This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Prince and his guitars, virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and his insatiable lust for guitars and passion for sharing his knowledge, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.
PHOTO: Charlie Gillett Collection | GettyImages
REVIVAL YEAR: In 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival released three classic albums that helped make them one of the biggest bands of all time.
By Alan di Perna
The year 1969 was a heavy one by any measure. Nixon’s presidency, the Stonewall Riots, John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace, the Manson Family murders, revelation of the previous year’s Mai Lai Massacre, and the violent Days of Rage demonstrations at the trial of the Chicago Eight were among the turbulent events that set an ominous mood as the Sixties drew to a close. Young people took to the streets en masse to protest the Vietnam War. Others, fed up with the system, took to the woods as part of a growing “back to nature” movement.
In popular music, the time for euphoric psychedelia and trippy bliss was drawing to a close. The zeitgeist demanded something grittier, more realistic, yet still uplifting. What was needed was a band to rally the protestors as the cops moved in with tear gas and truncheons, a band to cheer agrarian commune members as they struggled to eke a living from the earth. A rock and roll band—what else?—that could function as the musical voice of the people.
Right on cue, that band emerged from the San Francisco Bay Area—a guitar-driven quartet called Creedence Clearwater Revival. The group made its debuted in 1968 but really hit its stride in 1969. In that single year, Creedence released three landmark albums that would define their legacy: Bayou Country, Green River, and Willy and the Poor Boys. Concord Records’ recent vinyl box set reissue of the discs underscores their central role in late-Sixties rock music and enduring importance today.
There was no shortage of iconic rock album releases in 1969, the year that brought us Abbey Road, Let It Bleed, Tommy, Santana, and The Velvet Underground, among many others. Led Zeppelin released their landmark self-titled debut as well as Led Zeppelin II that same year. But CCR was the only band to rack up three Billboard Top 10 LPs in a row that year. This stellar achievement is attributable to the hard work and dedication of all four band members as well as the prodigious songwriting gift of their leader, lead guitarist, and chief vocalist, John Fogerty.
“We could record an entire album in maybe three weeks—basic tracks, overdubs, mixing, and everything,” recalls Creedence’s longtime engineer Russ Gary. “That’s pretty darn good in this world. It shows how together they were as a unit when they came in the studio.”
Fogerty knew a lot was at stake when the band entered the RCA Recording Studio in Hollywood in late 1968 to record the album that would become Bayou Country. Creedence had enjoyed some success with a single off their self-titled debut album, a cover of Dale Hawkins’ 1957 classic “Susie Q” that they turbo-charged with bouts of extended guitar soloing. It was a major feat for a new band on Fantasy Records, a small jazz label out of San Francisco. But now they had to leap boldly through the window of opportunity to conquer the charts.
“We’re on the tiniest label in the world,” Fogerty recalled. “There’s no money behind us, we don’t have a manager, there’s no publicist. We basically had none of the usual star-making machinery. So I said to myself, I’m just going to have to do it with the music.”
Fortunately, Fogerty brought some first-rate tunes into RCA. While completing a stint in the Army Reserve circa 1967–1968, he wrote two masterful, Faulkner-esque vignettes of southern life: “Proud Mary” and “Born on the Bayou.” Replete with images of riverboats, swamps, hound dogs, and hoodoos, the songs evoked a mythic America that resonated deeply at the time. Bob Dylan named “Proud Mary” his favorite song that year. Fogerty said that the songs’ soon-to-be-classic C-to-A chord intro was inspired by the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which is based on the same interval. In the guitar solo, he admitted he was emulating one of his ax heroes, Steve Cropper.
WThe guitar sound was a major factor in the success of these songs and others from Bayou Country. By this point, Fogerty, his brother and rhythm guitarist Tom, bassist Stu Cook, and drummer Doug Clifford had been playing together for nearly a decade, having started as a high school rock band. Their sound was dialed in. John Fogerty played a Gibson ES-175 on “Proud Mary” but used a 3/4-scale Rickenbacker 325, retrofitted with a Bigsby tailpiece, on other tracks. Tom Fogerty’s principal guitar was a Rickenbacker 360. Both plugged their guitars into solid-state Kustom amps.
While Bayou Country became a major triumph for the band, John Fogerty still wasn’t completely satisfied with the sound they achieved on the disc. When he and his bandmates learned that L.A. recording maven Wally Heider had opened a state-of-the-art three-studio recording facility in San Francisco, where the band members all lived, they decided to record their next album, Green River, there. This was also the first of many recordings CCR made with Russ Gary, who was then the house engineer at Heider’s San Francisco studio.
Gary was impressed by how together CCR were when they first showed up at Heider’s Studio C. Unlike a lot of bands at the time, they were drug-free and strictly business when it came to recording. “They were the most prepared, well-rehearsed band I ever recorded,” he says.
Gary’s approach to capturing the guitar sound was simple. He close-miked John and Tom Fogerty’s amps with Shure SM56s, adding a Neumann U87 room mic for a little ambience. And while Kustom amps don’t enjoy the greatest reputation, Gary says that he and the band had no trouble getting great tones from them.
“Most people don’t know that John removed the Kustom loudspeakers in those amp and inserted JBLs, which introduced an identifiable sound,” Gary says. “A lot of people couldn’t get those Kustoms to work really well for them, but that little trick of installing JBLs made a big difference. Also, while they used Kustoms on several of the songs, they made equal use of Fender Vibrolux Reverb amps. Those Vibroluxes had been tweaked a little bit by the band’s guitar tech. But the two amps are the guitar tone of the album for the most part.”
Fogerty supplemented his Rickenbacker 325s with a Gibson Les Paul Custom, which is heard on one of Green River’s standout tracks, Fogerty’s politically engaged “Bad Moon Rising.” He’d also had one of his 325s retrofitted with a humbucking pickup for a more Gibson-style sound. Tom moved from his Rickenbacker 360 to a Guild Starfire IV electric archtop, and Stu Cook traded his Rickenbacker bass for a Fender Precision Bass.
Once basic tracks for Green River were completed, Gary says, “I was surprised that only John Fogerty returned to do overdubs. I never spoke to the other band members again until the next project we started.” One example is the double-tracked Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar that John added to “Green River,” something he would do on other Creedence tracks such as “Cotton Fields” from Willy and the Poor Boys.
“A lot of John’s overdubbing sessions,” Gary adds, “were percussion—cowbell, shakers, conga drums—subtle piano things that most people don’t notice, and some acoustic guitars. All that stuff was mixed down to move the songs along but keep the feel of a four-piece band…”
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This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Prince and his guitars, virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and his insatiable lust for guitars and passion for sharing his knowledge, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.