Doug Clifford Crawls Out His Magic Window

The acclaimed Creedence Clearwater Revival drummer culls new album from forgotten tapes

Doug Clifford (Art: Ron Hart)

History has a way of amplifying major accomplishments while often diminishing the events that surrounded them. Doug “Cosmo” Clifford can attest to that.

While his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, enjoyed enormous success in the late ‘60s with hit after hit — “Proud Mary,” “Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son” and the like — Clifford’s own role as its drummer often wasn’t given the same prominence accorded the band’s singer, songwriter and chief provocateur John Fogerty.

Nevertheless, Clifford recently found an ideal opportunity to reassert his prominence. He uncovered a cache of songs he recorded in 1985 — by his estimate, approximately 100 in all — and now, 35 years later, he’s preparing to release the first of what he estimates will be some six albums that can be culled from that previously unheard material. Dubbed Magic Window, it features Clifford on drums and lead vocals, along with engineer/guitarist Russell DaShiell, bassist Chris Solberg and rhythm guitarist Rob Polomsky. Written on piano at his home in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, it’s only the second solo album of Clifford’s career, the first being Cosmo, released in the aftermath of Creedence’s break-up. Although he performed with other artists in the years that followed — the Don Harrison Band, Doug Sahm, Steve Miller, former bandmate Tom Fogerty, and Creedence Clearwater Revisited, a tribute band that replayed CCR’s classic material —- Magic Window offers Clifford a fresh opportunity to shine on his own. Given a straight-ahead, no frills approach, it often seems to echo CCR through a solid, often swampy sounding rock regimen.

“This album survived being 35 years old,” Clifford says, speaking to Rock and Roll Globe from his summer home in Scottsdale, Arizona. “It needed to get out there. I want to share this album because the story is so amazing, and for me it’s the best music project I’ve ever been involved in. I’m not just the drummer. I’m all these other things as well — singer, producer, arranger, songwriter. It was a lot of fun and the guys I have playing on it are just terrific.”

Doug Clifford’s Magic Window

Of course that’s a major admission when compared to his tenure with CCR, but it’s a mission he’s been on since the age of 13. That’s when he and bassist Stu Cook first began playing music together. They were eventually joined by John Fogerty and his older brother Tom, who conceived the idea for the band and dubbed it the Blue Velvets, and later the Blue Violets. After heading west to California, the group went through various name changes, eventually landing on the Golliwogs. They secured a recording contract with Fantasy Records, which until then, had been known strictly as a jazz label. Nevertheless, the quartet helped the company make an indelible imprint in rock and roll realms, while shedding the monicker the label chiefs had originally given them at the behest of of the company’s new owner, Saul Zaentz. 

“The name the Golliwogs was forced on us,” Clifford insists. “We had to wear these horrific outfits. I played with my head down because I didn’t want anyone to know it was me. We hated the name, so we changed it to Creedence Clearwater Revival in December 1968. We had a legal pad with three pages of names on it. Tom had a guy that worked with him from South Africa called Credence Newball and we thought that was a cool name. But if we named the band after him, he’d want a piece of the action, so we looked in the dictionary. Clearwater came from  an Olympia beer commercial and had to do with the environment. I was always talking about the environment before it became popular. I was way ahead of the curve. Revival referred to our revival of commitment. Then the record company said we had to have a gimmick, and we said, ‘how about a hit record?’”

 

VIDEO: The Golliwogs “Tell Me”

Clifford had a unique handle of his own, one that still sticks. He was called “Cosmo.” “When I was in college, my frat brothers used to call me ‘Clifford C. Clifford,’” he explains. “I didn’t know where that came for. So I asked ‘What does that C stand for?’ They said it stands for ‘Cosmo’ because I was cosmic, a man of nature.’”

In fact, Clifford’s infatuation with nature became one of the reasons that caused him  to first forget about the tapes. 

“I got sidetracked by some biological projects in Lake Tahoe,” he recalls. “It was full-time job, working ten hours a day. Anyway I got pretty carried away by that. I thought that was more important than rock and roll at the time. So I put them to rest and forgot about them, but I kept them in a cool, dry environment. When I found the tapes years later, I wasn’t even sure what they were. I got a friend of mine to check them out and put them on a reel. They were master records, not multi-tracks, tapes we had mastered years before..”

Doug Clifford by Brent Clifford (Treatment: Ron Hart)

Clifford calls his seminal solo effort, Cosmo, “an experiment.” It was recorded at its namesake studio which had been CCR’s rehearsal space using a remote truck parked outside. “That experiment worked, but I didn’t spend a lot of time on it,” he muses. “I just collared some guys I really liked. I always wanted to play with Tower of Power, so I asked them if they wanted to do an album and they said sure. We were a ten piece band and we recorded the tracks live.”

