Founder’s Day 2015: An Evening with Eddy Clearwater

Article by Patrick Reilly

Photo Credit: Vidura Jang Bahadur

The concept of International House began one morning in 1909. A YMCA official named Harry Edmonds passed a Chinese student on the steps of Columbia University’s Law Library and wished him a good morning. The Chinese student stopped, turned around, and replied "I've been in this country for three weeks, and you are the first person who's spoken to me." Moved by this experience, Edmonds began hosting international students in his New York City apartment for Sunday Suppers. In 1924, with the collaboration and support of John D. Rockefeller, Edmonds was able to open the first International House in New York City. Another I-House in Berkeley soon followed, and a third, at UChicago, on October 5th, 1932.  Before celebrating the 83rd birthday of Chicago’s International House, Dr. Denise Jorgens, current president of International Houses Worldwide, explains that the goal of bringing students together from around the world has always guided International House’s programming and even its physical architecture.  “You live your life in these incredibly gracious public areas, such as [how] we're enjoying tonight's program in our Assembly Hall."

To help International House celebrate its annual Founder’s Day on October 3rd, UChicago alum Bart Lazar (A.B. ’82) drew on his wide range of contacts in the music industry.  Mr. Lazar, now a Partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, had brought U2 to International House during his student days, and returned for this year’s Founder’s Day with another legendary performer: Chicago blues artist Eddy Clearwater. Wearing his signature Indian headdress, the singer once described by the Chicago Tribune as  “Chicago’s premier blues showman” entertained guests with some of his classic hits as well as songs from his most recent CD, West Side Strut.

It was this goal, to entertain with his music, which first drew fifteen-year-old Edward Harrington to Chicago in the 1950s. “I wanted to play music and make it a career for my life.”  Yet at his family’s home in Mississippi, he recalled, “the closest thing I could get to a guitar was an old acoustic.” Chicago’s music scene offered an exciting alternative: the fifties were the decade when Chicago’s African American jazz artists began to enliven their music with electric guitars, drums, and harmonica leads. An uncle of Eddy’s living in the city already knew some of these artists, and offered to make an introduction.

“’You always wanted to pursue music as a dream,’” Mr. Clearwater remembers his uncle saying. "’You come to Chicago, you'll have that opportunity, because there's people here like Muddy Waters, Harlem Woods, Jimmy Reed, and Ellmore James.’ I wrote him back and said, ‘Send me a ticket, I'm on my way.’ So he sent me a ticket on the Greyhound Bus for fifteen dollars, [in] September of 1950… I packed my clothes, and I got on the bus, and I was on my way.”

Eddy has fond memories of his early days in Chicago, especially of the Maxwell Street Market. He explained Sundays when Jimmy Reed and other Chicago blues icons would set up in the open-air bazaar and play for throngs of shoppers.  During the rest of the week, bars on the city’s South and West sides served as a proving ground for aspiring blues artists. “I would just go into a club and ask if they wanted me, if I could do an audition…If you [didn’t] have a name, that’s the only way they could think about hiring you.”

After eight years in this informal music scene, Eddy recorded his first single, Hill Billy Blues” in 1958, for his uncle’s Atomic H record label. Like any self-respecting blues musician, he adopted a stage name, Clearwater.  In the decades that followed, he released a steady stream of blues records, becoming a favorite in Chicago and beyond: he toured Europe twice during the 1970s, and visited West Africa on a tour sponsored by the US government in the 1980s.  His styles have also ranged widely: while Eddy is most known for his Chicago blues tracks, he has also incorporated country and gospel, and even performed with a Mexican surf-rocking band.

Eddy acknowledged that music has grown more competitive since his early days, with fewer opportunities for young musicians. Maxwell Street Market has been demolished, as has one of the bars on Stony Island where he first played.  But thanks in part to International House, another generation of blues players has been able to follow in his footsteps. The harmonica player in his band, originally from Japan, came to Chicago in 1996 to study English and blues music. He spent his first ten days in America at International House, which included a youth hostel at the time. “I had to memorize the address,” he recalls, “and I’ve never forgotten it.” He recalled playing his harmonica in the courtyard during those first few days.  Eddy eventually picked up on his talent, and has included him in his band for the past ten years.

The band kept the crowd dancing for over an hour, and fans lined up afterwards to buy copies of West Side Strut. At the end of the evening, Eddy seemed glad to be receiving such a warm reception in his hometown.  After arriving in Chicago to play music 65 years ago, he was clearly proud to say at the end of the evening, “I’ve been here ever since.”