March 9, 1969—Baseball fan John Fogerty knew that players, no matter how great, needed to ride hot streaks as long as they could. Surely, these 24 hours counted, as the 23-year-old musician and his bandmates in Credence Clearwater Revival awoke to find their song “Proud Mary” at #2 on the U.S. singles chart—and went to sleep having appeared for the first of two times on The Ed Sullivan Show.
If Fogerty was watching the Oscars last Sunday, he might have been forgiven for experiencing déjà vu back to that day 45 years ago today. First, John Travolta’s mangled introduction of Idina Menzel might have reminded him of Sullivan’s botching of his own surname. Second, producer Saul Zaentz’s presence on the list of prominent film-industry people who had died this past year would have called forth painful memories of an entertainment mogul who had sped his own climb to fame, then tried to ruin him in protracted lawsuits.
The 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan’s show celebrated a culturally momentous event, but CCR’s appearance highlights an aspect of the variety hour that, in its own way, was equally fascinating: the way in which it continued to promote a diverse American culture under a common format, long after the fissures in the nation’s life had been painfully exposed. The other guests on the night that CCR played “Proud Mary” and Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" were the pop group The Association, whose smooth vocalizing put them at some remove from CCR’s rough-edged guitar-based beat; country-music star Jeannie C. Riley; Broadway veteran Carol Lawrence; Greg Morris (singing and reciting "For Once in My Life"!); comedians Norm Crosby and Will Jordan; the juggling team Valente and Valente; the American Legion Drill Team; and Yankee great Mickey Mantle (not performing, but discussing the possibility of his retirement).
Compare that lineup to the closest thing to an old-time variety show that TV possesses these days, Saturday Night Live. A greater gulf in age separates two guests from earlier this year, Justin Timberlake and Paul Simon, than CCR and Lawrence, but the SNL guests shared common musical influences and a common ironic temperament that just didn’t exist between CCR and the original Maria of West Side Story.
The strain of retaining such diversity under one roof was beginning to be felt. The Ed Sullivan Show was no longer as successful as it used to be in holding onto its audience. During the 1963-64 season, when the Beatles made their first ballyhooed appearance, the show ranked #8 overall. By the 1968-1969 season, however, it had dropped to only #23. It was the first time in the show’s proud two-decade history on the air that it had ever been out of the top 20, and it would never regain its old perch.
“Proud Mary” appeared on CCR’s Bayou Country album, the first of three bestselling LPs that Fogerty, brother Tom (rhythm guitar), Doug Clifford (drums) and Stu Cook (bass) issued during this magical year. The single (backed by, to my mind, an even better song, "Born on the Bayou") was also the first of five that would make it to #2 on the U.S. charts—the highest that any of their songs would ever go.
Cook has referred to 1969 as the group’s “great gush period,” but it merely happened to be the moment when, after 10 years, everything finally came together for the quartet. Most important, Fogerty had received his honorable discharge from the Army Reserve late the prior year. After executing a handstand and several flips, he pulled out his Rickenbacker and got to work on expanding a phrase he had copied down in a notebook. “Proud Mary” was the result. The song about a “riverboat queen,” part of a song cycle of what critics soon called “swamp rock,” had been written by a Bay Area group that had never been to the Mississippi before the song took off.
By 1972, intra-group tensions tore the band apart, ending CCR’s extraordinary run. Tom Fogerty left the band first (he would remain estranged from John upon his death two decades later), and for a full decade from the mid-‘70s on, John Fogerty would be ensnared in litigation with Zaentz to get out from under an onerous contract--something that undoubtedly contributed to the writer’s block he experienced in this time.
Years ago, in a survey for American Heritage Magazine of the most overrated and underrated people, novelist and rock-music fan Stephen King had rated The Beatles as the most overrated band and CCR as the most underrated. No way would I agree with the first part of that statement, but the second half sounds awfully good.
(By the way, you can watch in the following YouTube links CCR's performances on The Ed Sullivan Show: "Proud Mary" and, from their November gig on that stage, their blistering anti-Vietnam War blast, "Fortunate Son."