Dark Star No. 6, December 1976, page 16:
"On the road daily!"
That's how John McFee describes Clover's residence in the U.K. over the last few months - a period which has seen them arouse a high level of interest by means of two national tours and such mercurial and atmospheric performances as their Roundhouse gig in September that had Prockter and myself just grinning at each other all evening.
Although some of you may still have not seen Clover in action (hang your head in shame!), most will at least have heard the magical McFee on records by such alumni as Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, Norman Greenbaum, Van Morrison and The Dead. In fact, all the members of Clover have an extensive list of session credits to their name. Not that this can fully compensate for their low output of recorded material considering the time they have been in existence. Even after ten years, they haven't grown weary of the music scene - they're still bubbling with enthusiasm.
Clover are: John McFee (pedal steel guitar, guitar, violin, vocals), Huey Louis (harmonica, vocals), Alex Call (guitar, vocals), Johnny Ciambotti (bass, vocals), Sean Hopper (keyboards, vocals) and Micky Shine (drums, vocals). DARK STAR spoke to John McFee, Hughie Louis and Johnny Ciambotti on the night of their gig at The New Victoria with Renaissance and a nicer, more genuine bunch of guys, you couldn't wish to meet. Their energy is incredible: After a rigorous stage routine and talking his head off to us for hours, Huey gave us his very own, one-man impersonation of Renaissance: "Ooo-ee-oo-ee-oo...ba-ba-ba-ba-ba". The printed page cannot do justice to his performance, you'd've just cacked up.
Alex Call, Mitch Howie, John McFee and his brother started out as The Tiny Hearing Aid Company. John's brother left the band because he couldn't handle the business aspect of it, to be permanently replaced by Johnny Ciambotti. They then decided they needed to change their name:
John McFee: ...we'd always end up thinking of something completely absurd; we'd get obscene, stupid names. When Johnny finally suggested 'Clover', we couldn't make too many jokes about it.
Johnny had come from The Outfit who were known to The Tiny Hearing Aid Company ...
JM: ...they were friends of ours. We lived in Mill Valley but we spent most of our time out at Muir Beach and a couple of guys in The Outfit lived out there. In fact the lead guitarist was Bobby Beausoleil, who was Manson's right-hand man. He was the first to get convicted of the Manson murders.
After Johnny was integrated into the group, they started gigging around the Bay Area and Marin County on a larger scale. I asked them about the gigs they were doing at that time.
JM: Out at Muir Beach there was this big hunting lodge type building - a real rustic scene - and we used to play there all the time; it was like we owned it. We used to take acid, it was a big party, it wasn't even a gig. We were real hippies in those days. I don't remember ever thinking about whether we were getting paid for a gig or anything like that. We ended up playing The Avalon, The Fillmore and stuff like that. At first we played the Muir Beach Tavern, then we played at the Straight Theatre in the Haight Ashbury frequently because this quy who became our manager for a while also managed the Straight Theatre. That was right on Haight Street at the peak of the Haight Ashbury psychedelic era. It was a really crazy scene.
At that time, they were playing material common to many of the early San Francisco bands, mainly R'n'B, but also country music which did not catch on in a big way until later. Clover pioneered the blend of rock and country and they are still very influenced by these roots.
JM: That's how we started out, we always come back to those too. When we first started we were playing mainly R'n'B. Things like "Function At The Junction" and "Working In A Coal Mine", songs like that, contemporary soul hits of that era.
At the end of the '60s they signed to Fantasy, making two albums under the direction of producer Ed Bogas, "Clover" and "49er". They have a lot of admiration for Bogas, who was to put a lot of session work their way:
JM: We just got along great. It was like a party scene actually in the studio with those albums. None of us were real serious about it at that time, so we got real crazy in the studio, picking up whatever instruments and Ed ended up playing on a couple of the songs. He's an excellent musician. We developed a nice relationship with him.
John also revealed that McBotti, on the writing credits, is a composite name for the whole group. Howall McBotti - HOWie, cALL, MCfee and ciamBOTTI. He also explained that Bruce Campbell, the banjo player on "49er" is an old school chum of Alex Call's. Johnny Ciambotti expanded on the information:
JC: He works in the Sacred Mountain Trading Post right out of Flagstaff, Arizona, on Highway 89. He's lived there for about four years now and he just sits there and plays banjo and sells Muscatelle to the Indians. He buys jewellery and stuff like rings for five bucks, ten bucks, and brings them to the Bay Area; and instead of selling them, he gives them away. Then he goes back and does it again. He's a crazy dude!
