For nearly 40 years, Stu Cook has been anchoring bands with his bass playing and harmony singing. From his time with the legendary Creedence Clearwater Revival to the country-tinged Southern Pacific to Cook’s current project with former Creedence drummer Doug Clifford titled Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Cook has remained an active and vital member on the music scene.
It was Cook’s affinity for country music that brought him together with Doobie Brothers’ members guitarist John McFee and drummer Keith Knudsen, as the three were part of Southern Pacific in the 1980s. The musical and personal chemistry were strong enough to survive the band’s eventual dissolution, and as the next decade was ushered in, Cook, McFee and Knudsen were writing together again – this time in a decidedly rock and roll context.
The trio, at the time going by the name Jackdaw, recorded 15 songs and shopped them around but found no takers, and so the songs sat in McFee’s studio vaults for years – a “lost” album with no conceivable future. In 2005, another severe blow was dealt when Knudsen lost his life after battling pneumonia. Since Knudsen’s death, McFee resurrected the Jackdaw recordings, remixed them and found a label (Sonic Past) for its very belated release. The self-titled Jackdawg (name change explained later) is a mix of swampy and gritty rock, sunny pop and laden with terrific three-part harmonies. Nearly 20 years later, the “lost” album is found.
ClassicRockMusicBlog spoke with Cook about Jackdawg and how the project came about.
I want to discuss the Jackdawg release, but I want to back up a little bit. You and Keith Knudson and John McFee had a run for several years in Southern Pacific. What first brought the three of you together?
Well, it was Southern Pacific that brought us playing together. I had known John McFee for many years from the early days of Creedence. Actually, he was in a band called Clover. Clover had such notorious alumnuses. Huey Lewis, Sean Hopper, from Huey’s band. And they were just one of the best musical outfits playing around the Bay Area from North Bay, Marin County. Actually, I did some production work with them before they moved to England…they were actually on Fantasy Records with Creedence.
And I thought they deserved a better label. Did some production work with them. I guess they weren’t ready. Anyway, they went to England and ended up working with Elvis Costello. And they were the band on Elvis’s debut album, My Aim is True, and played on “Alison,” and all those breakout songs for Elvis Costello. And eventually came back to the States and John joined the Doobie Brothers. And Keith had already been in the Doobs. So, John played with them for several years till they broke up and they were hanging around and I got involved doing this project Southern Pacific with Jim Ed Norman producing back in Nashville. Actually, most of the recording was done out in John’s place in California. Same studio we recorded “Jackdawg” in. The original bass player and keyboard player were from Elvis’ band, Jerry Scheff on bass and Glen D. Hardin on keyboards, they were the original guys in Southern Pacific.
So, when the album was recorded they decided they didn’t want to be part of the band, permanently…didn’t want to tour, ya know? And so, those guys started looking for replacements and John thought of me, and so I ended up in that band. And we did four albums for Warner Brothers. At the end of that project is when we decided that we…we had been playing so much we thought we’d try and do something, the three of us. Just following our own musical instincts. Ya know, writing, playing, producing, singing, ya know, doing all the stuff in more of a rock and roll format.
Was there a specific musical ground that brought you guys together in Southern Pacific. Were you guys Bob Wills fans? Did you think country music was cool when you were growing up?
Yeah. John McFee’s first music, I think, was country music. He’s a virtuoso on just about all instruments country - pedal steel, dobro, fiddle…he’s an amazing fiddle player – mandolin. So, that was his original roots, and Southern Pacific was more of a Bakersfield, kind of a country rock project. I guess Creedence had its share of country-flavored influences. If not hard-core country and rockabilly but… It was just sort of the chemistry that was the result of putting us all together kind of gave Southern Pacific its musical feel or direction. And then when that band packed it in we decided that we enjoyed playing together so much that we’d just keep doing it.
It almost seems that Southern Pacific was kind of out of step with what was happening musically because right when you broke up, the alt-country scene started to take off.
Well, a lot of bands, ya know, Diamond Rio…a lot of other bands started to become real successful after we broke up. It was us and Restless Heart, we were about the only two real new bands…I don’t count Alabama as a real band or certainly not a new band in country music. Ya know, the guys that actually wrote and played their own stuff. It was us and Restless Heart. There was a…I can’t think of him, the band that Chris Hillman had.
