In anticipation of their upcoming show at The Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Tahoe Onstage correspondent Nick McCabe was treated to an interview with original Creedence Clearwater Revival drummer Doug Clifford, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and current drummer of Creedence Clearwater Revisited. CCR, which also includes original bassist Stu Cook, will be appear on March 3 in the Grand Sierra Resort’s Grand Theatre.
McCabe’s last conversation with Clifford was at the Forte’ Awards Ceremony at GSR last November, where the musician’s Lifetime Achievement Award was dropped and broken before he even received it (organizers got him another one). He mentioned that it was snowing heavily at his Lake Tahoe home and he was going to be leaving town for the next show Wednesday if he could get out.
Nick: Going back to the beginning of all this at Portola Junior High School, how did you, John Fogerty and Stu Cook meet and decide to start a band together?
Doug: I met Stu the very first day of school in homeroom, and we hit it off right away. We started talking about our music collections and found that our record collections were almost identical. Our tastes were aligned. I met John Fogerty in the music room in the eighth grade playing rock and roll music on the piano, which was forbidden, but the music teacher wasn’t around. I went up to him and said, ” Hey, that’s Fats Domino and Little Richard. I have those records. Do you want to start a band?” He said, “Yeah, but I actually play guitar and I’m looking for a piano player.” I said, “Well I know a guy named Stu Cook who plays and he has a big room where we could practice.” I hadn’t asked Stu if that was OK, but that’s how it all started, as an instrumental trio. Then John’s older brother Tom approached us about playing as his band for recording. He had a band, but the players didn’t want to do the recording because they weren’t getting paid and there were no chicks there, so they stayed home to work on their cars. We stuck with it and after 10 years of going down that path we had our first hit record.
Nick: What was your first record purchase?
Doug: My first record purchase was “Roll With Me Henry,” by Etta James, and then “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley. That captivating tom-tom rhythm: I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the path I was going to take.
Nick: Did you guys spend much time as a bar band dragging your gear around from gig to gig?
Doug: We actually started doing that before we were old enough (to go into bars). We had phony ID’s, but Tom was old enough. But yeah, we were a band playing in the bars for a couple of years, then we decided to go full time. We did our fair share of starving.
Nick: When did you start thinking that you could actually make a living as musicians?
Doug: It was about 1965, ’66 when we had a regional hit called “Brown Eyed Girl” (not the Van Morrison song). We were called the Golliwogs at that point. It was a hit with lots of airplay in Sacramento and San Jose, and that significantly increased our revenues. We heard it on the radio and made a lot of money. Nobody bought a new car, though. We reinvested it in ourselves and bought new instruments. Then we saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and said if those guys from England can play American rock and roll, then… It gave us a boost, so thank you John, Paul, George and Ringo!
Nick: Was the success of “Suzy Q” a transitional point that pushed you up to the next level?
Doug: That was a huge hit off of our first album. Up till then we had been doing six nights a week, five sets a night, and that’s where you develop your chops. That’s what we did.
Nick: How would you compare touring back in the ’60s and ’70s to touring today?
Doug: The pace of it is much different now. We play much smaller venues, except in the summertime when we’ll sometimes play festivals with 20,000 to 30,000 people there, but for the most part it’s mostly smaller venues, which is kind of cool. You can actually see people. The guys up front can look down and actually see people. I’m in the back so I’m looking out, and stage lights are usually in my face, so I don’t see a lot. I’m just happy to be playing.
Nick: Did the decline of the neighborhood record store and arrival of downloading have an impact on your lives or careers?
Doug: It’s really too bad that that’s gone. You could go in the store and it was a bonus. You could get a physical piece of product with liner notes and a cover. You can do that on line, but it’s not the same as looking at it and holding it in your hands, especially in the vinyl years. It was just a little bit different. Then the other side of it is that on iTunes when a record is sold, everybody gets paid. It’s easier to track, because record companies are famous for stealing from their artists.
Nick: When you are doing a show your audience is hearing you play live for the first time. Maybe the second or third time. How do you keep it fresh and exciting for yourselves playing pretty much the same songs every night?