The albums were promoted in Fantasy's own inimitable style...
JM: They used invisible ink! As far as their end of the deal went, there was absolutely no promotion. Because Creedence were successful with no promotion, everybody should be successful with no promotion. That's why we're real stars now! ...The only royalty cheque I ever got was like a half of 37 cents from The Bahamas or something. Honestly, I never saw any royalty cheques for any of our records except that one, but Alex gets 'em from all over, weird places.
Clover had signed to Fantasy (without even reading the contract!) because Fantasy offered the biggest advance. Hence due to poor promotion and poor sales, the only royalties they received were for songwriting. The deal ended in 1971 and they were out looking for another company. Despite recording demos for many companies, including Epic and Warners, they were unsuccessful mainly due to lack of management. The Warners' demos had been produced by Keith Olsen (of "Fleetwood Mac" fame), who had particularly wanted to produce Clover, but even that came to nothing. Clover are not bitter about it though, and look upon their experiences philosophically.
Huey Louis: ...in a way it can be looked upon as a boon, playing clubs and working up tunes all for the love of it, 'cause there's no money in it, but it's brought us things, it's made us tighter now, so that I think we'll be able to handle a lot of the trips that I assume one goes through during success a lot better.
Huey, from Mill Valley, the band's home town, and Sean Hopper, from Sausalito, joined the band soon after the expiration of the Fantasy contract. In typical Clover fashion, putting the music before all other considerations, they expanded to a six-piece just when times became hard.
JM: When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose. It was the music. We've never had any money, but when you're used to it you don't even think about how you're gonna afford it. The sound was so much fun that the economic considerations didn't quite hit us. We were stupid in those days!
JC: We didn't really have to, we just did it as a favour to Huey and Sean! Basically we wanted to give 'em a hit!
HL: Lies! ...I knew all these guys but I went East to school in New York and I got into a lot of blues, a lot of funk, a lot of soul music and stuff, but these guys were always my friends so when I came back it was like, 'Oh yeah, let's jam'. It was kind of crazy at first; here I was coming along with all those blues things and they were into other things. But we really got off on it and that became the sound that we worked on.
JM: Sean was playing in a bluegrass group around Marin County. Other than Clover the electric band, a lot of times back home we have around a ten-piece bluegrass orchestra thing; three fiddles, harmonica, dobro and all this stuff, a whole bunch of our friends. Sean was part of that scene; he played accordion and up-right bass. He got a pick-up for an acoustic piano and started playing live performances with us. It was great, a real energy uplift.
HL: He's just a natural musician, every bone in his body is music.
The final change in Clover's line-up came about fifteen months ago, when Mitch Howie was replaced by Mickey Shine. Over again to Huey and John:
HL: Mitch is actually playing with a new band now. He's a funky music nut, so he's got a funk music band together.
JM: He's still in Mill Valley near us, we see him from time to time. He did get out of music for a while. He hates the music scene, the business scene.
HL: When we parted ways with Mitch, we auditioned about eighteen guys. We had developed this weird style of playing so it was a hard bill to fit. We went through lots of cats and finally old Micky Shine turned up one day looking about four feet tall and said, 'Hey, can I try it out?' We'd already decided we weren't going to audition more people, we were just going to go with this cat we had. The audition was the next day and Micky showed up, set up his drums and said, 'What do you guys wanna do?' We said, 'O.K., let's do "Fair Weather Fan"'. He said, 'Just a minute, what tune was that in your set?' I said, 'It was the third tune'. He said, 'Good'; I said, 'Did you make some notes or something?' He went 1-2-3-4-bam. That's a true story.
JM: Blew our minds!
A year later, in the summer of this year, Clover made their first recording intended for release since the Fantasy albums: A single, produced by George Daly, for PAC records of Mill Valley was cut, the tracks being "Summer's Here" and "Leaving Is (The Best Thing I Could Do)". It was however never acutally released...
JM: It was pretty good, but we made it right before we got this contract with Phonogram. We were already going ahead with it and all of a sudden we were signing with Phonogram so we didn't want any legal complications or stuff like that.
Which brings us almost up to date. Interest from England, in particular from the Brinsley's and Chilli Willi's direction has resulted in Clover getting a new lease of life. They deserve it, they've paid more dues than most other West Coast bands put together. In the last five years they've been gigging six nights a week in disco clubs playing up to six 45 minute sets a night. The present position of the band was triggered by a phone call...
