ZigZag, August 1976

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Clover's story

Calvin Worthington

This interview took place at the Howard Johnsons in Mill Valley when Lee Brilleaux, Sparko, Hughie Louis and myself got back from bar crawling from Bolinas to Mill Valley, and ran into Wilko Johnson and John McFee, who had been at John's house perusing his collection of "If it's got strings I want it" instruments. It seemed like a good time to get Hughie and John to spill da beans.

How did Clover form?

John: Well, I'm from the south of LA — near Disneyland actually — but when I was 15 I came up here and started playing with Alex Call, when we were both at Tamalpais High School, just down the road there. So with Mitch, our old drummer, who was at the school too, we formed The Tiny Hearing Aid Company … but then I got arrested and had to go back to LA.

What for?

John: Well, it was a curfew violation actually, but I was stoned on LSD at the time, wandering down Haight Street in San Francisco, and they put me in a mental hospital for a few days. Then I got put on probation and they sent me back to LA to finish High School there for a few months. Anyway, after that I came back up here to rejoin the Tiny Hearing Aid Company and brought my brother along to play bass, but he was too drugged out on acid, so we got another guy, and when he went we got Johnny Ciambotti on bass, and shortly after that we changed our name to Clover.

So hardly anyone was in another group?

John: Johnny was in one called "The Outfit," and I was in lots of little LA groups, but it was so long ago it's almost as if I never played in any others.

Huey: We're super inbred!

So how long have you been together?

Huey: July 4th will be nine years.

John: Me and Alex have been together 10 years now. We're the oldest San Francisco band, apart from the Dead — but they've had multiple line-up changes.

So how did you come to sign with Fantasy?

John: We got lots of offers, but they gave us plenty of money 'cause Creedence was doing so well. That was the big boom, man; everyone was getting signed. We got all the offers, but … well … we waited, and then took the big front money! Fantasy had all these profits, because Creedence were just about the biggest band in the world, and they paid huge money as a kind of tax loss thing. We were really young and didn't really know what we were doing; I'd just turned 18 and had a total 'Fxxx You!' attitude to the world. We didn't care. I mean, I signed the contract without reading it… (laughing) I was young and out of my mind on drugs … I never thought about where the next dollar was coming from! There were times when we would just antagonise the audience, and at the gig where Creedence flipped out over us and started to talk Fantasy into signing us, we really ….

Come on, stop laughing and tell us!

John: Well, we were totally wiped out, and had been up for three days on acid, speed and beer, and at that point were totally wired and weird. We started our set, and in the middle of the second song this fag in the front row tried to get Ciambotti's attention — and he started ramming this guy with his bass, and for some reason I was pissed off — it didn't sound too good to me — so I started freaking out on guitar and Alex got into chanting "Fuck you" into the mic — just a totally idiotic performance … and then we threw down our axes and walked off stage. Creedence thought it was our act … it blew their minds.

At this point everyone in the room was convulsed with laughter, as this sort of behaviour is so far from the way John conducts himself now — living as he does on just fruit and vegetables and strenuous yoga exercises.

And now you've gone the other way and don't take anything at all.

John: Right. I mean, I haven't changed my personality radically, but I'm not as belligerent as I used to be. The rest of the band call me Yogi Bear now… but one of the reasons why I don't take drugs or drink alcohol anymore was that I was actually physically dying; playing the clubs every night, drinking, smoking … I had to quit, or my body would have packed up!

What happened to the albums?

John: They had zero promotion. No promotion at all. Literally none. We were playing in Houston and places, to sell out crowds, without one record in the stores. (This was unfortunately the case in England: Forty Niner had only just come out when Liberty/UA lost the rights to the Fantasy label and all stock had to be destroyed). Business wasn't taken care of at all; it had with Creedence, but only because John Fogerty took care of it himself. He was really on the case, whereas the Clover manager at the time had "personal problems." So the whole thing cut back and it got really tight; the only way to make a living was to go into the clubs.

Is that when you and Sean Hopper joined?

Huey: Yeah, we joined just after the albums, you know, we got jamming, and it got really energetic, so we stayed.

This is when you started getting more "dance music" orientated?

Huey: We'd gotten more into dance music, yeah, because we were forced to do the clubs — you had to make 'em dance and grab 'em with the show. The thing is that we were working six nights a week during this time — thinking there'll be a contract next month, next month, but now we see that during these years, we were really getting our musical shit together. Now we can look back, in retrospect, and realise we weren't ready — we're much better now.

John: When we record again, it'll be well evolved; but back then, after we'd split from Fantasy we were just in limbo — kind of embittered by the whole scene, and the band started to change direction; Mitch Howie left, and we went through a whole series of drummers … until Michael Shine came along to audition. We said "OK, let's do 'Fairweather Fan'," and he said "Which one was that when you played last night?" I said "Oh, the second one in our second set," and he flicked through these cards and he had the drum parts of each song written out"! — after seeing us once! He's incredible! A real musician; reads, writes, arranges, play vibes and percussion too.

