NEW YORK — Eddy Clearwater, a Mississippi-born Chicago bluesman who billed himself as “The Chief” and often performed in a feathered headdress, died Friday at his home in Skokie, Ill. He was 83.
The cause was heart failure, said Alligator Records, the blues label that released his 2008 album, “West Side Strut.”
A self-taught musician, Mr. Clearwater played guitar left-handed and upside down. His music merged his rural Mississippi upbringing with the aggressive attack of West Side Chicago blues and a deep admiration for Chuck Berry, whose sound he openly emulated with his first single, “Hill Billy Blues,” in 1958.
Onstage, he had his own version of Berry’s duckwalk; he was also likely to stride through the crowd with his guitar or play solos with it raised behind his head. His Native American regalia, and such songs as “Reservation Blues,” paid tribute to his grandmother, who he said was a full-blooded Cherokee.
He was born Edward Harrington in Macon, Miss. In a 2011 interview with the Chicago Tribune, he recalled learning the blues by hearing his uncles singing “while working and plowing and picking cotton and pulling corn” in Mississippi.
One uncle gave him a guitar, and he started picking out blues melodies on it. He began performing as a teenager after his family moved in 1948 to Birmingham, where he played with gospel groups, including the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. In 1950 he moved to Chicago, where he stayed with an uncle, H.H. Harrington, and worked as a dishwasher — a job he would later sing about.
He played gospel music in churches and, through his uncle, met and jammed with the musicians who were forging Chicago’s electric blues, notably Magic Sam, a Chicago luminary who became a longtime friend. Billed as Guitar Eddy and then as Clear Waters — a play on Muddy Waters — he began playing local clubs.
The name Clear Waters gave way to Eddy Clearwater as he established himself in Chicago’s thriving blues scene.
He worked the national and international blues circuit, performing worldwide and recording 17 albums. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016.
His last performance was on May 19, when he played until 2 a.m. at the Chicago nightclub Buddy Guy’s Legends.