HL: I first got a call from Peter Thomas who used to play with Chilli Willi. He said, 'We'd like to come over and meet you, we're fans of yours in Britain', and I went 'What! We have fans in Britain! Shit! We have trouble drawing in Santa Cruz!' They came over and we met Jake (Riviera, ex-manager of Chilli Willi), who knew about records and stuff, so he came to the Palomino club in L.A. where we were playing. All those people talked about Dave Robinson, who we met, and he phoned us and told us that Nigel Grainge at Phonogram was interested.
JM: He was the first guy from a record company that we could actually relate to.
HL: Yeah, he's really on top of it. Most of the executives in the big record companies in the States, the only thing they hear all day is typewriters. They don't know, they're not into the music. Because Nigel's into music, he's great.
But back to those five years in limbo. During that period, as well as the disco gigs, Clover played some biggies as well, topping over bands like The Tubes, Commander Cody and Asleep At The Wheel. (In their earlier days they topped over Alice Cooper, Santana, and Creedence.) Although they occasionally gigged as far away as Houston and Seattle, their performances were mainly limited to the local clubs and West Coast tours, when they supported acts like Van Morrison, Linda Ronstadt and Elvin Bishop. They even once played music for go-go dancers at a Custom Car Rally...
JC: There was this fashion show that came up while we were playing and these chicks got up there and it was as sleazy as hell. You'd've loved it'
Not only did Clover spend almost every night gigging in between their record contracts, but they also managed to fit in an enormous amount of session work, especially John McFee. Much of the work came via Ed Bogas, who by now had established a good reputation as a producer and put a lot of sessions for advertising jobs their way, including Chevy Trucks and most recently, Country Kitchen Chicken Coating. They have also done (co-incidentally) clover seed and Annie Greensprings Wine:
HL: Clover seed. We did a fifteen minute movie short which goes, 'This is clover that grows for cows. It grows two feet tall with shamrocks this big!' It's enhanced clover. It shows cows grazing in the stuff up to here! (Vivid demonstrations from Huey). We also did the Hi Ho Potato Song and Annie Greensprings...
JC: (Bursts into song) 'Go up over the to the country, get some Annie Greensprings Wine, da da do di da da da da ...' (Paralytic laughter all round)
HL: We did the country version. There were five different ones: A soul version, a country version and so on.
One of the Annie Greensprings tunes was written by Boz Scaggs, whos "Moments" album featured John McFee.
JM: I also did some other recording with Boz, but I never heard of it on an album. It was called "Going Back To Greensprings", he was going to make a single out of it. He had written the Annie Greensprings ad., then he got the idea he should do a single of the same tune - the same melody line but with different words.
That was about eighteen months ago, but Boz wanted John to join his band back at the time of "Moments"...
JM: We played a lot of gigs as Clover with him and we've jammed and stuff like that. I missed out. There was a gig he did in Marin County with Tracy Nelson and an orchestra and the whole bit and he really wanted me to do it, but unfortunately, Clover had a gig that was really important to us the same night. I couldn't do them both. I've stuck with Clover because I really believe in Clover as a musical thing. I could go up and join somebody that's already famous and instantly be mor successful than I am right now. I like Boz and I like his music and there's a lot of people who really like that music but it's almost a moral issue; I want people to actually realise that Clover is as valid as these other things.
HL: The truth is that McFee would turn down big gigs with Boz because if he didn't, we'd break his legs, and he knew that - simple understanding. Boz used to come regularly to our gigs at the Lion's Share in San Anselmo to ask McFee to join his band and we used to regularly ditch McFee in the back room and go, 'Hi Boz, can I buy you a drink?' and escort him straight to the bar, buy him about four drinks until the night was over and say 'Bye-bye Boz', just to keep him away from McFee. We were always gigging and he couldn't go on the road with Boz.
A name that is synonymous with Boz Scaggs is Steve Miller and John McFee has also appeared on sessions for him; not only on "Fly Like An Eagle" but the newie, yet to be released...
JM: I'll be on that one a lot more but it depends on what tunes he picks. He records a bunch of tunes and then he'll pick the ones that fit best together for an album concept. There may even be one tune that I co-wrote with Steve and Norton Buffalo.
The other sessions that are of major interest to DARK STAR readers are those with The Grateful Dead...
JM: They're a fairly unknown band! They had this song ("Pride Of Cucamonga") and Garcia had been trying to do the steel part for like two weeks or something and he just couldn't come up with the part.
