Eddy Clearwater, a Mississippi-born singer-guitarist whose swaggering showmanship and mixture of blues and rock 'n' roll won him wide admiration during a seven-decade career, died June 1 at his home in Skokie, Illinois. He was 83.
His publicist, Lynn Orman Weiss, said Clearwater had suffered complications from a recent surgery but declined to confirm a specific cause. His last show was May 19 at the nightclub Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago.
Often performing with a large American Indian headdress or a wide, flat-brimmed Stetson, Clearwater commanded the crowd's attention. He duckwalked across the stage and liked to wade into the audience with his guitar. Though classified as a Chicago bluesman, his mostly original repertoire combined elements of gospel, soul and rock 'n' roll—particularly the music of Chuck Berry and Louis Jordan—into a boisterous musical stew that he termed "rock-a-blues."
Clearwater was a left-handed guitarist who played a right-handed guitar upside down. He began accompanying gospel quartets as a teenager. However, by the early 1950s, he was performing blues in the rough taverns of the South and West sides of Chicago as Guitar Eddie, sometimes with his cousin, harmonica player Carey Bell. He also befriended guitarists Otis Rush, a fellow southpaw, and Magic Sam, both of whom would become Mr. Clearwater's mentors. And by the end of the decade, he had become smitten with Berry's music.
In 1958, he recorded his first single, the Berry-influenced, "Hill Billy Blues," for Atomic-H, a tiny record label owned by his entrepreneurial uncle. The label credited the disc to Clear Waters, a play on the name of renowned blues singer Muddy Waters. Eventually, Clear Waters evolved into Eddie—and later, Eddy—Clearwater. Several rock 'n' roll 45s followed
for small Chicago labels and the larger Cincinnati concern King-Federal in the 1960s.
The Berry style brought him lucrative bookings at clubs in the white Chicago suburbs. His flashy guitar style also got him work with a white rockabilly singer, Eddy Bell, who outfitted Clearwater with a leopard print for his guitar to match his tiger print jacket. (Bell would later become a Grammy-winning polka performer under his birth name, Eddie Blazonczyk.)
In 2003, he teamed with Los Straitjackets, a surf instrumental band, for the album "Rock and Roll City," an album that found the bluesman branching out into rockabilly and country music.
Clearwater was born Edward Harrington, the son of farmers, in Macon, Mississippi, on Jan. 10, 1935. He was raised by his grandparents. An uncle ran a cafe where young Edward grew entranced by jukebox records of singer-bandleader Louis Jordan.
"I could see him onstage—I could visualize him," he told the Chicago Tribune. "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."
The family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1948. Two years later, he
followed his uncle to Chicago.
Survivors include his wife of 22 years, Renee Greenman Harrington; four children; and two grandchildren.
One of Clearwater's proudest moments came at age 73 when Mississippi erected in Macon a historical marker commemorating his birth.
"He had not been back in 30 years," said his publicist, Weiss. "We were picked up in Jackson (Mississippi) with his wife, Renee. They closed the whole town down. Children came from the schools, a senator attended and the mayor spoke. Right across the street from the marker, the bank had put up a sign saying, 'Welcome Back, Eddy.' This was next to a movie theater where he had only been permitted to sit in the top balcony when he was a child.
"He had tears in his eyes. He was amazed to see how far he had come."