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Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Doug Clifford on CCR’s Woodstock Performance Finally Seeing the Light of Day

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In an unprecedented span of just four years between 1968-1972, Creedence Clearwater Revival owned the record charts, selling more records than the Beatles for two years in a row (1969 & 1970) and racking up a dizzying succession of top 10 singles.

In direct contrast to the sprawling experimental rock played by their contemporaries at the time, they were an unstoppable hit-making machine, wedding tight, hook-filled, exquisitely written songs bursting with fiery soul, contagious attitude and a joyous spirit. The original lineup of CCR, John Fogerty’s gravel-throated voice that could peel wall paper and stinging guitar licks, the reliable guitar rhythm of Tom Fogerty, the steady bass work of Stu Cook and swing and groove of drummer Doug Clifford mined a “less is more” aesthetic that helped transform signature hits “Proud Mary,” “Fortunate Son,” Up Around The Bend,” “Bad Moon Rising,” Travelin’ Band,” “Who’ll Stop The Rain,.” “Green River,” “Looking Out My Back Door,” “Lodi” and countless others into timeless classics.

August 2 will see the release of Live at Woodstock — capturing the band’s entire performance at Woodstock 1969, a set which has until now never seen the light of day in full, official format.

Drummer Doug Clifford, whose earthy and tasty drumming powered the band’s mighty canon of hits, spoke with us for an encompassing look back at one of America’s greatest rock and roll outfits, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Rock Cellar: Let’s go back to band’s beginning. Whisper a piece of advice in the ear of a young Doug Clifford.

Doug Clifford: Don’t sign that contract with Fantasy Records. Don’t sign anything without a good entertainment lawyer seeing it first and explaining it to you. It’s important to understand the paper that you’re gonna sign for who knows how long and for how much.

Rock Cellar: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s historic appearance at Woodstock is finally being officially released in time for the 50th anniversary. How do you look back at CCR’s performance?

Doug Clifford: Under the circumstances I thought we did pretty well at Woodstock. I’m happy with it. We had a rough day the day before we played the Woodstock Festival.  We did television with Andy Williams for an Andy Williams special and they had nothing but problems all day long and we had a flight to New York waiting for us. We had to cancel our flights until finally we got on the last flight out to New York. So we took a red eye from LA to New York. We make the flight and we get to where we’re going and then plans suddenly change. And here we are going to a smaller airport. We were told there were cars that had been abandoned on the road and we were told there were a half a million people there so they have to find a way for us to get there safely. We were haring this information and this was pre-internet and pre cell phones so it was pretty crude communications. We ended up realizing there were a lot of people at Woodstock. We were finally able to get to the point where we were abler to get in. We had to fly into Woodstock in a two-man helicopter with three of us. The pilot, John and I were in one helicopter and the pilot, Tom (Fogerty) and Stu (Cook) were in the other helicopter.

Rock Cellar: What time did CCR take the stage at Woodstock?

Doug Clifford: We went on somewhere between one and three o’clock in the morning. We followed The Grateful Dead and it was aggravating. They went way over their allotted time. Everybody has to sort of play ball. It was a combination of many things. There was terrible weather. It was raining and I don’t believe the stage was covered. Things got wet, the electronics got wet so there were those kind of problems. Then The Dead went over their allotted time and that wasn’t good. There were a lot of people in the crowd that were pretty wasted out there. (laughs)

But I think we did a really good job with our performance against those kind of circumstances and considering what we had just gone through the day before and not getting a lot of sleep.

Rock Cellar: Was Creedence Clearwater Revival able to wake up the crowd at that hour of the night?

Doug Clifford: Oh absolutely. John has complained about it and said that we were playing for the people who were asleep (laughs) but we woke ‘em up pretty darn fast.

Rock Cellar: What was the thinking behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s performance not being in the original film or soundtrack album?