How did you start doing sessions — because in England, you're best known for your studio work. (On albums by Boz Scaggs, Van Morrison, Bill Wyman, Steve Miller, etc.)

John: Well, the first sessions I did were things like the Brothers Four, during the folk boom, and then Janis Ian. I don't know how I got them — just word of mouth, I guess.

Huey: Ed Bogas, who produced the albums, also did a lot of jingles, which the whole band did — like Annie Green's Spring Wine and even, would you believe, Clover Seeds! It's this clover that grows two feet tall; it's scientifically treated clover! McFee gets all the steel sessions in the Bay Area, like C&A Sugar, Shakies Pizza… all sorts of radio and TV commercials, as well as regular album sessions.

John: Most people just ring me up out of the blue, like Van Morrison did, for instance, and Boz Scaggs. I also did a bunch of gigs with Boz, and he asked me to join his band one time.

Huey: Now he's got a right not to like Clover (although he does), because some of the things Alex and me used to do to keep him away from McFee were outrageous! A lot of people have asked McFee to join bands, but he's not stupid, like the rest of us! I mean, he could have been on tour with Gregg Allman now — instead of which he's gardening!

You mean you do gardening for a living?

John: Yeah, well, I end up having to do gardening every now and then if I don't get sessions for a while. I look after one of the Doobie Brothers' gardens.

Well, I find that amazing! Is there any truth in what Alex was saying to me that you re-did all the pedal steel parts on the Grateful Dead's Mars Hotel?

John: Well, there were pedal steel parts on there which Garcia couldn't cut, yes,

Does Jerry Garcia know you re-did them?

John: Oh yes, he knows it's me — but I don't think they consulted him before I was asked to do it. Roy Siegel engineered it, and Lesh and Weir were the only ones there at that session. There's no bad feeling, though … the Dead are often at our gigs, especially when we play River City. Most of my Dead related work has been with Micky Hart, though … up at his studio in Novato. He's a great guy.

I've heard that you do an incredible amount of rehearsal.

Huey: He plays all the time, man — he cheats.

John: I like to play all day if I get the time … but I started out playing ukulele, believe it or not. I was about 10 or 11, and my dad showed me a couple of country things … and I got into chords at about 12. It was a great pre-guitar instrument, from which I gradually spread out.

And when did you start playing pedal steel?

John: When I was about 17. I really dug country music — it was all I heard on the radio… and when I saw these guys actually playing pedal steel guitars, I thought "Oh wow, that's the most magical instrument I've seen!"

Huey: It's the American sitar — it's such a bitch to learn.

John: I just sat down and figured it out; I have never had lessons or anything — well, except for voice lessons. In the early days of Clover, our equipment man bought a pedal steel, and I just started learning it.

Clover did all the soundtrack for the film Payday with Rip Torn, didn't they?

Huey: Yeah, that was a great flick, man, in the scene where the guy comes in and turns on the radio, it's "Monopoly" from the first album. It's Ciambotti's tune, so he gets some "pops" from that. Ed Bogas was the musical consultant for the movie, and he got us the soundtrack. He's done some amazing stuff since the Clover albums — like he did the One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest soundtrack, and he arranged all Sly Stone's strings — he's a heavy.

It was the same with Clover; they pioneered the country cowboy thing.

Huey: Oh yeah, man; and the influences keep cropping up; the sound, the style, the image, everything. If you look at those old Clover sleeves, and then look at the Doobie Brothers, there are a lot of similarities. The image is the same; a bunch of guys on horses — like on Stampede … and on the back are individual shots with six-guns. The Clover style is now Top 40 hit… that area, the country hippie. Clover were the original synthesisers of that kind of music and those influences, and we are ready now, man. Ready as anybody can be.

Unfortunately, neither Clover album is available these days, but much deleted American stock finds its way over here … so keep your eyes open. The first album, Clover is good — but the second Forty Niner is a solid gold cracker! These albums, however, are only the start … you just wait and see! The Clover revival starts here!

Tags: CloverHuey LewisJohn McFeeJohn CiambottiSean HopperAlex CallMickey ShineLee BrilleauxDoobie BrothersBob WeirJerry GarciaGrateful DeadPhil LeshBill WymanBoz ScaggsVan MorrisonGregg AllmanSly StoneMill Valley

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ZigZag, No. 63, August 1976

Calvin Worthington interviews John McFee and Huey Lewis about Clover.


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Little do you know, gentle readers, that it is the intention of this awesome bunch of cuties to unleash their manifold talent on Britain … and thanks to the far-sighted wisdom of certain enlightened vinyl moguls, it just might happen.

Keeping their fingers crossed are, left to right: Sean Hopper - keyboards; John McFee - lead & pedal steel guitars; Alex Call - vocals & guitar; Huey Lewis - harp & vocals; Michael Shine - drums; John Ciambotti - bass.

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