Back in 1958, the three boys — each a peachy-complected 13-year-old — thought they could make it as the Blue Velvets. They didn't, but they stayed together, sporting cute matching white dinner jackets and continental ties, and singing juke box standards at the sock hops they played.
In 1963, they changed their name, thinking they could make it as the "Golliwogs." They didn't, but still they stayed together, following and copying whatever sounds were making it. Now they played college frat parties and military clubs as well as teen posts up and down the California coast. They had a record, "Brown-Eyed Girl," that busted the charts in Turlock, Fresno, and San Jose. In other words, they were still going nowhere.
In 1967, they changed their name again. Word by word, they became the Creedence Clearwater Revival. And the rest is potential history.
At this juncture, the band's third single, "Proud Mary," is number one on the national charts, and their second album, Bayou Country, is a cinch for the top ten. Since early fall last year, this product of so much musical metamorphosing has been scoring steadily with such hard-edged, unornamented numbers as "Suzie Q" and "I Put a Spell on You."
For a band that's been knocking around for more than a decade, the CCR is very young. Stu Cook, bass, Doug Clifford, drummer, and John Fogerty, lead guitar and vocalist, are 23. Rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty, John's brother is 27. He joined the band in 1965 as a vocalist.
Today, the Creedence Clearwater Revival puts forth a cowboyish image — of four travel-worn men from the Bayou County talking about choogling, or chucking the straight life to go steamboating down the river.
Yet, as John Fogerty recalls, "When we started, we had the greasy hair and ducktails and the matching outfits. We were trying to be like the Viscounts and the Wailers. You know, a 'teen band.'"
All the Velvets went to the same junior high and high schools in El Cerrito, a residential suburb across the San Francisco Bay, but were not close friends until Fogerty began to organize the band.
"And maybe this is why we've stayed together so long," says Fogerty. "I picked the guys very carefully — even at age 13." He wanted a guitar, piano, and drums. Already mindful of possible personality conflicts between band members ("Although at that age the ego-tripping was like 'Who'll get top billing, the spotlight, at this party?'"), he looked over a field of four contending pianists before choosing Stu Cook.
Of course, being a member of the Blue Velvets was never hyped up to mean arrival at the end of the rainbow. The B.V.'s made four records on the Kristy and Orchestra labels, and their biggest smash came when they backed up a North Richmond singer named Dave Powell on a tune Fogerty recalls as having made "number one in Marin County."
The Blue Velvets then signed a contract with the San Francisco record label Fantasy and, as the Golliwogs, turned out a short stack of sounds best described, by Fogerty, as "very contrived. Everything I could think of in a commercial record, I'd stick in."
Some sounded like the Beach Boys; others more like Jan and Dean, and several had chord progressions stolen right out of early-Beatle music sheets. The band, Fogerty says, privately dug the blues and early Stax artists like William Bell, but their recorded sound had to be commercially-oriented. No floundering amateurs by now, the Golliwogs were still, self-admittedly, "ultra-white mickeymouse musicians."
The B.V. and Golliwog eras, however, included one factor that proved important. At their various bus stops, the boys often found themselves on stage without a microphone, and John Fogerty had to scream his lyrics over the band and the din. "I just got used to it," Fogerty says. "Those frat parties were such drunken orgies, anyway, that they didn't care whether we had a mike or not. They just wanted the music to sing along with." Today, the strength Fogerty acquired from playing in these circumstances is an important facet of the CCR's sound.
Military hitches tied various Golliwogs up until the fall of 1967. While John was busy maneuvering his way out of a six-month Army hitch (he got out early), Doug, Tom, and Stu, who were, respectively, a janitor, a gas and electric company clerk, and a San Jose State senior, found and rented a house in woodsy, secluded El Sobrante in the Richmond hills. Cook sold a brand new car, a graduation present from his parents, to finance both the house and the group. When Fogerty got out of the service, the quartet dove into rehearsals at the house, practicing nearly every day for six months.
They came out of El Sobrante in early 1968 with a loud, easy-rolling blues-rock sound and a repertoire of blues standards including Dale Hawkins' "Suzie Q" and Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You." They also found a change of ownership at Fantasy Records, with new boss Sol Zaentz willing to give the band something better than the shack-studio the company had in San Francisco. The first effort was "Suzie Q," and it immediately hit the national top ten.
Although the band might be — and has been — faulted for a repetitious sound (moderate opening; screaming Fogerty vocal for two verses; long, pounding, guitar-dominated break; Fogerty vocal wrap-up; big close), Fogerty, who also produces and arranges CCR's recordings, plans no immediate directional changes.
"If I had to throw in strings just to sound different," he says, "I'd quit. Our music has a specific aim: to make you want to jump up and dance. Later on, we may want people to reflect on our words; we may want to play with more feedback and electronic effects. But right now, we just want our music to make people feel."