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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Primal Fogerty: Onetime CCR frontman talks about inspiration, the state of rock music

Susan Whitall / Detroit News Music Writer

That John Fogerty is not from the Louisiana bayou or some backwater town on the Mississippi is one of those eternal mysteries of American music. Fogerty grew up in a bland North California town, but he was listening to the radio at a time when raw, regional blues, country and rock flooded America's airwaves.

Fogerty spent countless hours playing his Sears Silvertone guitar and in his songwriting created a fantasy world of bayous, hoodoo trouble and Cajun queens. With his 1960s swamp-rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival, songs like "Proud Mary" and "Green River" evoked an earlier, mythic America.

"Primal" is one of his favorite words, and Fogerty uses it to describe some of the songs that affected him the most.

Rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins' 1958 song "Suzie-Q" was one. "That was one of those records that's still with me," Fogerty said in a recent phone interview. The first time he heard it, he was sitting alone in his mother's car.

"The song came on the radio and I just went nuts, it sounded so primal," he says. "I started pounding on the metal dashboard, so it sounded like a great big drum. It just shot through me. I adored ('Suzie-Q' guitarist) James Burton."

Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival scored its first hit in '68 with a cover of "Suzie-Q."

Fogerty insists he was no blues/country purist, just a "rock and roll child."

"I didn't make a big difference between Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins and Stonewall Jackson singing 'Waterloo' or (country artist) Buck Owens, it all kind of was part of the same thing," Fogerty says. "Every so often something like Muddy Waters would appeal to me, but it was all on hits-based radio, I wasn't researching some hidden closet of blues purist albums or Appalachia, you know?"

From the age of 13, Fogerty played in bands; first the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs, and eventually, Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR only lasted from 1967-72, but its music is now part of the rock canon.

Barely in his 20s, Fogerty sang with a raspy assurance, sounding at least 40 and ravaged by life and cigarettes.

"I knew in my head what I wanted to sound like, and it wasn't what I sounded like when I opened my mouth at the age of 12, when I wanted to sing," Fogerty says with a laugh. "I sounded like a middle-class white kid."

Not having a P.A. and having to shout lyrics onstage helped. "I developed some muscles through that process," he says. "I was only 23 and people would say, 'I thought you were this really old black guy.' It took me 20 years to get that old."

A dispute over the ownership of his songs and estrangement from his bandmates in CCR led to Fogerty ignoring some of his most cherished songs for almost 30 years. Today, a few years into reconciliation with his former record company and his formidable catalog of music, he once again plays with the joy he lost in his 30s.

"There was quite a period of time when I didn't have any ideas. I was so confused and depressed. Boy, that was a long time ago now and I hope I never go there again." Today, he says, "I'm happy to say I'm having lots of inspiration."

His next release will be a Blue Ridge Rangers album comprised of vintage country songs. "It's not something that always shows. When I write something like 'Proud Mary' you don't necessarily hear how much someone like Buck Owens was an influence, but it's certainly there."

Speaking of "Proud Mary," Fogerty's favorite cover version is Solomon Burke's. "You probably thought I was going to say Tina Turner, right?" he jokes. "Tina did great with it. Half the world, when they hear 'Proud Mary,' they picture her in that little Ikette dress."

He despairs of the blandness of music today, compared with the funky regional music he heard growing up. "We're going to have to get there again, for people to be interested. We've really entered a really scary, weird time. Nobody's paying for music, it's getting more and more vanilla. It's this big generic blah driven by 'American Idol' and all that stuff."

One regional hit Fogerty cherishes is a Detroit classic from 1964, on Ric Tic Records.

"'Gino is a Coward' by Gino Washington," Fogerty says with a sigh. "One of the most incredible records ever made. It was only on the charts in two places, San Francisco and Detroit. I grew up loving that record."

Fogerty's teenage sons play in a garage band -- classic rock including Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and CCR. Their dad isn't surprised. "Years ago, in the middle '80s, I told people, I don't picture kids going into their garages, picking up their guitars and playing Michael Jackson's 'Beat It.' It was so pop. Rock and roll is what you play when you plug in those deadly weapons."

swhitall@detnews.com (313) 222-2156

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