The racist origins of Creedence Clearwater Revival

Not many outfits capture the counterculture’s defiant zeitgeist as vividly as Creedence Clearwater Revival. With songs such as ‘Proud Mary’ and the crucial anti-Vietnam anthem of ‘Fortunate Son’, John Fogerty’s unique sonic structure embodied the most progressive aspects of his generation’s rebellion. For this reason, the band’s work remains as lauded today as it was back then.

Ironically, however, there was a moment when the band had a name that, even at their time of formation, was grotesque. Not due to any real fault of their own, perhaps except for bowing to the man, the title they had before becoming the band we all know and love today was ‘The Golliwogs’. Although the label came from the famous rag doll that took after the cartoons of Florence Kate Upton, it is controversial and widely deemed a racist caricature of Black people. So, for a band to be so progressive but have such a name is one of popular music’s most baffling exhibits.

Notably, the origins of CCR and, indeed, The Golliwogs, were in their days at Portola Junior High in El Cerrito, California. During these heady early years in the 1950s, John Fogerty, Doug Clifford, and Stu Cook met and formed a band before too long. Originally called The Blue Velvets, the trio played various instrumentals and the era’s favourite “jukebox standards” and supported John’s older brother Tom for recordings and performances. Quickly finding creative rhythm, they joined up with Tom on a full-time basis in 1961. Between October that year and June 1962, they released six singles.

In 1964, the band signed with the San Francisco-based independent jazz label Fantasy Records. The company was famed in its early years for issuing recordings by revered jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, who also invested in the company during its first years. Since then, it has stayed at the forefront of people’s minds for its recordings of the comedian Lenny Bruce and jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. The latter’s song ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’, which scored national success, attracted The Blue Velvets to Fantasy.

For the group’s first single of Fantasy, ‘Don’t Tell Me No Lies’, which arrived in November 1964, the label co-owner Max Weiss renamed the group The Golliwogs after Upton’s character. This wasn’t the first time he had interfered with band operations either, and before this tasteless name change, he had switched their name to Vision. During this chapter, a significant lineup change also occurred, setting the scene for the brilliance of Creedence Clearwater Revival to come. Tom Fogerty became the rhythm guitarist and stepped away from being the frontman, John became the vocalist and primary songwriter, and Cook left the piano for the bass. Tom later recalled that the main reason was that his younger brother had a definitive sound that they could capitalise on.

Luckily for the band – even if it didn’t feel that way at the time – global events would ensure that their time as The Golliwogs was only fleeting. In 1966, as the disastrous Vietnam War heated up thousands of miles overseas, John Fogerty and Clifford were drafted into the US Armed Forces, with both spared frontline duty by the former joining the Army Reserve and the latter, the Coast Guard Reserve. Regardless of John Fogerty hating every minute, awaiting the day he could leave, it was a consequential period that would shape Creedence Clearwater Revival and inspire some of their most important material, including ‘Fortunate Son’ and ‘Proud Mary’. Famously, he wrote the latter the moment he was discharged.

During this period, Fogerty also imparted himself upon the group more prominently. Not only was he the frontman and principal songwriter, but he also developed into an adept multi-instrumentalist, and by 1967, he was also their producer. Everything was now in place for them to jump to the major leagues; they just had to rid themselves of that god-awful name.

Just as lady luck had saved John Fogerty from serving in Vietnam and discharged him rather quickly, another stroke of fortuity would provide the band with the key to their next chapter, and one that was to see them write their name in the history books. Also in 1967, movie producer Saul Zaentz – the man who would later produce 1978’s animated The Lord of the Rings adaptation – bought Fantasy Records.

He offered the group the opportunity to record an album, and after making it clear that he hated ‘The Golliwogs’ from the minute he heard it, the quartet were free to choose their own name. In January 1968, they settled on Creedence Clearwater Revival. After toying with several monikers, the band settled on CCR after taking it from three sources. Cook later described it as “weirder than Buffalo Springfield or Jefferson Airplane”.

It was in 1968 that Creedence Clearwater Revival would break off from the recent past of The Golliwogs and become one of the most influential acts of their era. After local radio started regularly playing their cover of ‘Susie Q’, the group would hit their stride, releasing their eponymous debut album later that year. 1969 would then be the most critical of their entire career. In it, they released three momentous studio lengths in just 12 months, which contained most of their best efforts. However, things wouldn’t be so simple between the quartet and Fantasy Records in the not-too-distant future.

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