For more than 50 years, Doug Clifford has had a bird's eye view of rock and roll.
As the drummer of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Clifford was there for Woodstock and a concert in front of the Beatles and an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show.
His rock memory stretches far enough back to the day when three-fourths of CCR (him, lead singer John Fogerty and bassist Stu Cook) were playing instrumentals as the Blue Velvets in El Cerrito, California (about as far removed as possible from the eerie swamp and downhome country rock they'd later perfect).
After changing names to Creedence Clearwater Revival (their first suggestion to Fantasy owner Saul Zaentz), the childhood friends released their self-titled debut album in the turbulence of 1968. It climbed as high as 52 on the Billboard 200 Record Chart and yielded two Billboard Hot 100 singles.
The following year, 1969, was, according to Clifford, "time consuming." CCR rehearsed, recorded and released three albums and toured constantly (including a show among the chaotic sprawl of Woodstock and one in Nashville for Cash). "I called us the Roman Candle of rock and roll," Clifford said.
According to Clifford, John Fogerty had a working theory that the band would be forgotten if it was ever off the charts.
In 1969, that theory reaped major rewards. Each of those albums (Bayou Country, Green River and Willy and the Poor Boys) placed inside the Billboard Record Chart Top 10 (Green River actually hit number one) and they spun off six Top 50 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. All of that while the band emerged as a voice of protest.
While their single "Fortunate Son," an echoing guitar-driven number, wasn't explicitly an anti-war tune it achieved that status anyway. It's message of military draft inequity had currency in a year where more than 11,000 U.S. military members died in Vietnam.
"We were of that age where it affected us," Clifford said. "We were writing upbeat songs that people wanted to dance to but the message was serious." (Clifford and John Fogerty both received draft notices but opted to enlist in the reserves before being conscripted.)
If 1969 bore the fullest fruits of John Fogerty's "stay active" theory, the following years would start to get more fallow.
In 1970, they had two Top 10 albums and six Top 10 singles but the seams started to show. According to past statements from Clifford, Tom Fogerty threatened to quit over internal disagreements with his brother and eventually did quit.
They continued on as a trio into 1972 but that year's record, Mardi Gras, only produced two Top 40 singles. Not long after, they disbanded.
Since then, there were attempts to reunite but nothing serious. Lawsuits, the death of Tom Fogerty and the general passage of time got in the way.
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Eventually, Clifford and Cook reformed under the name Creedence Clearwater Revisited and have been performing live versions of Creedence Clearwater Revival songs for almost 25 years.
Clifford and Cook are currently on their farewell tour which includes a stop at the Surf Ballroom this Saturday.
Recently, who all have you been listening to? What's had your ear?- Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of my own music as I’m making a transition. I like the stuff from our era, if you will. I listen to a lot of James Brown. I’ll listen to Little Richard and acts like that. I like a smorgasbord to listen to.
When you guys are out there, is there anything that still surprises you or will catch you off guard? Because you all have been doing this, in some form or fashion, for half a century now.- It takes a lot to do that. The last show we did there were about fifteen women baring their breasts. I don’t usually see all of that. I’m on a riser in the back. I was surprised that it happened in the venue that it happened in that they were excited to give us a show.
What are some of the tour moments that are still most emblazoned on your minds from all those years?- Woodstock would be one. It was, first and foremost, something that wasn’t supposed to happen. If we hadn’t played Woodstock, I don’t think there would’ve been a Woodstock because a lot of the other big bands were sitting on the sidelines because the people putting it on had no experience putting on a concert. Almost immediately when we said yes, all the other big boys jumped in.
You guys are playing at the Surf Ballroom which is obviously where Buddy Holly and Richie Valens and the Big Bopper last played.- It’s a very eerie place to go.
Were those guys that you all listened to growing up? What did you learn from them?- Buddy Holly had a similar thing that Bo Diddley had with his drum. The tom tom thing. I like his vocals. A lot. He died too soon.
When you were growing up and first learning to play drums, was there somebody kind of showing you the ropes or did you kind of just have to figure it out on your own?- I learned by listening to the records I bought and then by listening to top 40 radio. I would listen and tap things out and emulate the beats that I liked.
Another figure from those early rock days was Johnny Cash, what do you remember from playing on his show?- That was terrific. John was a great guy. And he got me out of a jam. I was in Nashville. At a bar. And these guys had me up against a wall, because of my hair they thought I was a hippie. And just when they were about to unload on me I heard this big voice say "Hey boys, what are you doing? You mess with him, you mess with me."
You guys seemed to have gotten the hippie thing, a lot, when you were active in the late-60s because of what some of the songs were saying and the music now might be one of the first things people think about when they think about music in the Vietnam era. What’s that like?- It’s very humbling. And I wouldn’t call it a hippie thing. A hippie thing was communes and drugs and free love and all of that. We were married and had kids and were serious about our careers.
What do you hope the ultimate legacy of the band and the music is?- The legacy is, really, that we bridged the generation gap. We started when we were 13 years old. We learned to play our instruments together and we learned to record together. It took us 10 years to do it but we kept at it, kept at it and it gave us a uniqueness that bridged three generations and not too many bands can say that.
Is it tough going out on tour and knowing it's your last?- Let’s put it this way: It will be. Each show that goes by will make it a little bit tougher but it’s good to go that way instead of let it hit you all at once. Not quite to the mushy stage.