Oh yeah. Playing with J.D. Souther?
No, he had a country band. We did a tour with him actually I can’t think of the name, but Chris Hillman was the lead singer, ya know, the guy from the Birds.
Desert Rose Band was what it was.
Desert Rose, there you go! Thanks. We did a tour, we called it the Hayride To Hell Tour. We played a bunch of shows with them, they are great guys. I can’t think of really any other bands that were playing the same time that Southern Pacific…’85-’90. It was right after us when all the other bands started to become successful. So we sort of paved the way for them, ya know, we introduced earrings and spurs to country music. We had a goodtime but it wasn’t meant to be. Warner Bros. never really supported us; I don’t think they understood what was going on at the time. So, ya know, a lot of projects end up like that. But, again, the fun that we had making music together which is what lead to the next phase…
Is there a story behind the name of the band, Jackdawg?
Ha-ha. Yeah, we had many many names. Ya know, naming a band is harder than naming a child. Cause the critics aren’t going to second guess how you named your child. But they’ll sure go after you how you came up with a name. If it’s more or less suitable for you or someone else. But we didn’t really have a working name, we called it, “John McFee And The Men With No Hair.” We had all kinds of…they were really stupid names for the band. We were called “Beach Street” for a while, but then we decided to change it to something that didn’t really have a musical connotation. We changed it to “Jackdaw,” which is a bird…a species of bird. That was cool…ya know, what’s in a name? It’s all about the music. Creedence Clearwater Revival can prove that.
This project that sat in the vaults for 18 plus years. So, when we get around to doing something with it we find out there’s already a band named “Jackdaw” right now. So, we said, “well, lets take it down to the street corner.” And we figured, well you know, there’s a Snoop Dogg. Now there’s going to be a Jackdawg. It had been so long since we took a look or listen to this stuff that when John says, “What about if we call it ‘Jackdawg’ I think we can get that name cleared.” We said, “that’s great, let’s not spend anymore time picking around with it.” It’s great that the music is going to get a release and people are going to be able to hear it. We always felt it was worth a good listen or two.
What was it like to hear these songs again after so many years?
Ya know, they sounded great. I’ve had a collection of the demo mixes for many years and every once in a while I would pull it out and take a listen. And I go, “ya know, some of our best work….” My best work, some of John’s…for all of us, we were really playing and all of our output was pretty high level. Ya know, “wow”, too bad that didn’t ever get out. We were close a couple times, we had a manager, fortunately, we has very supportive and he had a lot of good input. Unfortunately, he passed away. And the industry was kind of taking a turn at the time, they were going more to dance music in the early ’80s. So, we sort of fell in the cracks. But now, when I hear this stuff, I hear the mixes that John put on, I’m going, “wow, this stuff sounds great.” There’s a lot there, a whole lot there. We’re all real proud of the work we did. It’s a shame Keith can’t see all this unfold but he’s probably watching.
To your ear, did John do much with the original mixes or did he just kind of enhance them?
Well, he put them in a state that made them sound like a finished product. Before they were just good mixes, now they sound like Hot Masters to me. He pumped it put a bit. It was a learning process for him along the way. What would best suit. It’s like, even with 18 years lapsed, we were still too close to this stuff. It took a long time to really sort out what represented getting the most out of it. I think that a lot of the work was recognizing that was still more to go. There was more to bring out. It took him a while to get bold enough. To go too far with it and then say, “OK, that’s too much, maybe we dial it back a bit and see what we think about it.” Spend some time reflecting on it and listening to it. So yeah, I’m extremely happy with the way John and Joey at Sonic Past has pretty much just let us go at it and giving us total control.
You mentioned that you had kind of just wanted to let your instincts go with this, as far as the music and the writing. To me, it sounds like a basic roots, rock and roll album.
Thanks. That’s all it was. You know what we did? We sat down after Southern Pacific broke up and we were trying to get a heading just for us, to start working together. So I think finally John just said, “Look, we’ve probably got 50 years or more of experience between the three of us. We should try and pay attention to our own instincts when we do this. And trust them.” What I hear in a lot of these songs, I hear some of our favorite songs from when we were kids, our favorite styles of music.
