Creedence Clearwater Revival - interview with Doug "Cosmo" Clifford

 

Creedence Clearwater Revival was one of rock’s top acts, with 20 songs on Billboard magazine’s top 100 charts, starting with “Suzie Q. (Part One)” in 1968 until “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1976. Not from Louisiana (as songs like “Proud Mary” and “Born on the Bayou” would suggest), but from El Cerrito, California, the band was a quartet of John Fogerty (vocals, guitar, song writing), his older brother Tom Fogerty (guitar), Stu Cook (keyboards, bass), and Doug “Cosmo” Clifford (drums).

from left : John Fogerty, Doug Clifford, Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook

Creedence broke up in 1972, the year after Tom Fogerty left for a solo career (he died in 1990). A rift between John Fogerty and the others means that he now performs leading a band under his own name, and Cook and Clifford lead a band known as Creedence Clearwater Revisited. I’m not taking sides – I’ve seen both acts live in concert and both are great !

I interviewed “Cosmo,” as he is usually called, on June 2, 2011, in a dressing room at Jarry Park in Montreal before an outdoor concert by Creedence Clearwater Revisited.

Craig Morrison : I’m interested in how people develop their own styles. What inspired you to play and how did you start ?

Doug Clifford : Well, I was buying rock and roll records in 1955. I bought my first one when I was 9. It was a 78 : “Roll With Me Henry” by Etta James. Then the second one, and the one that I suppose had the most impact on me, was “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley. I didn’t realize it at the time but what really attracted me to the song was the drums. It’s a sort of a jungle rhythm, a [Gene] Krupa style, but less precise, more raw than Krupa. Krupa was the one who inspired me to play drums but that came later, when I was 13. But in the interim period, I used to spend all of my money on candy. I think my folks were glad I quit buying candy, but my old man hated the music and I couldn’t play it when he was home. I could only afford one record a week, with my allowance. I had a bunch of chores that I would do, and if I did them all, I’d get a dollar. Records were a buck. The love affair was real because I gave up lik-m-aid and dots and ju ju beads and sugar daddys, and all the other crappy stuff that ruins your teeth, for the music. I knew I liked the music ; I could dance to it. In fact, when I was nine, I had a bop party, just like they would show on TV.

CM : What do you mean ?

DC : A dance party at my neighbor’s house. It was called ‘Doing the Bop.’ I had a birthday and I said, “Can I have a bop party ?” I invited girls and boys over. We were only nine or ten at that point.

CM : Dancing to records ?

DC : Yeah, we were dancing, just like I’d seen on television, emulating that. The music had a hook in me early, but I didn’t know what instrument I wanted to play. At first, I just bought records and enjoyed listening to them, over and over and over, putting the needle back on certain places. The thing’s spinning around at 78 rpm. When I was 11, I saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan. Wow ! It blew me away ! We never went out to dinner as a family, but sure enough that Sunday my dad said, “Put on your good shoes boys, we’re going out to dinner.” I said, “No !” “Get in the car.” We went to this restaurant, and they had a TV in the bar, not the restaurant. I couldn’t go in to the bar because I was 11, but I kept going to the bathroom back and forth [past the bar], waiting for Elvis to come on. I stood in the doorway, and at one point in the show, there he was, blacked out from the waist down. It was the coolest thing I ever saw. Elvis was a handsome, strong guy, who had this incredible voice and unimaginable cool for a young kid. He was definitely cool, but multiply that by ten, being 11 years old. It made me numb, and then I got hot all over when he started playing. I saw the band, and the music knocked me out. I thought, “I’d kind of like to be him,” so I used to sing up in school a little bit, not earnestly, but the girls paid attention.

CM : Were you singing alone, or strumming ?

DC : Had no guitar, just singing. I’d put records on.

When I was about 12 or 13, I saw a TV special with Gene Krupa. It was in a baseball outfield, with about 15 sets of drums out there. They never showed the band ; the band was probably on second base. They started playing, and then Krupa comes walking out, I think he was in white sport coat, with a pair of sticks, and starts hitting cymbals, cymbal stands, just little parts, working his way into this massive assemblage of drums. When the band came into the chorus part or the instrumental, he’d sit down so he could use his foot, and do all the things that he could do. He was one of the great ones in terms of using the [type of] rhythm that attracted me to Bo Diddley. He used his toms often [sings rhythm : dum-da-da- dum-da-da], paradiddles and things of that nature, but he used it a lot on the toms and wasn’t a speed guy. He didn’t have the speed that a Buddy Rich had. Buddy Rich was just insane [vocalizes a drummer playing fast rhythms], just a buzz saw. But I preferred Krupa’s style, and he had some similar qualities that Elvis had, black greasy hair, and he had cool ! “Wow ! I know what I want to do now.” A neighbor gave me an old bass drum, a marching bass drum, street version, which I refurbished. I refinished it and then I bought a snare drum. My parents had the old ’50s fiberglass, bullet-like flower pots. There was nothing in one at the time so I dumped the potting soil out, and took the stand. It fit the snare drum perfectly, but it was resting on top instead of being supported around the side. I bought some sticks and I started listening. I’d always been listening but now I’m focused in on what the drummers are doing. There was great radio in the Bay Area then. We had real R & B, guys we could actually go out and see.

