Monday, September 9, 2019

The Swamp Rocker

John Fogerty is one of the most unique talents in rock history, with a distinctive, recognizable voice and guitar style. For decades, he was the face, the voice, and the driving force behind one of rock’s biggest bands – Creedence Clearwater Revival. He also owns the distinction of probably being the only musician in history to be sued for plagiarizing himself – a result of an unscrupulous record company owner and a contract that amounted to legal theft.

The band that would become famous as CCR began in 1959, when junior high friends Fogerty, bassist Stu Cook, drummer Doug Clifford, and later, John's older brother Tom began playing as the Blue Velvets. In 1964, the band was signed to Fantasy Records, who changed their name to the Golliwogs. Seven singles were recorded with no impact on the public or the record industry.

After a short stint in the army, Fogerty returned and the band got back together. John took over from Tom on lead vocals – the start of what would become one of rock's most successful and impactful bands. Saul Zaentz had recently bought the company and he offered the band a chance to record an album if they changed their name, bringing about the moniker Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Zaentz convinced them to sign a deal that would result in Fogerty losing the copyrights to his own compositions. It was a typical move for predatory record company executives like Zaentz; people like him had the power over bands and musicians. Sign this deal or I'll throw you out like yesterday's coffee. Too often, musicians felt they had no choice – without the record companies, they had little to no chance at making it in the music business.

Unlike in their pre-Army days, under the new name (with the same guys) they started making hit records, starting with two memorable covers – Suzie Q and I Put A Spell on You on their first album, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Their second album, Bayou Country, included the song that would become their most covered hit, Proud Mary. That song, with Born on the Bayou on the flip side became a #2 hit on the Billboard chart. Fogerty started cranking out hit songs and hit albums – he was writing the songs, singing lead vocals, playing lead guitar, directing recording sessions, producing, (from the second album on) arranging – pretty much doing it all.

His band mates began to resent his control, but it was obvious that Fogerty knew the magic formula, and pretty much everything he touched, turned to gold. This would eventually lead to the breakup of CCR and the Fogerty brothers would stop speaking to each other. Although Cook, Clifford, and Tom Fogerty may have bristled at their being cut out of the creative process, they couldn't argue with John's success at writing hit songs.

The next album, Green River, included the hits Green River, (#2, U.S.) Bad Moon Rising, (#2) and Lodi (#52.) The fourth album, and the third released in the epic year 1969 was Willie and the Poor Boys, containing Down on the Corner, Fortunate Son, and a rocking cover of The Midnight Special. CCR was riding high, awash in hit songs and albums, and a massive touring schedule.

In August 1969, CCR played Woodstock, but Fogerty was not happy with their performance, and their set was not included in the film. There were differences of opinion, and we can imagine that the rest of the band may not have agreed with John's appraisal. Even so, the year was a big one for CCR, with three hit albums and a number of hit songs.

Nineteen-seventy saw the release of two excellent albums, the #1 hit Cosmos Factory, and Pendulum, which reached #5 on the U.S. Billboard chart. Despite the success, Tom Fogerty quit the band late that year, obviously tired of his younger brother's vice grip on all things CCR.

It could easily be argued that Fogerty didn't need Cook, Clifford, or his brother to be successful. The sound of CCR was defined by his gravelly voice and his unique guitar style (that he once described as trying to play like guitar legend Steve Cropper.) It may sound like a slight against his former band mates, however, listening to Fogerty perform today, it is obvious that the CCR sound is all him. Sorry, Stu, Doug, and Tom, (who died in 1990) but it's true.

Fogerty went solo, and legal problems arose as his contract with Zaentz and Fantasy Records called for eight more albums. Fogerty refused, and was assisted by David Geffen, then of Asylum Records, who bought out Fogerty's contract. He recorded several albums over the next twelve years, with little chart or financial success. He refused to play songs he had written and recorded with CCR, as the rights to those songs were owned by Zaentz and Fantasy Records, and Fogerty did not want to have to pay performance royalties to Zaentz to play his own songs.

He took several years off, returning in 1985 with the successful Centerfield album featuring hit songs including the title song, Rock and Roll Girls, and The Old Man Down the Road. Legal problems happened yet again when Zaentz sued Fogerty twice – for the album cuts Zantz Kant Danz, and Old Man… The first lawsuit was for defamation, as the song was about a thieving pig, and appeared to be a direct attack on Zaentz. The second suit, as mentioned above, claimed that in Old Man… Fogerty had plagiarized his own CCR song, Run Through the Jungle.

Fogerty settled the defamation lawsuit and edited the offending song which became Vanz Kant Danz. For the other, you have to wonder at the nerve of Zaentz to stoop so low as to sue Fogerty based on two of his own songs. For sure, Zaentz didn't need the money – he got rich off of the toil of John Fogerty. It was obvious that this lawsuit was simply to get in yet another jab at a guy who made Zaentz a lot of money, but refused to continue to bow to a greedy record company owner. John managed to dodge the bullet when he proved in court that the songs were different.

After years of album and singles hits with CCR and as a solo act, Fogerty in 1997 won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album for Blue Moon Swamp. Although the record only reached #37 on the U.S. Billboard chart, it took the top honor at the 40th Grammy Awards in 1998.

Soon after, Fogerty began performing his old songs again, almost certainly leading to his touring success after that, which continues to this day. It is understandable why he stopped playing CCR songs, and it must have been a source of frustration for him that much of his post-CCR material was not successful. It does make you wonder if it wasn't just him that made those CCR songs great – maybe there was some degree of magic recording and playing with Stu Cook, Doug Clifford, and John's brother Tom.

In 2014, Zaentz sold Fantasy to Concord Records. Soon after, Fogerty signed a new recording contract with the company, and they returned to him the rights to his songs. After finally seeing resolution of a decades-old conflict, Fogerty now seems to perform his songs with renewed vigor.

The modern version of John Fogerty – age 74 as of this writing - is still a force in the rock and roll world. He is back playing songs he wrote fifty years ago, along with later material. It's a great mix of songs that keep audiences paying to see him play, along with regular band member, son Shane and occasionally, son Tyler.

Fogerty is the constant that defines the unique sound of swamp rock that began with the early days of Creedence, fifty some years ago and continues to the present. It's his voice and his guitar style that define the music – a unique sound that is still relevant and fresh today.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'Twisted Logic: 50 Edgy Flash Fiction Stories', 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts''Beyond the Fuzzy Parts,' 'Jonathan Stephens Is Just A Kid', 'Jonathan Stephens Is Moving', 'Suspended Logic', 'Descended From Royalty,' and 'Covering the Astros.' His books are available in paperback (some in e-book.)
He writes about sports for Season Tickets, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

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