So, there’s an unintentional, but welcomed derivativeness in a lot of this stuff, to me. Because we let our roots come as close to the surface as we could without the famed tradition of over borrowing, ha-ha, ya know? “Paying tribute” I guess we call it. We tried things a lot of different ways and we didn’t have some kind of rigid rulebook. And so were able to go, “ya know, let’s try this.” If somebody had an idea, we would try it. We would try all the ideas and really give each one a shot so that we would have a feeling. That when we picked one, that all possibilities that we could come up with had been explored and given a chance. And hopefully we felt that we had picked the best of ideas to incorporate them. It was a most kind of communal or open band situation I can recall being in. We were up at John’s house and we would live up there for three or four days a week and work on this stuff. And then come home on the weekends, he would stay home of course, but Keith and I would commute back to Los Angeles where we were both living at the time. So, we kind of lived it everyday. We would get up and we’d listen to what we did, and see what could be better, what new ideas had occurred. You know, we talked about it all the time, we’d work on the lyrics.
Sounds kind of like an approach that bands have when they are 18 and are working on their first record.
Well, ya know, and some of the songs kind of reflect…I’m 63. And so when I listen to this stuff now, say 20 years ago, 19 years ago…We were in our 40s but even with the writing we tried to approach it as not jaded veterans. We wanted to try and have a…like you said, like a first band kind of enthusiasm, care. The way we approached subjects, even though we were adults with adult responsibilities, we tried to find the child in us still, so that we could try and look at it through our younger eyes. And there was a conscious and unconscious effort to try and get back to the excitement that we felt when we first got into the recording studio when we were 20 years younger.
I absolutely hear that. To me, the record has an optimism and a happiness about it. It just sounds like you guys are having a blast.
I’m glad you sense that. We were. We had something to prove the after 5 years of Southern Pacific with almost success and a lot of critical acclaim and the struggles of a band that the record company didn’t know what to do with. Although, they gave us quarter million dollar budgets. We ended up almost a million dollars in the hole. Ha-ha, ya know? That project could have been, Southern Pacific could have been successful, more successful than it was let’s say. Ya know, we just felt kind of unfinished working together. So, that’s when we really tried to get in and strip ourselves back, our way of thinking about the business back. Gee, ya know, this is music, it should be fun, we should be excited about this stuff. If we’re not, who else can we expect to be? Honestly, if we’re not enthused enough to come to keep working on this stuff and not be turd polishing, but really believe it.
So, we ended up with…actually there are 16 songs. There’s going to be a re-release next month with a 16th song…one more song that we had found, that we had recorded and finished. So yeah, that’s all that there is. Somebody said they would have loved to hear us play some of this stuff live after listening to it and feeling the fun.
Sometimes I sit down and I go, “what did I play there?” Ya know, I try and teach myself those bass parts again just at the off possibility that John and I and someone who understands it could come play it live some night, ya know?
Did you ever change your approach to bass when playing with different groups?
Yeah, I think I have. And largely because it’s always been my take on the role of the bass player. And particularly the rhythm section. Bass and drums, you really gotta serve the song. So, If you have a song that needs or can benefit from more notes, then you should probably write a part that accomplishes that, but if you have a song that doesn’t then by all means stick to the minimal part, ya know, what works. It’s a pretty traditional approach for guys from my era, ya know, the whole rhythm and blues and country. Those songs always seem to have great arrangements. Ya know, the real popular ones, the real successful ones have killer arrangements, and that’s because everybody is playing their part for the whole.
And so, because we were a guitar trio pretty much…we supplemented some stuff, ya know, doubling and stuff…but basically all the tracks are cut live. So, we knew what the song was and it gave us a little more room to play and so it’s probably some of the more ambitious bass playing of my career. In terms of playing a lot of notes and trying to find more driving parts, well parts that are less supportive and more up front, ya know? I don’t think I have done that in any other project, at least to this extent. And this is project where John McFee really gets to shine as a guitarist and step up front in the spotlight as a singer. And Keith pounded it out as always. I’ve been fortunate… lucky Stu, he’s played with two of the best drummers ever in the business – with Cosmo’s Clifford and Keith Knudson.
