Eddy Clearwater's modern blues are equal parts social relevance and good-time fun. 

Hail to the Chief

Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater's approach to his party-blues sound is as singular as the trademark Native American headdress he occasionally sports for good luck. His guitar-based musical messages mix the traditional with the topical, and he's as likely to sing about social ills as about a lover's scorn. Clearwater is an old-school blues man, but he's not above shaking it up.

"A lot of players like to stay much closer to blues tradition," the 66-year-old Chicago-based guitarist says. "To me it's all related."

Clearwater's latest recording, "Reservation Blues," won him his second W.C. Handy blues music award last year and stands as testament to his take on modern blues. Moving from slower shuffles to Chuck Berry-style rock 'n' roll, Clearwater hits his own personal blues groove with personality to spare. With equal parts social relevance and good-time fun, Eddy plays it loose and real. Thursday he brings his self-assured style to Richmond for the Jumpin' series.

Eddy began his trek down the blues road more than 50 years ago at the end of a midnight cab ride in West Side Chicago. Summoned to the Windy City at 15 by an uncle with music connections, Clearwater hopped a Greyhound from his Birmingham, Ala., home. The former sharecropper hit town undaunted in the middle of the night and grabbed a taxi bound for his new home in his uncle's basement apartment. Clearwater already knew some guitar and he had backed gospel groups in Alabama. But the youngster had blues dreams on his mind, and his uncle could help them come true.

"He told me if I came to Chicago I could broaden my musical horizons," Clearwater recalls. "I came with the intention of staying. I was totally committed in my head."

Clearwater took a dishwasher job and soon bought an electric guitar from the pawnshop next door to the restaurant. Through his uncle he met Elmore James, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Otis Rush and many more. He watched and learned, although he never summoned the courage to ask too many questions of the masters.

"I was much too shy to ask them to show me [technique]," he says with a chuckle.

Clearwater soon formed a trio and played the West Side bars. He worked regularly and met a promoter who offered his help. With the promoter talking him up, Clearwater found steady homes for his blend of blues and Fats Domino/Little Richard/Chuck Berry-inspired sound in the clubs of the South Side. He eventually broke into North Side clubs and became a fixture across Chicago in the '60s. Acquiring his headdress and nickname from a friend in the mid-'70s, Clearwater cut a record and found a national following. He traveled to Europe with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells in 1976, and he has been touring and recording since.

Eddy's childhood memories may be of chopping cotton and listening to Louis Jordan records in an uncle's café but he understood music's magic from the start. Playing blues on stages around the world was Clearwater's goal from his first days as a wide-eyed kid in the West Side bars.

"That's what my dream was all the time."


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