the chart for nearly 10 months, it was an uncertain affair; its sound was frequently dominated by John Fogerty’s new instrument of choice, the Hammond B-3 organ. The singles “Have You Seen the Rain” and “Hey Tonight” sounded more like retreads than fresh accomplishments. And a lavish junket and party to promote the release of Pendulum was ridiculed in the press.
In February 1971, Tom Fogerty quit Creedence, “to remain home with his family and to record and produce on his own,” in the words of a press release announcing his departure. According to Cook and Clifford, John Fogerty subsequently “democratized” the band by insisting that the other members contribute equally – thus setting the stage for the debacle that was Mardi Gras (1972), a record that can be considered CCR’s version of Let It Be, and the complete collapse of the group.
Creedence’s final studio album featured only three Fogerty-led tracks – a pair of less-than-great originals, “Sweet Hitch-Hiker” (a No. 6 single) and “Someday Never Comes” (a mediocre No. 25 entry), and a throwback cover of Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou.” The songs penned and sung by Clifford and Cook only made the LP sound like the work of another, much lesser band. Less than two years after the mega-hit Cosmo’s Factory, Pendulum could fare no better than No. 12. Rolling Stone called it the worst album ever made by a major group.
In October 1972, Fantasy announced that Creedence Clearwater Revival was disbanding. They would be represented posthumously on the charts by the live albums Live in Europe (1973) and The Concert (1980) and a perennially popular best-of, Chronicle (1976).
After disbanding, the members of Creedence Clearwater Revival dealt with each other with an acrimony that was rare even by rock ‘n’ roll standards. The Fogerty brothers remained deeply estranged, though John regrouped with his former bandmates when his older brother remarried in 1980; he also performed with Clifford and Cook at their 20th high school reunion in 1983.
Tom Fogerty, who recorded several solo albums for Fantasy, had already died in September 1990 from AIDS contracted via a blood transfusion when Creedence Clearwater Revival was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. John Fogerty refused to play with Cook and Clifford, but instead appeared at the 1993 Los Angeles banquet and concert fronting an all-star band led by Robbie Robertson and Bruce Springsteen. As Fogerty began “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Clifford and Cook, who had accepted their awards earlier and were seated in the audience, stood up, grabbed their Hall of Fame trophies, and walked out of the hall.
Today, John Fogerty, whose legal issues with Saul Zaentz and Fantasy Records persisted for decades after Creedence’s breakup, continues his successful solo career. After a judge overturned an injunction secured by Fogerty, Cook and Clifford recorded as Creedence Clearwater Revisited; on tour, they perform their old band’s repertoire.