Keith told me this story once, it was early on with the Doobie Brothers, I think John Hartman was the other drummer at the time, they always had double drummers. Hartman was giving an interview or something and he told the writer that he was the lead drummer. And Keith responds, “That’s right, and I’m the rhythm drummer.” Hahira. And boy was he ever. That guy could play and play and play. And his ideas were strong and he was a hard player. We had some fun, ya know, we had fun with Southern Pacific, too. We got to rock those songs out too. It was a great run working with him.
Not to jump off the subject but it sure seems like so many of your contemporaries have died over the last five years or so. It’s just been stunning how many people in that kind of mid-50s age group have lost a battle with something or another.
It’s sort of young isn’t it?
My way of thinking - I’d like to get another good 20.
Absolutely. One of things…I mean you were talking earlier about influences and one of the things that struck me about this record was how well the three of your harmonized together. To me, the song “Kisses In The Rain,” sort of sounds like the Beach Boys. And I mean that in the most positive way because it’s one thing to try to sound like them but to be able to pull off those harmonies is a totally different story.
Well, the Doobie Brothers was a real singing band, there’s a lot of vocals. And Southern Pacific was a singing band too. I learned so much about singing and blending in a background group as a harmony singer. From John and Kurt How, who was the keyboard player, one of the lead singers in Southern Pacific. That was real education for me because Credence was a totally different band, it was run by one guy who had a very narrow concept of how things had to be done. And when I got in Southern Pacific it was like, “whoa, wait a minute. Everybody here seems to be trying to get the most out of each other.” Ya know? It was sort of a catchy thing. “Try singing it this way.” Guys would give you constructive criticism. And you go, “Oh yeah, that rocks. That makes it.” And so, the five years I spent in that band really helped me sing in tune and breathing, phrasing, all that stuff. Where you cut off a note, and stuff like that, that makes it sound tight.
Another song that I really like, vocally, is “Quicksand.”
Yeah. That’s one of my favorite tunes. Ya know, we just sat down and we’d sit around in the studio and play it over and over and over, and just try these parts out and then we’d have them pretty well worked out. Then we’d just go out and sing them, and record them. And then double them. Keith and I would be out there with the headphones, ya know, just on the other side of the glass John would be rowing the machine. We’d bring the controller out…we were doing a three part thing, John would be singing it with us. We would just bring the controller out into the recording studio and just run the machine from the other room. Yeah, stuff like that, it was like, “man, we are working on a project here.” It was extremely exciting, and of course, when we had to put it on the shelf it was like, “Whoa, who let the air out of our balloon?” Everybody would say, “Well, I guess it’s time to go to work and pay the bills.”
I would imagine that when you got done with this you probably were thinking that there were several potentials for a single off of here.
There’s certainly plenty of…not to use the term in a derogatory fashion, but there’s plenty of ear candy on here.
Absolutely. People I’ve played it for…I get a few tunes that are kind of consensus tunes, but quickly goes into everybody liking very different songs. So, depending on who you talk to, there’s a couple songs that they kind of agree upon, but then it quickly goes into most of the rest of the disc in terms of songs that seem to appeal in one way or another to different folks.
It’s a very varied section of music too. It kind of runs the gambit of different styles.
Yeah, it does. That’s our eclectic…We did this without any kind of…we paid no attention to what might be a single. We would say, well, “Bayou Rebel,” that sounds sort of Creedence-y. John and I wrote that. A guy who used to work for us lived down in Bay Minette, Alabama, which is sort of a bayou kind of environment. So, we kind of wrote the song about him and him growing up. And we kind of gave it a guitar-y, Creedence-y, kind of thing. Ya know, why not? And then, we went into….the next tune was my favorite, “Where The Sun Don’t Shine.” We started out just kind of a…it ended up into a kind of a giant production of blues guitar, horn. It was tough. It’s like, “Wow, what can we put on this one?” like ear candy. “Yeah, that would be cool, let’s do some horns there.” Now, I gotta write a horn part. Spend a few days working on that, getting the sounds. It was a very organic process.
