Did John Fogerty write “Proud Mary,” or did it come to the Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman by some kind of divine inspiration? After all, the modern folk song has become such a part of the American cultural tapestry that it’s hard to believe the song’s origins were so, well, ordinary: Fogerty cobbled together a spontaneously-improvised riff at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom with lyrics inspired by diverse sources and experiences to create the song that anchored the band’s sophomore album and became a No. 2 hit single. Since that original version, it’s been recorded or performed by artists running the gamut. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Sedaka, Solomon Burke, Ed Ames, Leonard Nimoy and even The Chipettes (!) have all brought something to the tune about the guy who hitched a ride on a “riverboat queen.” And that’s not even mentioning the transformative rendition by Ike and Tina Turner, who worked the chooglin’, laid-back rhythm into a high-energy frenzy as only they could have done, complete with Tina’s unique choreography. Yes, like Proud Mary herself, the big wheel of Creedence Clearwater Revival has kept on turnin’, kept on burnin’, still rollin’ on that immortal river.
Yet John Fogerty, Tom Fogerty, Doug Clifford and Stu Cook have hardly been in harmony since the band’s acrimonious split in October, 1972 after a brief run that began under the Creedence name in 1967. (The four members had actually played together since the early part of the decade.) A true reunion, of course, is precluded by Tom’s death in 1990, and even a recent and tentative (and well-publicized) extension of the olive branch by John has been spurned by Clifford and Cook. Yet forty years after the break-up, the music that quartet created together remains a spellbinding, beguiling brew of swamp rock, funk, blues, folk and R&B. 52 such examples have just been compiled by Fantasy Records, the group’s original label now part of the Concord Music Group umbrella, as Ultimate Creedence Clearwater Revival: Greatest Hits and All-Time Classics (Fantasy FAN-34162, 2012).
When a group only has a limited amount of material such as CCR’s seven albums, the challenge over time becomes to repackage that small treasure trove in new formats and editions. Sometimes the result is a retread and frustrating to longtime fans; other times, a compilation becomes an illuminating look back. As for CCR, the band’s entire catalogue has been remastered numerous times (including most recently in anniversary editions with bonus tracks) and has even been collected in a “complete” box set. So Ultimate CCR, then, is likely aimed at those who don’t already own the individual albums and aren’t interested in a pricey box set, but want more than a single-disc comp (a number of which are already available). This companion of sorts to 2009’s excellent The Singles Collection succeeds, then, in distilling the essence of the group both onstage and in the studio in a budget-priced 3-CD set released just in time for the holiday season. There’s no unheard material, alas. But what’s here is well-curated, with the overall package a well-designed one.
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The 40 tracks on the first two CDs are arranged non-chronologically, plucking the highlights from all seven studio albums released between 1968 and 1972. Every one of the band’s Top 10 singles is present here as well as those beloved 45s that didn’t chart quite so high (“Lodi,” “Fortunate Son”). Creedence’s singles, like the album tracks, are a beguiling blend of darkness and light, old-time rock-and-roll with psychedelic R&B. The growling, guttural warning of “Born on the Bayou” (“My papa said, ‘Son, don’t let the man get you/Do what he done to me/’Cause he’ll get you/’Cause he’ll get you now…”) is set to a dark melody, whereas songwriter John Fogerty balances the foreboding heft of “Bad Moon Rising” (“I hear hurricanes a-blowin’/I know the end is comin’ soon/I fear rivers overflowin’/I hear the voice of rage and ruin”) with a rollicking melody that adds to the song’s visceral punch. Both songs have a mystical aura about them, but the band could be direct and blunt, too, as with the forceful Vietnam-era protest of “Fortunate Son.” Nature’s elements were also of particular interest to Fogerty; his “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” both conjure images that work in literal as well as metaphorical senses.
In addition to serving on lead guitar, production and various other instrumental duties, John Fogerty was crafting smart, incisive, evocative songs that stood shoulder to shoulder with those of his own heroes. A number of CCR’s cover versions are included, and both the originals and the reworkings of others’ songs are of a piece. Searing guitar brings a different feel to “Good Golly Miss Molly” than Little Richard could have possibly imagined for all of the piano pounder’s incendiary intensity. Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie-Q” is arguably more associated now with CCR than with Hawkins, and both the “Midnight Special” and Motown anthem “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” were two more beneficiaries of Creedence’s heavier style. In years to come, Fogerty would find his own songs reinvented by others much as he transformed these R&B jewels into something uniquely Creedence. Of course, Fogerty’s songs might not have had the same impact had Clifford (drums), Cook (bass) and Tom Fogerty (rhythm guitar) not brought their own instrumental stamp to the material. This band wasn’t just chooglin’, they were smokin’, too. Even today, a Creedence riff is unmistakable, whether propelling “Proud Mary,” “Just Around the Bend” or “Bad Moon Rising,” introducing an evocative story in song to follow.
The power of the four-piece group vividly comes alive on the third live disc. Although Creedence adeptly navigated the transition from “rock and roll” to just plain “rock” in the band’s succession of heavy yet AM-ready singles, Fogerty, Fogerty, Cook and Clifford could cut loose onstage. Four tracks, or one-third of the disc, hail from 1980’s The Concert LP, originally entitled The Royal Albert Hall Concert until it was confirmed that the 1970 performances were actually from Oakland, California! The remainder consists of live tracks originally issued as bonus tracks on the 40th nniversary remasters of the band’s studio albums. No, these performances don’t come close to supplanting the studio originals. But there’s ferocity in both the vocal and instrumental attack in the band’s “mission statement,” “Travelin’ Band,” from Oakland. The band’s penchant for jamming comes to the fore on “Suzie-Q,” extended to nearly twelve minutes’ length in a 1969 performance at San Francisco’s hallowed Fillmore. “Proud Mary” replicates the famous riff and mood but is a bit greasier in a 1971 performance from Stockholm. (Creedence’s music is Americana at its most universal.) Fogerty strains his vocal chords on these live tracks with rip-roaringly throaty vocals while the band turns out the musical equivalent with force and power. The band is tight on straightforward runs through perennials like “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend” and “Down on the Corner.”
The three discs of Ultimate CCR are housed in a digipak. Its eighteen-page booklet is glued into the digipak, and contains Alec Palao’s excellent historical overview of the band and its albums. Information is plentiful, although discographical information such as catalogue number and date of an album’s original release is missing. George Horn has remastered, and sound is uniformly strong.
Has any other band so deftly melded hippie and southern sensibilities, political awareness, country-western, rockabilly and blue-eyed soul into such a tasty gumbo? Even if Messrs. Fogerty, Cook and Clifford never set foot on a stage together again, the legacy of Creedence Clearwater Revival will continue to resound in the bayou and beyond. Although there’s little to entice longtime fans, Ultimate CCR is nonetheless a potent sampler of that hoodoo that they did so well.
You can order Ultimate CCR: Greatest Hits and All-Time Classics here!