HL: Roy Siegal had been engineering the sessions and he's a friend of ours 'cause we've done a lot sessions with him. He had been listening to Jerry playing steel and Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir, I guess, were in the studio and he said, 'Hey, I know a guy who could do this in one take', so they said, 'Oh, that's fine Jerry'. So they brought in McFee and he did it. But Jerry Garcia is one of the greatest. He's a great, great, great cat. He's such a laid back cat he just mellows the whole room. He's a great guitar player, but McFee definitely did the steel sessions he couldn't handle. I think Jerry just had a flirt with the pedal steel. His most recent thing is playing with Merl Saunders, playing funk, soul music, with Merl Saunders' all-black group. He just jams with them. The Saunders-Garcia Band, that's what he's been doing for a year and a half now. He gigs all around the clubs. Jerry plays all the time, he's down to earth, he's good people.
Both Huey and John have spent some time up at Novato with Mickey Hart and have done sessions with him. I asked them if they were on any of his released material...
JM: No, not on any of his solo albums. I was on one for Round records by Darlene Di Dominico, she's a really good chick singer who writes her own songs. Huey was also on it, so was Norton Buffalo, Garcia and Cipollina. Mickey was on it too, he does a lot of sessions. If you see an album where the drummer is B.D. Shot, that's Mickey Hart - Bass Drum, Snare, Hi-hat, Overheads and Toms. He got the name from the control panel. One day he looked down and said, 'B.D. Shot!'
HL: Mickey is one of the all-time great cats, he's beautiful, he's given us studio time and just helped us out whenever he can. He always comes to gigs, him and Phil Lesh.
JM: He got me the only music lessons I've ever had, at Ali Akbar Kahn College, studying Sarod.
Huey notices the difference between English and West Coast musicians, despite the fact that he has been jamming with Thin Lizzy on Clover's tour with them and Phil Lynott has been joining Clover for the "Chicken Funk"...
HL: Bands over here are very competitive. They're trying to play better than each other. We're not used to that at all. We're used to 'Wow, you're playing with us, outta sight man, let's have a jam session' and we just have a jam. But that doesn't seem to happen here, it's a different scene.
I asked John McFee about his musical influences...
JM: I've been influenced by a lot. Just about everything I've ever heard has influenced me one way or another. As I was growing up, all my parents listened to was country and western music, so that's all I heard for the first twelve years of my life. That's why it's so heavily ingrained in my style. Then, when I was thirteen or so, I started listening to rock'n'roll. I've listened to all the stuff that's come along and it's all influenced me. I like pop music. I like everything musically. I like all styles. Clover's style is a synthesis of so many different styles. I'll be playing pedal steel on stuff that pedal steel's never been played on as far as what the rhythm section's doing. It gives me new ideas with what to do with the instrument. There's so much to explore musically on pedal steel, so many things that haven't been done yet. That's really what I'm into now. I love country music which is what is mainly done on pedal steel; I love Western Swing and stuff like that, but there are a lot of other things; it's such a potentially great instrument.
After such an outburst on the merits of the steel guitar, I had to ask which steel players had particularly influenced him.
HL: Buddy Emmons!
JM: Yeah, my idol was Buddy Emmons. In the whole world he's the musician I respect the most, so I would say he has influenced me just by virtue of how much I ...
HL: Cop from him!
JM: I can't cop his riffs; wish I could. Actually, when I first started playing, what I was learning from was Tom Brumley; also Curley Chalker - real traditional guys, guys I was brought up listening to, but I would say Buddy Emmons is the one who inspires me most; and Tom Brumley.
Since coming over here, Clover have released a single, "Chicken Funk"/"Show Me Your Love" and it's well worth picking up a copy. By the time you read this they should be at Rockfield recording the new album, which should be released in January or February next year. They have already done a demo of about sixteen possible tracks from their vast repertoire and from these they will choose between ten and twelve tunes. They're staying here to promote the album and then maybe they will get the recognition they deserve. One senses that they believe they can see the light at the end of the tunnel when in answer to being asked why the PAC single was not released, John McFee joked, "We gotta keep from getting known, we're working on remaining obscure". I shall leave you with a quote from Huey that seems to sum up Clover:
"It's the music really. We all believe in our music, otherwise we wouldn't be doing it. We've always played our own music; we're a real band that plays our own real music and it's almost like we've got that to prove. We do it so the people have a good time and I think it's that concept that keeps us together."
With special thanks to:
David Prockter, Steve Burgess, Dave Fagence & Crispin Gravett.
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