Did you guys decide that…I mean were the cover tunes intended originally to be part of the album or was that just something that you recorded, just maybe, or what was your idea behind that?
Yeah, well they were all part of it, yeah, absolutely. The Rocky Erikson tune was a favorite of all three of hours. I actually produced the original version of that for Rocky when he was on the TEO, it came out on CBS UK, back in ’89 or something like that. I can’t remember. No, it was ’81…yeah, ’81 or ’82 when I did that stuff. And so, that was a favorite that we thought we’d try our hand at that. “Wild Nights,” McFee played pedal steel on the original Van Morrison track. So, we thought, “well, there’s a good one.” When we started to record it, we couldn’t for the life of us understand what the lyrics were that Van Morrison was singing.
That was really before the Internet. So there was no place to Google, there were no Web sites. It took us about two weeks to come up with the lyrics between listening and listening and listening and writing them down and trying to decipher what would make sense. And going to listen to other people’s versions. And I remember I thought, “Well, wow, this is really a rockin’ version of a Van Morrison tune.” I thought that was a really strong cover, well actually, both of those covers are strong.
Yeah. I think both of them work out real nice.
It was interesting, too, because…ya know, you’re talking about John playing on that Van Morrison track, and I had read an interview with Van from probably right before that album was put out and he was talking about his country influences and had actually mentioned Clover as one of his favorite bands out of the west coast. At a time when, honestly, nobody knew who they were really.
Absolutely, yeah. I remember they did two albums on Fantasy. And it was just a shame that they were on that label with us. That whole label thing was not good for anybody, but, that’s just the way it was.
How did you guys hook up with Sonic Past, and what are your feelings about that?
Well, we go back to Clover. Sound City Studios – down in Studio City I think it is – in Los Angeles. The guy who owned Sound City was the guy who was managing us before he died, a guy named Joe. Anyways, the vaults are full of tapes and Clover had apparently done some recording down there. Joey had acquired the rights to all the master tracks that were in the vaults there. And then he went about contacting the artist and making agreements with the artists so that he could release them on Sonic Past. Well, Clover was one of them and that’s how we got in touch with…and so McFee and Joey got put together. After they got the Clover sessions mixed and released, John said and Joey said, “Hey, you got anything else?” “As a matter of fact we got over an hour’s worth of stuff that Keith and Stu and I did.”
Yeah. There was no real intent, there was no master plan. Things just kind of work out in their own time and place. In a different city.
I guess the good news is that it is out. Like you said, it would have been great for Keith to be a part of this.
Absolutely. Well, if Keith knew how good it was…whenever we reminisce a lot of times…Doug, Clifford, and I have been playing for 15 years with Creedence Clearwater Revisited. And we play a lot of shows with the Doobies. And so we have had a lot of opportunity over the last dozen years or so to talk about these tracks and…We never really knew if they would come out but we knew they were good enough to. That’s all we really needed to know.
Yeah. Do you know Levon Helm from The Band?
Well, he’s been doing a series of concerts up in…I guess he’s got a barn up in Woodstock, New York, and even inviting some musicians in and basically people pay to kind of go have this back woods music jam with him and whoever may play. And I was just thinking it’d be kind of cool for…that would be a perfect venue for you and John to do something like this in.
Yeah. That sounds like a really good idea. It’s interesting, the guy that’s drumming for the Doobies now, Ed Toth, said that, “if you guys ever want to go play this stuff, I’ll learn the songs and go play with you.”
Yeah, so we’re both really busy with our lives…John doing the Doobs and me with Cosmo, traipsing around the country and in our case, the world. We travel a lot internationally to play every year. But sometime, if it’s to be, it would certainly be a lot of fun, I know that.
Cool. Well, listen Stu I appreciate your time. It always boggles my mind how much…how these projects are scrapped or held or put aside, and timing and the music business in general. It’s so unpredictable, but it’s good that it’s finally seeing the light.
Yeah, well thanks very much I appreciate your interest and your kind words about it, and ya know, tell a friend.