Doug Clifford: That was John’s decision, he said he didn’t think we played well. Later, I’d see interviews where he said the audience was asleep and we had to follow the Dead. He also said, “We’re number one, we don’t need it.” We fought for 50 years for this one (laughs). It’s bittersweet.

It would have been great to have appeared in the original film with our peers. When we talk with people about Woodstock, most people don’t even know that we were there.

Rock Cellar: Have you seen the film of your performance and heard the audio of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s full set?

Doug Clifford: I’ve seen the video but I haven’t heard the whole audio but I’ve had the audio in my IPhone for a long time.

Rock Cellar: Looking at Creedence Clearwater Revival’s performance at Woodstock 50 years later, did it live up to your memory?

Doug Clifford: It’s what I expected, to be honest. We were a pretty disciplined band. We prided ourselves in being consistent. It was another walk in the park; that’s what we do it for. I wouldn’t have fought for it had it not been a decent show.

Rock Cellar: Could this new business detente between you and Stu Cook and John Fogerty lead to other archival projects like a film release of the Royal Albert Hall performance?

Doug Clifford: Well, that would be the only one left. I do know that the Royal Albert CD is coming this year. We left nothing in the can except for Woodstock and the Royal Albert Hall show. I think that Royal Albert Hall show was great. A couple of  the Beatles were there; Paul and George were there. It was an exciting show.

Rock Cellar: Did Paul and George come backstage after the show to meet the band? 

Doug Clifford: No. John laid down the law that we wouldn’t do encores. He was scolding us for something we were bugging him about. He said “encores are phony and we’ll never do another one” and we didn’t. There was a 20-minute standing ovation for us once we left the stage and we didn’t go back on. That always ate me up. So the Beatles didn’t come back to meet up with us and then we were supposed to meet up later but it didn’t happen.

Rock Cellar: After the Beatles split, the general consensus was that Creedence Clearwater Revival was the biggest band in the world. When did that realization hit you?

Doug Clifford: We knew about it and we felt good about being the first band to outsell the Beatles. We were number one in record sales in ’69 and ’70. But to be honest about it, their career was going down and ours was going up. What was happening was one band was finishing and one band was rising. That said, we all loved the Beatles. It was cool, but there was asterisk next to it.

Rock Cellar: From 1968 to 1972, the band operated at a furious pace, recording seven albums in that period; in 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival released a remarkable three studio albums — Bayou Country, Green River and Willy and The Poor Boys. To what do you attribute such prodigious productivity?

Doug Clifford: Well, John’s theory was “if we’re ever off the charts, we’ll be forgotten,” which was nonsense. (laughs) I don’t know of anybody that did what we did. There were many artists who’d be off the charts many times and people would be waiting for a new album to come out and then boom, up it went and they’d be back on the charts. But we would release singles in between albums. We did that a lot.

Certainly with Cosmo’s Factory, there were six singles on that record and three of them were double-sided hits. When we’d put out a single we’d consider it being two A-sides. We never had a number one single in America but we had more number two singles than anyone in music history to this day.

Rock Cellar: Take us into the studio for Creedence Clearwater Revival sessions. Run us through how would songs be presented and learned by the band and explain the recording process.

Doug Clifford: When we went into the studio, we had the album. We didn’t go in and pick ten songs out of 15 songs. We went in with the exact album that was gonna come out in the stores. We did a lot of jamming, and there was a lot that the three of us brought to the table that helped out in the songwriting. Songs came out of it but we never got credit for it.

But all you have to do is look at what Creedence Clearwater Revival did in four years as group and look what John has done in 40 years as a solo artist. We had 17 top ten hits in less than four years and he’s had two in 40 years, so I rest my case.

We learned to play our instruments together as kids and learned to record together at the same time so therein lies that magic sound. I’m not taking anything away from John; he was brilliant.

Back to the recording process, we’d jam when we were looking for material and then John would bring ideas in as well. We’d play along and see how it sounded and what it might need and what it might not need. Other times he’d come in and say, “This is exactly how I want it done.” So there was a give and take.

