Chicago blues master Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater will turn 79 on Friday, and he'll celebrate the occasion in the best way he knows: playing music.
Better still, his performance at Evanston SPACE will be recorded for a live album documenting one of the last of the great Mississippi bluesmen still playing hard in and around the city he embraced as his home more than 60 years ago.
Lest anyone think the singer-guitarist is taking the matter lightly, it's worth noting that Clearwater guitarist spent long hours in rehearsal last weekend, honing new songs and sprucing up old ones in preparation for the big event.
"We're working nonstop on it," said Clearwater, after Saturday's marathon run-through.
"A bunch of my fans have been asking me, 'Do you have a live album out? And my wife mentioned it … she's asking me about a live album.
"I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm going to be at SPACE, and they're already set up as a studio, why don't I just do it as a recording on my birthday?'"
Did Clearwater, who moved to Chicago as a 15-year-old in 1950, ever think he'd be playing and recording at such an exalted age?
"Before I reached 79, I never thought about it too much," he said. "Now that I've reached the age, I figured, I guess I'm still playing at 79. I'm still enjoying it. It feels good to still be on the stage and hopefully making someone happy."
Judging by Clearwater's itinerary, he's making many people happy. Late last year he toured Europe, Scandinavia and South America, playing to enormous houses.
"In Brazil, our last show, a promoter came out (and said): 'Do you know you have 4,000 people out there?'" recalls Clearwater. "Wow, I feel blessed. I thank God for the energy I have."
That's apparent whenever the old showman steps into the spotlight, Clearwater often wading into the crowd, singing and playing all the while, or duck-walking across the stage in homage to an early hero, Chuck Berry.
But if Clearwater was pegged as a Berry imitator decades ago, he long since emerged as a profound bluesman in his own right. The pithy, gutsy nature of Clearwater's guitar work and penetrating growl of his vocals received belated public recognition with his breakthrough album "The Chief" in 1980, and ever since he has stood as a revered symbol of Chicago blues at home and across the map.
"I always thought of Eddie as kind of an interesting blues artist, in that he played a lot of classic Chicago blues in the same vein as Otis Rush, as well as the Chuck Berry-style rock and roll, which, when I was coming up on the scene in the early to mid-'80s, that was pretty rare," says Chicago blues guitarist Dave Specter, a partner in SPACE. "And it kind of set him apart, and he still does it really well. …
"As a guitar player, I've always loved his guitar sound, just a really straight-ahead, no-nonsense, soulful phrasing and always good tone. … He's a great entertainer, and that's something that I admire. …
"I'd compare him, in a way, to Buddy Guy. He gets on stage and just smiles with his guitar, and it just lights up the room."
Beneath the buoyancy and high spirits of Clearwater's music, however, is the story of a man who grew up in rural poverty in his native Macon, Miss., and absorbed ancient black musical traditions in the fields where they flourished and evolved.
"At a very young age, I was in the South and I used to hear blues," Clearwater told me in a long conversation we had in his suburban home in 2011. "I used to hear my uncles singing blues while they were working in the fields. And I would ask them, 'What does that song mean?' Like the 'Catfish Blues.'"
"It's about the human condition they were singing, while working and plowing and picking cotton and pulling corn," Clearwater explained, reflecting on the time when he still was known by his birth name, Edward Harrington. "I would try to imitate what they were singing. Then, later on, my uncle (Rev. Houston Harrington) bought a guitar, and once in awhile he'd let me pick it up and see if I could make chords – I was about 10 or 11 years old. I'd hear my uncles do stuff, and I'd be able to figure out little notes and melodies. …
"I could hear melodies, and it would stick in my head. When I got a chance to play the guitar, I could figure them up in chord form."
Thus did a gifted youngster will himself into being a blues guitarist. When his uncle opened a country café complete with jukebox, "I heard Louis Jordan sing and play (and) I could see him on stage, I could visualize him. And I said to myself at that point, 'That's what I want to do – I want to be a guitar player or a singer.' I had to be about 12 or 13. That gave me the idea."