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Blue Horizons: Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater

After 65 years of playing the blues, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater looks to a new generation to keep the genre alive

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Eddy "The Chief" Clearwatercaught the music bug as a boy growing up in Mississippi and Alabama, playing gospel music on guitar.

But it was a fateful letter from an uncle who'd moved up to Chicago that changed Clearwater's life by leading him to the city's blues clubs.

"He got to meet people like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf, and I'd always hear their names and music on the radio," Clearwater says. "He wrote me a letter saying that if I come to Chicago, I could have the opportunity to pursue music as a career. I said 'Send me a ticket.' I was 15 years old, and I was on my way."

That was 1950 and Clearwater, now 80, has been playing the blues ever since, earning the 2015 Blues Blast Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award. Clearwater headlines the 31st annual fall Blues & Heritage Festival, presented Sunday by the Southern Arizona Blues Heritage Foundation. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild has declared this "Blues Week" with special performances leading up to the premier event. 

Clearwater, a left-handed guitarist and showman renowned for his individual style that blends Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll influence with his gritty Chicago blues and soulful vocals, still records and tours regularly at 80. His latest album, a live show recorded in Evanston called Soul Funky was released last year.

"I always felt it, from an early child, that there was something magic in music. So I always pursued it," he says. "Day by day, I try to do the best I can with it. I think that's what keeps me going. I love what I'm doing and I'm doing what I love. It keeps me feeling energetic."

Clearwater still fondly recalls his first guitar—a Silvertone, bought from Sears—while talking about the similarities between gospel and the blues.

"The feeling of blues is kind of like the feeling of gospel music. I'd been listening to gospel in church and blues feels very spiritual to me," he says. "The lyrics are different, but the feeling of the music itself and the sound to it is very similar. I had an easy time connecting it."

He started playing songs by greats like Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but remembers the music of Chuck Berry, with his poetic yet relatable lyrics, and advice from Willie Dixon pushed him to start writing his own songs and form his own song publishing company.

"That's the first advice Willie Dixon gave me, if you're going to be in this music as a career, you have to write your own songs," Clearwater says. "If you sing other people's songs your whole life, people are never going to know you for your own work."

At 18, Clearwater wrote his first tunes, "Boogie Woogie Baby" and "Hillbilly Blues" and joined the Chicago circuit, befriending other guitarists like Magic Sam and Otis Rush.

"There were a lot of clubs in the Chicago area that did nothing but blues, live music six or seven nights a week, and you could go from one to the other," he says. "We always encouraged each other. But it was like competition. The guitar players would compete against one another, but they did it in a fun way."

In the decades since, Clearwater has toured not only the United States but all over Europe as well: "They understand the blues, not only do they understand it, but they know the whole history of it because they've studied it so well. They can tell me what songs I wrote and what year I wrote them in." And rather than diminishing, he's seen the blues audiences keep growing.

"The blues are as relevant and alive today as ever. It's going to escalate much further than it is now," he says. "The younger people are starting to take to it more than they used to. A lot of the younger black people used to consider blues a music for older people and that's not true. Young people have the blues just as well. And the fans are becoming younger and younger now, which is a good thing for the music world."

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