For example, in “Who’ll Stop The Rain” I do a lot of snare drum single strokes through the song. John hated it and I fought for it and I ultimately won. To me the song was okay without it but it sounded like a lot of songs that were in that tempo. It was a powerful song, too, with its message and I wanted to drive that message home with a snare drum, kind of like marching off into battle, so to speak.

We would do a few overdubs in our sessions. We’d mainly cut the tracks live and we had more first takes than any other band that I’ve ever known before because we were really rehearsed. So when we’d go into the studio (laughs) we couldn’t wait to get that album done and start on something new because we’d rehearsed for two months every day until the songs were where they should be. So most of what we did was one take. It didn’t take very long to get the basic tracks down for sure. There would be some minor overdubs done later as well as John’s lead vocals. John would do a rough lead vocal when we were cutting the songs and then later go back to lay down a finished vocal.

Rock Cellar: What were John’s most significant talents as a producer/arranger?

Doug Clifford: I would say it was focusing more on the guitars and the vocals. Stu always complained, being the bass player, he would always want more bass. I would say if you listen to our records it’s a bit light on bass and as a guy in the trenches with the bass player I have to agree with that. But that’s somebody in the trenches. (laughs)

Rock Cellar: Listening back to Creedence Clearwater Revival records, they’re models of simplicity and economy; perhaps the magic of Creedence Clearwater Revival as a recording act were the notes you don’t play.

Doug Clifford: Well, that’s it. You hit the nail on the head. It took us ten years before we had our first hit single. We started recording when we were 13 or 14 –years-old. Tom (Fogerty), of course was older, he was 18. It was Tom that got us together in the studio in the first place and ran that whole thing, paid for the sessions and kept us recording. Without Tom Fogerty there wouldn’t be a Creedence Clearwater Revival, that’s for sure.

But the whole idea was, if a note doesn’t have the value that the surrounding notes have, take it out. It doesn’t belong there. For example, “Susie Q” was a quarter-note beat that I put a dance beat on because it was a rockabilly song.

It was a typical rockabilly song, but making quarter notes with my right hand using the right cymbal created tremendous space there and I put eighth notes in between the quarter notes that I was playing with my right hand on the kick, on the bass drum. (imitates the sound) It just made for a powerful, powerful groove but at the same time by opening up the air with the quarter notes it left the guitars and vocals just wide open. Less is best by taking and subtracting notes. I did the same thing for “Born In The Bayou” but I had a different drum pattern. So that kind of thinking of ours was to leave a lot of space in the music and not overplay and that’s hard for young guys. We started out so very young and we just focused on the hits that we loved and that included a lot of R&B stuff. AM radio was a smorgasbord of genres; you’d hear Percy Faith and then Little Richard and then Louis Armstrong (laughs).

Rock Cellar: Listening to a Creedence Clearwater Revival song like “Bad Moon Rising,” you can discern a heavy Elvis Sun Records vibe. Speaking of The King, what did you think of Elvis’ version of “Proud Mary”? Did you ever see him live and witness him performing it?

Doug Clifford: Yeah, I saw him do that song live. The whole band went and saw Elvis in the early ‘70s when he was playing at the Oakland Coliseum. Tom Hulett, who headed up Concert West, promoted  Elvis’ tours, he did the Beach Boys, he did us and he did Frank Sinatra.  So he got us in to see that show and we were gonna meet Elvis after the show.

We were sitting there and Elvis had just finished a song and then he came up to the microphone and this is an exact quote, “I know they’re out there, I know they’re out there, this one’s for the Creedence boys. One, two, three four … ” and then he went into “Proud Mary.” (laughs) I was crying man, I thought it was outrageous. Elvis was performing our song for us and dedicating it to us. It was one of the all-time highs of my career! Not just for me but for all of us.

We did go back to meet him after the show but Elvis had left the building; he had a death threat from somebody’s husband apparently.