Doug: Yes, but we were there before it was a piece of product. We were there and participating in laying it down. It’s a great legacy in music. We wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t. Every song we play is a hit, and there was a 25-year period when we didn’t play these songs. I know that the people out there are fans. We have three generations of fans, so there’s a lot of young people out there, too. We’re there and have the privilege and honor of playing these songs. I never get tired of it and I get an adrenaline rush every time. I know that if those feeling go away it’s time to pack it up and work on my golf game.
Nick: How do you keep your energy levels up.
Doug: It is what keeps my energy level up. I practice every day, and work out just about every day. It keeps me young.
Nick: Not a lot of people are aware that CCR played at Woodstock. What can you tell me about that adventure?
Doug: For us it was a nightmare. We were filming a TV special in L.A. with Andy Williams and they were having technical difficulties so we kept having to change our flights. We stayed until we finally got what we needed, but we had to fly the red-eye. Then we had to change our travel plans (in New York) because the roads were blocked. People just abandoned their cars. You couldn’t drive in. How do we get our equipment in and how do we get it out. We flew in by helicopter, and it was a two-man helicopter with three of us in it. I had me left (butt) cheek on the seat and John was sitting on the seat. I’m holding on to his safety belt with my right foot on the skid of the helicopter and I’m hanging out the door. With my hand I’m holding the door so it wouldn’t flap. We had heard that there were 400,000 to 500,000 people there and we thought, “no way.” When we flew in the sun was starting to set and it was kind of beautiful. When we came up over this rise there it was. Just this patchwork quilt of humanity. That’s what it looked like. We agreed that there was probably at least 400,000 people there. That was the jaw-dropping moment. The other thing was that the people had no shelter, no food, no water. (These are) things that would make humanity ugly, but it wasn’t like that. Everybody was having fun. They shared what they had with complete strangers. They were there for the peace and love. Twenty five years later when they had the 25-year anniversary they had all the food — everything (needed) was there, and people rioted and burned the stage and they had to stop the show. There you have it. (Woodstock) was the end of an era.
Nick: Here’s the elephant-in-the-room’ question. Simon and Garfunkel had their falling out period. Roger Waters and David Gilmour (of Pink Floyd) also don’t get along so well, but these people eventually each did a show together. Not that you need it, but your fans would probably love it. Do you see a snowballs chance in hell that you guys would do a one-off show with John Fogerty?
Doug: No. (pause) It’s not going to happen. It would have been great about 25 years ago, but it’s just gotten worse over the years. You would think that somebody would mellow with age, but it’s been the opposite, and I don’t need that in my life. I love the guys that I’m playing with and we’ll keep it at that.
Nick: So you live up at Lake Tahoe. Where does everybody else live?
Doug: Stu lives in Sarasota, Florida, Kurt Griffey (lead guitar) and Steve Gunner (multi-instrumentalist) live in L.A., and Dan McGuinness (vocalist) lives up north somewhere, uhhh… he just moved … North Dakota! And the crew is spread out all over the place.
Nick: When you are getting a tour together, where do you meet to prepare and how long does that take?
Doug: We don’t need any time to prepare for this. We’ve played these songs thousands of times. Everybody stays in shape. We have a terrific crew, and we have our sound check. Anything that needs to be fixed gets taken care of pretty quick.
Nick: Tell me a little about your band mates that support you and Stu.
Doug: Kurt Griffey is terrific. A really great player and he takes command of the stage when it’s solo time. Off stage he’s just a great guy. We’ve got a terrific group. All 10 of us get along great. We’re real happy with the team we’ve got, including our crew of course. Steve Gunner is the ‘overdub man’. He’s in charge of all the parts that were added that we couldn’t do on stage without him. He’s a terrific musician. He plays classical and jazz on the piano. Obviously ,he plays acoustic rhythm guitar, percussion, harmonica — he’s a solid part. He’s the guy that makes us sound like we do. He’s the icing on the cake and has been with us since day one. Dan McGuinness was the understudy for our previous lead singer, Jonny Tristao. When he couldn’t be there or would be sick Dan would fill in. He got promoted.
Nick: Is there anything you would like to add to this interview?
Doug: If you love the music of Creedence, you’re going to love this band. Come party with us. Have a rock and roll evening.
Nick: Will there be more touring in the future?
Doug: There’s no guaranteeing tomorrow. I’ll be 72 in April, so any day vertical is a good day.
Nick: I just want to thank you for your time and for a lifetime of giving us great music and great entertainment.
Doug: My pleasure, and keep on keeping on.