WHO John Fogerty and ZZ Top
WHEN | WHERE Wednesday, June 20, at 7 p.m. at Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater
The quick march of time haunts everyone, but lately it has given John Fogerty special pause. Over a decade has passed since the Creedence Clearwater Revival leader released an album of new material, a lapse that gnaws at him. “How did I let so much time go by?” he asked, just days before his 73rd birthday. “As you get older, time becomes really precious. I can’t waste any more of it.”
Toward that goal, Fogerty has just released a new song, “Holy Grail,” co-written and cut with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, with whom he will be sharing a bill all summer titled the “Blues and Bayou” tour. (It comes to Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater on Wednesday, June 20.) The new song, dense with chunky guitars and cryptic lyrics, will appear on a fresh Fogerty album, likely to arrive next year. The music stays faithful to the roots-rock style that informed CCR’s seminal hits. Over 20 such classics will crowd Fogerty’s set list at the show, including his inventive cover of Dale Hawkins’ “Suzy Q,” which became CCR’s first chart score in 1968.
July 5 will mark 50 years since the release of that song, which appeared on the band’s self-titled debut. Remarkably, the album didn’t impress Rolling Stone’s critic at the time. “You had to read that with a grain of salt,” Fogerty said. “On the cover of that issue, which I retained, was a picture of Cream with the banner that read ‘see Cream get bombed.’ Meaning, they were giving them a horrible review. I loved Cream’s record! Judging by our review, it didn’t look like we’d be around for any length of time.”
The possibility of so fast a vanishing terrified the young Fogerty, who considered making it big “a matter of life and death,” he said. “That’s a phrase I used a lot back then.”
It concerned him, too, that half the tracks on the band’s debut were covers, and he considered those songs far superior to his own compositions at the time. To even the score, Fogerty would stay up and write every night from 11:30 p.m. to 4 in the morning. “I was really learning how to do it,” he said. “That’s how I wrote ‘Born on the Bayou,’ " and many of the songs on the second album.
The band’s sophomore album arrived just six months after their debut, and it hit on impact, buoyed by the “Bayou” single, which got to No. 2 on Billboard. The album also contained the single that remains Fogerty’s proudest achievement, “Proud Mary.” Two years later, a cover of the song by Ike and Tina Turner became a No. 4 smash. Fogerty recalls the first time he heard Tina treat his song “nice and rough.” “I heard it in a car, alone in the dark, so I was basically in a cocoon,” he said. “I knew right away how great it was. Even if I hadn’t written it, I would have loved it.”
While CCR quickly won over fans, critics remained skeptical for years. The tastemakers of the time favored long, experimental jams, emphasizing the new dawn of FM radio-driven album rock. By contrast, CCR stressed the kind of tersely honed singles that made their songs AM radio staples. “The fellas in the band had an inferiority complex about that,” Fogerty said. They’d say ‘The Grateful Dead, they’re hip.’ And I’d say, “Yeah, and they’re bad!’ I wasn’t ashamed of short songs. Look at the Beatles, look at Elvis Presley!’ Writing great songs, and making great records, is the toughest game in town.”
In fact, CCR did cut a bunch of longer songs that featured snaking jams, including their 8-minute take on “Suzy Q” and a 7-minute run at “Keep On Chooglin.’ ” But even the band’s most expansive jams had a keen sense of structure. “Jamming needs to be organized,” Fogerty said. “For ‘Suzy Q’ I actually taped together a bunch of sheets of paper and mapped the length of the song, writing out each milestone of what should happen in that part of the song.”
Ultimately, Fogerty’s genius was to bring the emotional depth of blues, rock and country to the compact world of pop, much the way Motown injected gritty soul into recordings slick enough for the Top 40. Fogerty says that CCR’s image turnaround in the press didn’t occur until 13 years after they broke up, when he released his hit solo album “Centerfield” in 1985. “I would say, sarcastically, ‘Isn’t it amazing how much better all those singles sound over the years that I’ve been gone?’ ” he said.
From this distance, it’s not only hard to imagine anyone doubting Fogerty’s brilliance, it also hard to figure how a Bay Area white kid in his 20s, who had never been to the South, managed to sing like Howlin’ Wolf and write songs about New Orleans and Memphis that sounded like they came from a lifelong resident. “I do believe there’s probably reincarnation involved,” Fogerty said, with a laugh.
It strikes him as funny too that we’re now living at a time when single songs again define music listening, rather than full albums. Fogerty said he keeps up with modern music, singling out Halsey and Ed Sheeran for special praise. He even found himself liking a Justin Bieber song recently. “I didn’t allow my biases to ruin my experience,” he said.
Fogerty remains a vital enough force in music to have landed the new contract with BMG Records. Right now, he has only recorded the “Holy Grail” song, though other pieces are mapped out, awaiting the recording process. While Fogerty’s live show will overwhelmingly showcase historic touchstones, he stressed how important it is to him to create new material in the studio. “There’s a lot to write about now,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by seeing young people getting involved in what we used to call protesting — like the kids in Florida, and also, the #MeToo movement. For a long time, we were quiet. Now, there’s been a cultural shift, sort of like there was in the late '60s. For me, it’s a lot like it was back when it all began.”
With CCR, John Fogerty racked up scores of smash singles, including nine Top 10s. But the band also cut many brilliant album tracks, including these under-the-radar songs:
"Porterville” (from "Creedence Clearwater Revival"): Fogerty’s first substantial composition, written in ’67, featured a vividly pained story line, a blistering country-blues riff and a psych-pop chorus you could sing along to.
“Commotion” (from "Green River"): A manic lead guitar fired this speed-demon anthem.
“It Came Out of the Sky” (from "Willy and the Poor Boys"): Channeling Little Richard at his most manic, Fogerty matched the music to a riotously satirical lyric.
“Side o’ the Road” (from "Willy and the Poor Boys"): A cool blues instrumental that would have done Booker T. proud.
"Ramble Tamble” (from "Cosmo's Factory"): Seven minutes of stone cold blues-rock, featuring a classic, mid-song instrumental foray. — Jim Farber