Elvis had a big influence on us in Creedence Clearwater Revival. I saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was 11.  They filmed him from the waist-up. (laughs) You had to be careful because at that rock and roll was considered a taboo for a conservative guy like Ed Sullivan. But Ed Sullivan did so much for rock and roll, he brought so many big acts in like Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. That national exposure gave these artists big career shots. We played the Sullivan show twice. Seeing Elvis and seeing him wiggling around and not seeing him from the waist down, is he naked? What’s he doing back there? (laughs) And of course Elvis’ records were always just powerhouses. At that moment I was collecting rock and roll records but seeing Elvis made me go, “I want to do that!”

The whole Sun Records concept was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s model; that and Stax. Booker T. and The MG’s were not just an instrumental band; they were the house band for Stax Records. Their lineup was a little different because they had Booker T. on organ but it was the same concept, less is best. Play good grooves and the rest will take care of itself; the economy of the notes was important. So we picked that up from them and from Elvis, especially his Sun Records singles. Classic American rock and roll music was the model that we aspired to emulate and become and ultimately did.

Also, when we saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, that came at a time when Stu and I were going to college and Tom was working at PG& E, Pacific Gas & Electric, and John was working somewhere in a mailroom. We’d had a regional hit with “Brown Eyed Girl,” which was not Van Morrison’s version but one that Tom and John had written. Stu and I were going to college in San Jose, which made it harder for us to get together and record. But “Brown Eyed Girl” had gone number one in San Jose where Stu and I were going to college and no one believed us when we said it was us. (laughs) We told our peers, “Hey, that’s my band!” “Oh sure.” (laughs)  When we saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show it was the same lineup, bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar and drums. We said, “God, these guys from England are playing American rock and roll better than any other bands in America. But if they can do it, we can do it!” It was a real shot in the arm.

Rock Cellar: Unlike a lot of your contemporaries, who embraced the free form musical style of the time, Creedence Clearwater Revival believed in the mighty power of two to three minute commercial single.

Doug Clifford: We grew up listening to AM radio. FM radio was “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue who we’d done some work with. When “Susie Q” was first played on the radio it was played on Tom Donahue’s FM station otherwise you’d get Morse code, the farmer’s report and classical music on FM radio. (laughs)

We were mocked by our peers. They called us “The Boy Scouts of rock and roll” because we weren’t talking drugs and we were playing these two and a half minute, three minute singles. But later on, there was a 20 year reunion at the Fillmore auditorium and I was talking to Spencer Dryden, the drummer with Jefferson Airplane and he said, “We hated you guys. We would have given anything to have had a big single and we tried and tried and tried but we just couldn’t get it done but you guys were putting out double-sided single hits. (laughs) We were very envious and we put you down but the fact was we were admirers and what you guys were doing was something completely amazing.”

Rock Cellar: Of your fellow musical contemporaries, were there any bands/artists around at that time where you felt a sense of kinship?

Doug Clifford: There wasn’t a similar vibe to what they did but we got along with Santana. Dave Garibaldi from Tower of Power is a brilliant drummer and he and I became friends. We took them out on their first American tour. They said it was Santana, but I know that it was really us. But we were treated by others like we were on the outside and like we were squares. Bands didn’t want to hang around with us because we weren’t doing drugs and we weren’t hanging out. We had families and we were doing our thing plus we were from the East Bay (laughs), the blue-collar side of Oakland.

Rock Cellar: When was the band at its strongest both personally and creatively?

Doug Clifford: Oh, that’s tough question.  Technically, I’d have to say the Pendulum album. That’s where we made a change and John played a lot organ stuff. I used a different snare drum. But technically we were playing really well. Of course Cosmo’s Factory is named after me. My nickname was “Cosmo” and I’m featured on the front cover of the album on a bicycle. (laughs) You gotta got with that from that perspective but also it was the pinnacle of what we had been working for.