CM : Did you see some of them ?

DC : Yeah, later we did : saw Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, some of the other greats of that time. We’d go down to Oakland. It was hard to get down there for one thing, and somewhat dangerous. My parents didn’t want me going down there. We would go with Tom Fogerty ; he was older and he had a car so he would take us. Now you can’t go down on those neighborhoods. It’s just a different world.

I’m a little bit ahead of myself. Seeing these artists was after I met John Fogerty in the music room, playing rock and roll, which was forbidden, on the piano. But the music teacher wasn’t there ; he was the only one in. I listened and then I said, ‘Hey, that’s Fats Domino and Little Richard. I’ve got all those records. Do you want to start a band ?” He says, “Yeah, I do, but actually I play guitar. I’m looking for a piano player.” I said, “I know the guy, his name is Stu Cook. His dad’s a rich lawyer ; he’s got a big rumpus room with a piano in there, and that’s where we can practice.” I didn’t ask Stu if he wanted to join. I didn’t ask the Cooks if we could come and play on that nice piano, but there it was. It took a couple of months to get Stuey in there, because John had some other guys that he had to try out first, and they were the guys on the playground who would kick your ass. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that and had never run into them.

I was kind of the MC [master of ceremonies] of all events in school. I was always the guy telling the jokes, doing this and doing that, always on stage. My parents moved every two years in the middle of the school year, so I had to kick the biggest guy’s ass on the playground or make him laugh. I made him laugh - [in a low gruff voice :] “Hey, anybody messes with you, I’ll take care of it.” I never called in any of those cards, but I knew that I was okay with whoever the bully was and whatever school I was in, and I loved to entertain. John was the opposite ; he was a very shy, very slight guy. They [the tough guys] were a couple years older and they were in the same grade we were in so that tells you something. The good news was they’d turned 16 and they were able to drive, so they would cut school and go pick up chicks. So, that took the heat off of John, so then we got Stu in the band. We were an instrumental trio called the Blue Velvets. The bass at that time was Stuey’s left hand. We would play sock hops and fraternity and sorority parties, and made a little money. We started playing, learning songs.

CM : Do you remember any of the tunes ?

DC : Oh sure. “Rumble,” some by Johnny and the Hurricanes, without the sax, which really made it not the best, “Tequila,” of course. I’m trying to remember some of the others. A lot of them weren’t instrumental but we made them instrumentals, ’cause no one was singing at the time. Well, Tom would come to some of our shows and sing five songs, ’cause he was the lead singer in another band ; and that really got all the girls up and going. He was a good-looking guy, and four years older than we were, so he had cool and all of that. But we were listening to a lot of blues, and a lot of that was instrumental. Even if it wasn’t, well, we just played the blues and did it the best we could with the instrumentation that we had.

I bought all the Sun stuff, a lot of the R&B I really loved, certainly Little Richard, Fats Domino, and the real blues guys. The others were converting the blues into rock and roll, especially Chuck Berry. A lot of people thought Chuck was white, actually. Certainly, lyrically, he was more sophisticated, and he didn’t sound like a black artist.

CM : His songs had a narrative too, which was more like Celtic tradition.

DC : Absolutely. Yeah, that’s exactly my point. He was a little more sophisticated, and people would see him on television and go, “Oh, I didn’t know he was a black artist.” But we have a good solid foundation in the root music, the root of it, and that’s what Creedence was all about, and still is really.

CM : Well, you did Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” [a hit for him in 1957].

DC : Our first hit ; yeah, only we turned it around a little bit. I went to quarter notes instead of eighth notes. We did that in the clubs. When we were working in the clubs we lengthened certain songs just because they were fun to jam on and it made it more danceable, made it different. I came up with the quarter note idea, listening to some blues guys. I don’t even remember the song. They did the quarter note thing when they went into, I think, a chorus, or during the instrumental, and the out as well. But anyway, I liked the way it felt. “Susie Q” needed a little kick, so I went to quarters. When we put out “Proud Mary,” the B-side was “Born on the Bayou,” and since “Susie Q” was a hit with the quarter note feel, I put the quarter note feel on “Born on the Bayou.” The difference being that, in “Susie Q,” I’m playing the accents on my kick [bass drum], so it’s quarter notes here [taps rhythm]. It gave it a real definition that you don’t change except when you’re coming up to a downbeat to mark [beat] one or finish the song.

CM : The off beats are on your bass drum ?

