By Vincent Arrieta
The drummer for what was once the most popular band on Earth is 6,000 feet above sea level.
Doug Clifford, the steadfast heartbeat of Creedence Clearwater Revival — the soundtrack for countless American walks of life for the last 55 year — is high in the Sierra Nevada mountains surrounded by trees, deer and the occasional human.
“There’s a lot of interesting people around here,” Clifford says via phone from his home outside Reno, Nevada. “And all of them have been successful in their endeavors and in the world, so there’s a lot of interesting conversation.”
Clifford, a part-time Scottsdale resident, is entering a new chapter of his life with the release of “California Gold” — an album recorded in 1978 with keyboardist/vocalist Bobby Whitlock of Derek & the Dominoes, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and others that had yet to see the light of day until now. The record is a crisp time capsule, simultaneously capturing the lighting-in-a-bottle feel of live musicians in a studio in 1978 while also outlining a direction that Clifford never really fully embarked on while a member of CCR.
While Dunn passed away in 2012, Whitlock is residing in Texas in a state of semi-retirement. The keyboardist — who played organ on George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” helped Eric Clapton write “Bell Bottom Blues,” and acts as Clapton’s vocal foil on the entirety of the masterful and heartbreaking “Layla” album — seldom performs live and rarely speaks to the media these days, but gave Clifford his blessing to release their collaboration after nearly 45 years.
So, the question remains; how does an album comprised of three rock ‘n’ roll greats just go missing for nearly half a century?
“Well,” Clifford starts. “The band that recorded it and the band ended up going in different directions.” Around that time, Dunn joined the Blues Brothers (even appearing in the hit 1980 film of the same name), while Whitlock and Clifford were pulled away by various session commitments and other projects. “At that point, I said, ‘At least we’ve got the songs,’” Clifford says. “Bobby Whitlock and I wrote all the songs, so we put them in the vault and knew when the day was due, we’d put it out and see what the world thinks of it.”
The album is finally out on Clifford’s new record label Cliffsong Records, a business venture he says he wished he had embarked on long ago. “I’m a record company mogul now,” Clifford says with a chuckle. “I’m doing something in music, but it’s totally different. I can do it out of my studio in my house. I’ve done so much traveling and missed so many birthdays and events. … There is a sacrifice that you have to be willing to do (when you) tour. This will be the first time in my career that I won’t have to audit my label.”
Given CCR’s infamous struggles with Fantasy Records in the early ’70s, Clifford says it’s a relief to be the person with their hand on the button as opposed to being the button. “I’m surprised more guys don’t do it,” he says. “Every song that is in that vault and every song that is released from that label, I’m the writer or co-writer on. So, I’ve got control of my copyrighted endeavors. And now I have a vehicle to put them out without having to go through the (crap) that you go through with a label. I’m the label now. I’ll do it on my terms.”
Cliffsong Records is distributed by Sony, so Clifford’s ability to get his material out there is a non-issue. All he’s waiting for is the record to arrive in the ears of listeners and maybe get a song or two played on the radio. “What I’d like at this stage is airplay,” he says. “When people hear this thing, they love it.”
While “California Gold” is a rootsy blues-rock record that is certainly the forte of both Clifford and his fans, Whitlock’s extraordinary leather-lunged voice and torrential organ playing gives the record a heaviness that its relatively new territory for the CCR timekeeper. Many of the tracks have the kinetic momentum of mid-70s groups like Foghat or Bachman-Turner Overdrive, while others lean into Whitlock’s gospel-tinged sensitivity. Other musicians include Tom Miller on bass and David Vega and Mike O’Neill on guitar.
Clifford goes on to say that there is much more in the vault and a series of archival releases is due soon from Cliffsong Records, but he has yet to ponder what exactly. “More archival releases for sure,” he says. “But, you know, I’m just going along with the knowledge that I have of the business and the connections that I have. I put one foot after another. I can’t think about what I’m going to do after this because I’m in the thick of it right now.”
Unfortunately for lovers of his music, Clifford says his touring days are behind him. Having the better part of the last 25 years on the road with the CCR offshoot band Creedence Clearwater Revisited (alongside original CCR bassist Stu Cook), Clifford says he has no intentions of hitting the road or even performing live again, with reason. “I have Parkinson’s,” Clifford says. “I don’t have the energy required to play rock ‘n’ roll — after all, it’s got to rock,” he says, chuckling. “Twenty-five years with (Revisited) was 20 years more than we were hoping for.”
Despite his diagnosis, Clifford says he is quite happy with how he has ended up. More than 55 years removed from the release of CCR’s debut singles in 1967, he says he’s in a good place. “More than that,” he says. “I’ve had more dreams come true than anyone should have in one lifetime. I’ve been married to my wife for 54 years, and we’re together for 60 years. I’ve been in a No. 1 band, and one point we outsold the Beatles. It’s not always (about) winning. Winning is a different game. I like succeeding.”
Though he may not be a live performer anymore, Clifford admits that every once in a while, he’ll sit behind the kit and knock out a few of the bars and changes from Creedence’s mighty seven-minute epic “Ramble Tamble.”
“Because I still can,” he says.