In the beginning, "Proud Mary" had nothing to do with a riverboat. Instead, John Fogerty envisioned it as the story of a woman who works as a maid for rich people. "She gets off the bus every morning and goes to work and holds their lives together," he explains. "Then she has to go home."
It was Stu Cook who first introduced the riverboat aspect of the song. The idea came to him as the group watched the television show Maverick and Stu made the statement, "Hey riverboat, blow your bell." John agreed that the boat seemed to have something to do with the song that'd been brewing in his mind for quite some time, waiting to take conscious shape. When he wrote the music, he made the first few chords evoke a riverboat paddlewheel going around. Thus, "Proud Mary" went from being a clean-up lady to a boat.
Fogerty wrote the lyrics based on three song title ideas: "Proud Mary," "Riverboat," and "Rolling On A River." He carried around a notebook with titles that he thought would make good songs, and "Proud Mary" was at the top of the list.
The song came together on the day that John Fogerty got his discharge papers from the US Army. Fogerty had been drafted in 1966 and was part of a Reserve unit, serving at Fort Bragg, Fort Knox, and Fort Lee. His discharge papers came in 1967. Fogerty recalls in Bad Moon Rising: The Unofficial History of Creedence Clearwater Revival by Hank Bordowitz:
"The Army and Creedence overlapped, so I was 'that hippie with a record on the radio.' I'd been trying to get out of the Army, and on the steps of my apartment house sat a diploma-sized letter from the government. It sat there for a couple of days, right next to my door. One day, I saw the envelope and bent down to look at it, noticing it said 'John Fogerty.' I went into the house, opened the thing up, and saw that it was my honorable discharge from the Army. I was finally out! This was 1968 and people were still dying. I was so happy, I ran out into my little patch of lawn and turned cartwheels. Then I went into my house, picked up my guitar and started strumming. 'Left a good job in the city' and then several good lines came out of me immediately. I had the chord changes, the minor chord where it says, 'Big wheel keep on turnin'/Proud Mary keep on burnin'' (or 'boinin',' using my funky pronunciation I got from Howling' Wolf). By the time I hit 'Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river,' I knew I had written my best song. It vibrated inside me. When we rehearsed it, I felt like Cole Porter."
So it was that an all-American classic was born from the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the late 1960s. Fogerty suspected right away that his "Tin Pan Alley" song was a radio-friendly hit, and he was right. The song hit #2 in the US, reached #8 in the UK, and #1 in Austria.
This was the first of five singles by Creedence that went to #2 on the US chart. They had the most #2 songs without ever having a #1.
Despite popular belief, John Fogerty was not writing from experience when he wrote this. Thanks to his military commitment, he hadn't ventured further east than Montana.
This was a #4 hit in the US for Ike and Tina Turner in 1971, and a highlight of their live shows. Tina Turner recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 how they came to record this on their Workin' Together album: "When we cut the album, we were lacking a few tunes, so we said 'Well, let's just put in a few things that we're doing on stage. And that's how 'Proud Mary' came about. I had loved it when it first came out. We auditioned a girl and she had sung 'Proud Mary.' This is like 8 months later, and Ike said, 'You know, I forgot all about that tune.' And I said let's do it, but let's change it. So in the car Ike plays the guitar, we just sort of jam. And we just sort of broke into the black version of it. It was never planned to say, 'Well, let's go to the record shop, and I'd like to record this tune by Aretha Franklin'... it's just that we get it for stage, because we give the people a little bit of us and a little bit of what they hear on the radio every day."
"Proud Mary" attracted 35 covers in the year 1969 alone. Over 100 have been made since.
These are the US charting versions:
Creedence Clearwater Revival (#2, 1969)
Solomon Burke (#45, 1969)
Checkmates, Ltd. feat. Sonny Charles (#69, 1969)
Ike & Tina Turner (#4, 1971)
Glee Cast (#115, 2009)
The line, "Pumped a lot of pain down in New Orleans" is actually "Pumped a lot of 'Pane," as in propane. He was pumping gas.
Leonard Nimoy, who played "Mr. Spock" on Star Trek, recorded an infamous cover of this song. Near the end, he sings the chorus Elmer Fudd style - "Big wheel keep on toynin', Pwoud Mawy keep on boinin'..." It is included on a CD called Golden Throats.
John Fogerty (about how the guitar riff came about): "I don't know where the germ started. I can kind of remember writing the chords at the beginning of the song. Believe it or not, I was playing around with the famous riff from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I used to tell people that the song sounds like what it's about. I thought, by the way, that the opening riff sounded just like the wheel at the back of a boat. 'Proud Mary' is not a side-wheeler, it's a stern-wheeler."
Even though Creedence Clearwater Revival was from El Cerrito, California, many people thought they were from New Orleans or some other part of the South because of their swamp rock sound. They helped feed the rumor by naming their second album Bayou Country.
Ike and Tina Turner's version charted for the first time in the UK on the chart dated October 2, 2010 after it was performed on X-Factor by auditioneees Diva Fever. This version was credited to Tina Turner only.
Ike and Tina performed their version on the Season 2 premiere of Soul Train in 1972, becoming the first big act to appear on the program. The show became very popular its first season because of the dancers, but they were able to book many famous guests in subsequent seasons.
The first time that Fogerty heard Ike and Tina's version he was in the car. He recalled to: "When it ended, if they had a camera and came back to me it'd be like, when Shrek and the donkey go to Far, Far Away and they push the button for that little arcade machine and it tells the whole story of their town! And the Donkey's like [Eddie Murphy impression] 'Let's do that again!' That's how I felt when that ended. I loved it, and I was so honored. I was like, 'Wow, Ike and Tina!' I had actually been following their career for quite some time. Way back in the day, when Janis and Grace Slick started to get known by the kids who were my age, I'd be like, 'Man, Tina Turner, c'mon!' She finally got her due, but for a while there, she wasn't noticed. It was a really good version, and it was different. I mean, that's the key. Instead of the same thing, it was really exciting."