Rock Cellar: Were personal relations between the band members at their best during the Cosmo’s Factory period?

Doug Clifford: No, they were not.

Rock Cellar: When was the band really all on the same page?

Doug Clifford: We were always on the same page with what mattered, the work. No matter what was going on with us and there were some rocky scenes going on between the brothers, I can tell you that. Stu and I took Tom’s side and that put us in the dog house as well. But Bayou Country might have been the period where we got along best. We were still coming off of playing in the clubs six nights a week, five sets a night. That’s when we were pretty hot so that would be the first album but the material on the first album wasn’t as good as the material on Bayou Country and Green River was our first number one album. Green River was a pretty good album too and I think it gets overshadowed by Cosmo’s Factory.

Rock Cellar: Can you characterize the late Tom Fogerty’s most crucial contributions to CCR?

Doug Clifford: First and foremost, he was the guy who had the idea to go in and cut demos and go to LA but his band didn’t want to do it. Tom came to us and put faith in us. We were an instrumental band and we were just learning. That band was called The Blue Velvets. And that was without Tom and when he got involved it became Tommy Fogerty & The Blue Velvets.

As for his contributions to CCR, his rhythm guitar was very important. That’s all he was allowed to do; he was a singer, songwriter and band leader and John said, “No more, you’re not singing.” We did 11 covers and he could have done “La Bamba” and I bet it would have been a hit. I think John was afraid that it might be a hit and that would be a problem for him. There was always friction between Tom and John but there were times when it was worse and came into focus. Finally, Tom just had enough and didn’t want to do it anymore.

Rock Cellar: When CCR was reduced to a three-piece, did that lineup work for you?

Doug Clifford: I always missed him. I thought he played great rhythm guitar. He was very steady. I loved him like a brother and I was sad to see what happened to him. We should have had the guy sing a couple of songs, what the hell? The Beatles had different people singing.

Rock Cellar: Mardi Gras was the last CCR album. Was it a mistake to spread out the songwriting duties with the band members?

Doug Clifford: It was the wrong decision. If I had to do it again I wouldn’t have done the record. It was an ultimatum. John said, “You do a third, Stu will do a third and I’ll do a third.” Then he said, “I won’t sing on your songs because I have a unique voice.” That was his quote. Stu said, “That’s not what our fans want.” And John said, “You do it that way or we break up right now.” So we figured we had to do it. We figured “Okay, we’ll go out and bite the bullet and it obviously won’t be as good as our records but we’ll let him make his point and we can go on.” We should have known what he was up to. He was setting us up, and he says to this day that it was our idea and that we made him do that. Why would we do something like that? It’s ludicrous; it was an ultimatum. “Do you want to keep the band going? Well, you’ve got to do this.”

Rock Cellar: John was the band’s main songwriter. Why would he want to divvy up the songwriting duties?

Doug Clifford: It had nothing to do with that. It was punishment. No more encores; that was another thing. It rips the heart out of a band. You play for the encores. We were also bugging him about making terrible business decisions. Stu has a business degree. He said he was not qualified so we were always struggling over that and we ended up with the same contract we signed when our parents had to co-sign for us because we weren’t old enough.

Rock Cellar: Looking back at the band’s history, what moment puts the biggest smile on your face?

Doug Clifford: Well, we had a dream, and the dream was to someday have our songs played on the radio. We were in junior high school and we were The Blue Velvets and we had a rehearsal where we were learning some new songs. We were playing basketball and shooting hoops in my backyard and I was always the jokester and prankster in the band. That’s just how I’ve always been. I grabbed the ball and said, “Someday we’re gonna be making a hundred bucks a night!” and I had just enough silence and then I said, “Each!” And then we started laughing and rolled around on the ground laughing.

I used to use that little credo at time when it was appropriate and would go, “Look at what we’re doing.” So that was one memory that stayed with us for a long time, and it was at a time when we were barely teenagers and we had that dream and we kept that dream.

We overcame everything, except for success.

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