Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater put feelings into his latest performance at Space in Evanston. The Mississippi native grew up and lived in Skokie for much of his life and celebrated his 77th birthday with a special performance on Saturday night.
How do you define the blues?
“The blues is about stories of truth,” replied Clearwater. “It's stories you know about. It’s being honest and telling the truth about it. It’s bringing it out (in song).
“You got to bring out the feeling of the song. It’s about something that has a deeper meaning, it’s not just words, it’s the feeling about those words. You can feel broken-hearted about a lover, something you’re sentimental about, you’ve got to put that feeling into what you’re saying.”
Skokie’s most noted bluesman, Clearwater is living history of the blues, on stage and in real life. He turned 77 on Jan. 10. He’s two days younger than the late Elvis Presley. Clearwater grew up 100 miles away from The King in Mississippi. They never met. They’d have been quite a duo had they performed together just once. But, solo, “The Chief” still can carry the load, and then some, even as a septuagenarian. If Tony Bennett is still wowing the masses in concerts at 85, then Clearwater will keep on trucking.
He’s crossed the color barrier on stage, bringing the blues to the largely white TV teen dance show, “Bandstand Matinee,” on WLS-TV in 1959. He integrated a Round Lake club around the same time. His fame has spread overseas as renowned English actor Patrick Stewart – Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame – visited “The Chief” at his Skokie home last August. And he got fodder for another song when he was in Berlin when the Wall came tumbling down in 1989.
‘The Chief’ welcomes his neighbors
Home is where his heart is, though. As he smoothly knifed through his routine at Space while his four bandsmen provided a raucous wall of sound, he urged “a warm welcome to all the people here from Niles North. I don’t call them fans. I call them friends and neighbors,” Publicist Lynn Orman Weiss said.
After his usual grand entrance adorned in his Indian headdress that made the 6-foot-4 Clearwater appear like a near-physical giant, he got down to business singing about life’s cares: “You better find yourself a good job,” “You’re humbugging me,” “Too old to get married … too young to be buried” and “When you’re stuck in lonesome town.” Three birthday cakes were brought onstage, and The Chief blew out all candles present.
He’s come a long way since his teenage days when, recognized with a voice for the ages, he got stage fright — “I was so very shy,” he said — when a microphone was put in front of him. “I could sing, but not in front of people,” he recalled. Now the mic and The Chief are one, good enough to get them dancing in the aisles at Space.
Beforehand, backstage, Clearwater explained his craft and the inspiring path that led him to a birthday concert well into the 21st Century in a career that began in the middle of the previous century.
Heartache to joy in the same song
“Take a situation, you’re down and out about something,” he said about the construction of a blues song. “You can’t pay your rent. You don’t know how I’ll survive. All of a sudden a check came in the mail. I’ll say I didn’t expect this check. I’m so happy I got that check. It gives you a happy feeling. Going from one depressed feeling to something that has joy.
“You’ve got to tweak it (a song draft) over and over again. But some songs basically just write themselves. It’s a revelation that comes to you. You may even wake up with it. An idea for a song came to me in my sleep. You write it down. It performs itself.”
Over the years, Clearwater has injected a bit of rock into the blues. “I have an ear for rock ‘n roll,” he said. B.B. King is his favorite bluesman, while Chuck Berry is his all-time rocker. There’s a hint of Berry in “The Chief’s” stage persona.
He never expected Stewart and his girlfriend to show up at his home. Ever the English gentleman, Stewart brought a bottle of Scotch. It became a jam session in the two old pros’ comfort zones. Clearwater, of course, sang the blues while Stewart went back to his stage roots by reciting Shakespeare.
“It was quite a surprise, quite amazing,” Clearwater said. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought he’d show up at my house. Very charming, very nice gentleman. It’s quite an honor to know that (blues) had such deep roots and reached so far.”
He concluded with yet even more fodder for the blues:
“As long as I have good health and am of sound mind, I intend to perform in some capacity. There’s no reason not to. I have the spirit of the music within.”