Indeed, music was never been far from Clifford’s mind, even after the demise of CCR. “I was doing different things,” Clifford explains. “Stu and I had a production company for five years or so. We were on the other side of the glass in the recording environment. I did three albums with the great Doug Sahm, two of which I produced. One was a European release and we had a hit single off it. Then I wanted to put a band together again. I was doing a lot of writing at that time and I’d record the songs as I was writing them. I was trying to put a band together. I had Bobby Whitlock (from Derek and the Dominos), but he ran off in the middle of the night because his wife didn’t like the Bay Area. Steve Wright from the Greg Kihn Band and I were also working together, but he wouldn’t go out and play unless they were really big gigs. I was telling him him we had to go out and play the bars and be like a real band, but he didn’t want to do that. So that was the end of that. That’s when I started writing with these other guys.”

Doug Clifford Cosmo, Fantasy 1972

He remembers that the sessions for what was to become Magic Window were considerably more relaxed than what he had been used to before. “It was a little different situation,” he remembers. “I could take my time. I could set everything up the way I wanted, because it was going to stay that way. So if I got an idea, I could put it down right down. It made writing a lot easier and it gave me an opportunity to work on my vocals which were a weak spot on the first album. Having a recording studio makes a big difference. Studio time is very expensive and you also have to book the time and find your slot. It got to be kind of a pain in the ass. So when I got my own studio, it allowed me to become recording-ready.”

Clifford is also candid when it comes to discussing the internal fractures that would eventually tear Creedence apart. “It had to do with our management, which John took over, and John wanting Tom out of the band,” he relates. “Tom was the guy that got us into the studio. He always treated us with respect and he was always a gentleman. He graciously gave up singing the leads, even when his vocals were really starting to happen. He’d ask to sing a cover and John said ‘I’ll be writing all the material, so you won’t be singing anything. You’re just the rhythm guitar player.’ And we thought that was pretty cold. Tom had a good voice. He had a high tenor kind of like Richie Valens. A perfect cover song for him would have been ‘La Bamba.’ But it wasn’t to be. Stu and I would always fight for Tom and so that put us in the doghouse with John. Plus, he wouldn’t give up his  battle with Saul Zaentz. We needed a real professional to deal with the label, real management.”

The dispute with the label eventually became the final straw. “John thought he was so talented, he could do anything, and he wouldn’t give it up. He was very stubborn. We’d have these meetings and he wouldn’t tell us anything. Two months would go by and he would be wholly focused on his songs rather than a new recording contract. Fantasy offered us ten percent of the company, something that had never been done before, and John turned it down. He didn’t understand it. He thought it was a one percent deal. They sent their lawyer over to explain it to us because they knew what John was telling us wasn’t factual. We would have gotten two and a half percent each, because everything was evenly divided. That’s how we had started. So we suggested that we’d give John four points and we’ll each take two. That should have made it sweeter. But he wasn’t down with it and then he went to war with Zaentz. It was all screaming and yelling. For us, it was like, ‘What are doing?’ We had to do business with the guy. We audited him all the time and we still do. It is what it is.”

 

VIDEO: John Fogerty “Zanz Kant Dance”

Clifford also claims that while Fogerty is credited with writing the CCR hits, the other members of the band were also involved, but didn’t receive the credit. “A lot of time the music John brought in was just about ideas. We did a lot of jamming, and oftentimes the songs came out of that. I know what we brought to the table. We learned to play our instruments together when we were 13 and we learned to record when we were 14 and on, and that’s what gave us our sound. We were a unit. We knew what we wanted to do. We just had to stay at it until it was perfected. Someone came along and signed us, and it was a jazz label, but radio took a shine to us.”

Although Creedence Clearwater Revisited recently retired from the road — “My body can’t take it anymore,” Clifford says. “The travel just takes a toll on you.” — he still takes pride in the role he played in CCR’s success. “I used to think about the negative things and shake my head and say we should still be together,” Clifford, now 74 and a proud grandfather five time over, says in retrospect.  “But you get past that. The legacy of the band is what counts. We had a lot of fun. Talk about a dream come true! When we were 13, 14, our dream was to have a song played on the radio and now we’ve had those songs played on the radio for 53 years! People came to hear our music at our shows. Wow! Talk about a dream come true! You have to be passionate about it. We always worked hard at it and stayed true to the roots. It was true American music. We put out an incredible amount of good music over the course of those four years and I think we affected people’s lives in a positive way.  Some folks called us ‘the Boy Scouts of rock and roll’ because we didn’t do the psychedelia or play songs that were 40 minutes long. We were happy making two-and-a-half minute singles, and then we’d get on to the next one. We had some of those same folks tell us, ‘We’d be happy to have one single, and you guys are putting out double-sided singles.’ Everything we put out was a potential single. So much for being the Boy Scouts of rock and roll. I thank my lucky stars everyday.” 

 

AUDIO: Doug “Cosmo” Clifford “Just Another Girl”

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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