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Shoji Naito - Westmont to Chicago: Tribute to Eddy Clearwater

Release date: January 10, 2020

Ogden Records

15 Tracks / 56 minutes By Marty Gunther

Shoji Naito. Photo by Ted Beranis.

When Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater left us at age 83 in 2018, the city of Chicago and the world in general lost one of its brightest lights, a favorite both on-stage for his brand of music that fused ‘50s rock-‘n’-roll with old-school Windy City blues and off-stage because of his friendly, broad smile and outgoing demeanor that lit up the surroundings no matter where he appeared.

Guitarist and harp player Shoji Naito worked alongside Eddy for the final 14 years of his life and – like anyone who crossed paths with The Chief – quickly came to adore him, and the tribute album he delivers here is a love letter delivered with the help of former bandmates and top-flight Chicago musicians who knew him best.

Better yet, this disc contains four cuts that feature Clearwater in sessions captured in 2015, some of the final recordings he made in a career that began on the Atomic H label in 1958. Born Edward Harrington, he adopted his stage name after drummer/manager Jump Jackson tabbed him as “Clear Waters” for his debut single, “Hill Billy Blues.”

Naito, meanwhile, has been a part of the Windy City blues scene since 1996, when he emigrated from his native Toyota, Japan, to study guitar and bass at Columbia College in the South Loop. He fell under Clearwater’s spell after becoming a regular at Eddy’s club, Reservation Blues, and frequently sat in with John Primer, Carey and Lurrie Bell and others before becoming an integral part of The Chief’s band.

He’s also become a fixture at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he laid down most of the practice tracks used for lessons taught by Joe Filisko, one of the world’s foremost harmonica instructors.

The title for this CD links the suburb of Westmont, where both Clearwater and Muddy Waters were neighbors for decades, and the Windy City where they plied their trade in the blues clubs. Produced by Naito, the lineup includes three of Eddy’s last bandmates: Guitarist/vocalist Tom Crivellone, Shoji on guitar and harp, and drummer Stephen Bass.

Many musicians that Eddy mentored and played with through the years also appear here in a roster that includes: vocalists Win Noll, Ginny Morin and Willie Buck; guitarists Billy Flynn and Junior Edwards; bassists Cicero Adams, Harlan Terson and Gerry Hundt; drummers Marty Binder and Mark Fornek; keyboard players Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi and Lee Kanehira; harp player Quincy Cass and Jake Takagi on ukulele.

The set opens with Shoji and his longtime bandmates covering Clearwater’s arrangement of Freddie King’s familiar instrumental, “Sen Say Shun.” Naito’s six-string delivery adds a taste of Eddy’s Windy City sting to the familiar strain, which includes some tasty interplay between guitar and drums. B.B. King’s “I Need You So Bad,” which follows, is guaranteed to make you smile because The Chief’s in charge, swinging behind the beat, his familiar voice strong and clean and his single-note fret work at its tasteful best. It’s a poignant tune with the last verse urging the lady’s return so the singer “can live once more.”

“Like the Creeper,” a Naito original based on the James Cotton instrumental, “The Creeper,” shines in an acoustic setting aided solely by guitars. Eddy’s back at the mic to take charge for an unhurried take on the Don Robey soul-blues classic, “Stranded,” on which “Queen” Lee’s work on the 88s shines. “A Minor Cha-Cha,” written by The Chief, powers out of the gate with guitar slinging from Shoji and Crivellone that would make the master proud, before yielding to Clearwater once more for Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby,” a stripped-down cover that features Naito on harp throughout.

The instrumental, “Eddy’s Midnight Dream”-- retitled from a tune recorded by Freddie King, follows. Although covered frequently, the ballad gets new life because of the sweetness Shoji imbues on the strings. The sound turns definitely old-school as Win Noll puts a lady’s touch on Clearwater’s “Find Yourself” and longtime Windy City veteran Buck takes the mic for his own “Deep Blue Sea Blues” and Willie Dixon’s familiar “Don’t Go No Further.”

Shoji rips and runs accompanied solely by ukulele on “Greyhound Harmonica Jam,” an original with a classic country blues feel; then Clearwater makes his final appearance for a slow-and-steady take on Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go.” Ginny Morin delivers a tasty cover of Sippie Wallace’s 1920s classic “Women Be Wise.” Crivellone steps to the mic for one of Eddy’s most popular tunes“Crossover.” Shoji plays solo guitar with no accompaniment for “Ogden Avenue,” a stellar instrumental that honors the road that leads from Clearwater’s one-time home in the Western suburbs to the big city.

Available through Cdbaby and multiple sites as a digital download, Westmont to Chicago proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the blues are in good hands for anyone who favors the traditional Windy City sound. This one’s as comfortable as a well-worn pair of shoes.

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