How Creedence Clearwater Revival Wrapped Up a Prolific Year With ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’
Has anyone in rock history had a year as a productive and as uniformly excellent as Creedence Clearwater Revival did in 1969? They started the year, in January, with their sophomore album, Bayou Country. They followed it up in August with Green River. Three months after that, in November 1969, they released their masterpiece, Willy and the Poor Boys.
The band started work on the album shortly after the release of Green River, its first No. 1 LP. John Fogerty, who penned every song but a Little Richard cover on Bayou Country and the closing "The Night Time Is the Right Time" on Green River, wrote eight new songs for Willy and the Poor Boys.
The set was rounded out by a pair of covers: Lead Belly's '40s-era folk song "Cotton Fields" (which the Beach Boys had also recorded in 1969) and Fogerty's adaptation of the traditional "Midnight Special," also made famous by Lead Belly and popular with roots-leaning rock artists at the time.
The originals were Fogerty's most mature and assured compositions to date. While the album brushes against the type of Americana the Band and similar-minded groups were making at the time (the cover photo and lead-off song, "Down on the Corner," are about as down-home as things got for the San Francisco Bay-area band), Fogerty steered into raging political territory on the ferocious "Fortunate Son," one of rock's greatest protest songs.
It marked a stylistic change for Fogerty, who filled Creedence's previous albums mostly with swampy Southern-style rock. "Fortunate Son" is something entirely different -- a pointed middle finger to blinded patriotism and privileged opportunity in an era when an overseas war in Vietnam was costing the U.S. countless dollars and troops, all set to blazing guitars.
But Fogerty tempered his anger with a set of songs that stands as his most consistent. And at a taut 34 minutes, there's little fat on Willy and the Poor Boys -- from "Down on the Corner," the UFO lark "It Came Out of the Sky" and "Cotton Fields," CCR's only showing on the country chart (it stalled at No. 50) to "Fortunate Son," the political-meets-spiritual "Don't Look Now" and a chooglin' take on "Midnight Special."
"Down on the Corner" and "Fortunate Son" were released as a double A-side and reached No. 3. The album itself peaked at the same position, which was a minor step backwards after the No. 1 Green River. The follow-up Cosmo's Factory, after a relatively lengthy wait of eight months, would later return them to the top of the charts.
Willy and the Poor Boys stands as one of the band's greatest achievements, which is even more remarkable coming at the end of Fogerty and the group's tireless year. Before 1970 ended, they'd release six albums in less than two and a half years. Only the Beatles, during their Beatlemania era, worked at a more feverish pace. But they had more than one songwriter supplying them with hits. Fogerty was pretty much on his own. Any way you look at it, that's an amazing accomplishment.