DC : Yeah, the accent is [claps rhythm], instead of eighth notes, the ‘&’ of ‘one.’ The ‘& one, & two, &…’ The in-betweens. They’re eighth-notes, or quarter notes in reverse actually [on the up beats], but the two together make an eighth note pattern. It’s a big change, going from the bell of the cymbal, and then going down, in the verses, to the actual ride cymbal, so when you go up to the bell, it gives it that lift.

CM : There’s some architecture there.

DC : Yeah. It’s as basic as it gets, but really, really effective. “Bayou” got flipped by radio. We thought that was going to be the A-side. The hit-pickers back in those days—I wish I could think of the guy’s name off-hand, he had a sheet that you could subscribe to, that’s where they made their money—they decided that “Proud Mary” was the A-side. “Bayou” was my favorite Creedence song so I was a little disappointed in that. I didn’t get “Proud Mary” at the time, I thought it was kind of corny, but it’s pretty darn good, it’s popcorn now. ”Bayou” has the same driving force, but there’s a little more air in it, the tempo’s back just a shade. Like that [claps and sings the bass line], where I’m playing on the accents some of the time, in the pattern, a two measure pattern. I didn’t want to do the same thing, but I wanted the effect of the quarter note. And on that one, when I’m not on the bell of the cymbal, I’m riding it on the high-hat, still in quarter-notes, so that’s another difference. On the other one it’s all on the ride cymbal.

CM : These were inspired by blues drumming, but you took them in your own direction.

DC : Yeah, in my own direction. It certainly paid off. “Bayou” being a bit longer than the normal, I’m not sure how we did it as a single. “Susie Q” we cut in half, fade it in, fade it out, and did it that way. It was in total an eight minute song and we got it down to somewhere around four, which was still long for AM radio. When we really got into knocking out singles, we had two and a half minutes, several under three minutes and several barely into three minutes.

CM : That was the way to do it.

DC : We sort of mastered that, and then it was time for other things. Of course, “Bad Moon Rising” and “Looking Out My Back Door” were in cut time. Buck Owens and California country, a totally different feel. Even though it’s a white man’s blues, it’s country music, Hank Williams and all of those cats.

CM : You’d heard all of that also, right ?

DC : Yeah, we had listened to that as well. Compare the two and the vocal styles : it was all about wah-wah, whining and crying over women and booze, or some bad situation that they were in.

CM : Had you seen those guys live too ?

DC : No, we never did. Never saw the country guys.

CM : They were in Bakersfield, so it must have been in the air.

DC : They were in Bakersfield, but they stayed down there. Bakersfield was a long way away. We had never been outside of California until we had a hit and actually went out and toured. We were localized chaps. Of course, we were on the working man’s side of the Bay Area ; we weren’t in San Francisco, the hip and cool place. We were in the working man’s side and that’s really where we drew our music from.

CM : Arhoolie Records was not far away.

DC : Right there in El Cerrito. We had access to the records for sure, and were able to not take a long trip to get anything we wanted to. The local record shop had all the hit records, the black artists as well. Arhoolie had a lot of the blues stuff too, the raw, basic root, and that’s what I’ve done.

Creedence Clearwater Revisited, with Stu Cook at center and Doug Clifford next on the right.

[There’s a knock on the door. It’s nearly show time]. DC : That’s my knock, that’s the manager. [To manager : “I’m wrapping it up.”]

I’m doing solos now in the show. But in ’09, I had my shoulder reconstructed. I couldn’t play for the first time ever. I wanted to keep the rest of the body parts in good working order. I didn’t want it to atrophy. But as I sat down, with my arm in a sling, two days after surgery, my right hand was lying on my snare drum. I went, “hmmm, wait a minute.” I never really got into the rudiments [drum pattern exercises] because I learned to play from listening to drummers, putting my ear right on the speaker at home, and on the radio or records, playing over and over again, getting each part. I thought, “I’m going to turn this around into an opportunity,” and also, “by doing that, I’ll keep it all within the wrist, not injuring my shoulder, and that way my right hand won’t atrophy.”

CM : A new style.

DC : I started really slowly, obviously the way you have to. I had a basic idea of some of these things, I just never really worked on them ; I learned songs. I got them going to a point where I get to play around a little bit. Each solo is different ; it’s still a work in progress. It’s totally spontaneous and I have a few little parts that I’ve put into the top drawer that I do in every solo now, but most of it’s on the fly. But it’s fun. I can do it.

Doug Clifford holding the book I gave him - Rockabilly : The Twang Heard ’Round the World - An Illustrated History. This anthology includes five interviews that I conducted, with Wanda Jackson, Ronnie Hawkins, Paul Burlison (of the Rock ’N Roll Trio), Patt Cupp, and Sonny Burgess.

CM : I guess you’ve got to go.

DC : Yeah, it’s going to be tough tonight, because it’s cold.


comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006