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 explained. "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 had 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 cleanup 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 have 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. After the song was recorded, he took a trip to Memphis so he could finally see the Mississippi River.
The original CCR version peaked at #2 in March 1969. In June, Solomon Burke's rendition hit #45. His was the first to include a spoken into:
I know a lot of you folks would like to know what the old Proud Mary is all about
Well, I'd like to tell you about her
She's nothing but a big old boat
You see, my forefathers used to ride the bottoms of her as stokers, cooks, and waiters
And I made a vow that when I grew up, I'd take a ride on the old Proud Mary
And if you'd let me, I'd like to sing about it
Burke then sings, "looking for a job in the city," as opposed to "left a good job in the city."
This was a #4 hit in the US for Ike & 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 eight 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.
The Checkmates, Ltd. did a horn-powered, gospel inflected version of this song that was produced by Phil Spector and featured Sonny Charles on lead vocals. Running 4:30, it's substantially longer than the 3:07 original, and went to #69 in November 1969.
This arrangement was clearly an influence on the Ike & Tina Turner version, which they started performing soon after. There was speculation that Spector, who produced Ike & Tina on their 1966 single "River Deep - Mountain High
," brought this version to Ike Turner's attention.
When CCR recorded this song, John Fogerty wasn't happy with the harmony vocals, so he recorded them himself and overdubbed them onto the track. This caused further tension in his already-tenuous relationship with his bandmates. The group split up in 1972.
Fogerty came up with the famous chord riff on guitar when he was playing around with Beethoven's "5th Symphony
." That one goes "dun dun dun duuunnnnn...," but Fogerty thought it would sound better with the emphasis on the first note, which is how he arrived at "do
do do do."
This part reminded him of the paddle wheel that impels a riverboat. "'Proud Mary' is not a side-wheeler, it's a stern-wheeler," he explained.
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.
Tina Turner recorded a solo version for her 1993 album What's Love Got To Do With It, which was the soundtrack to her biopic of the same name. In the film, it was lip-synced by Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne (who played Ike and Tina), but on the recording, Tina's sax player Tim Cappello did Ike's bass vocals. By recording her own version with no trace of Ike, it made sure he could not profit from its use in the film or soundtrack - an important distinction considering Tina's accusations of spousal abuse.
When Tina performed the song live, she would usually do a variation on the spoken part, but without the male vocal.
Ike & 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 told Spinner: "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."
On February 19, 1987, John Fogerty went to the Palomino Club in North Hollywood to see Taj Mahal, an artist Fogerty calls "an American treasure." As told in Fogerty's memoir, while trying to remain incognito and listen to Taj, he noticed that Bob Dylan was doing the exact same thing in the corner of the venue. Fogerty went to Dylan and learned that George Harrison had gone there, too.
Someone let Taj know who was in the house, and Taj promptly called them all onstage.
Dylan played one of his songs. Harrison played "Honey, Don't" and then they all did "Twist and Shout." At that point, Dylan called out that Fogerty had to do "Proud Mary."
At that point in his life, Fogerty had sworn off all of his old CCR material, out of bitterness and spite against both his old band and his old label. So Fogerty said he didn't want to play the song, but Dylan responded, "If you don't do 'Proud Mary,' everybody's gonna think it's a Tina Turner song."
With that, Fogerty ripped into the song and had a great time playing it. When he was done he said, "Eat your heart out, Tina."
The occasion didn't inspire Fogerty to start regularly performing CCR songs again, but it did break it for that one evening as four legends of rock jammed together.
According to the book Bad Moon Rising, Bob Dylan called "Proud Mary" his favorite song of 1969.
A film about a hitwoman titled Proud Mary was released in January 2018. Not only does the action movie take its name from the song, but altered lyrics from the tune appear on the poster promoting it, with the tagline, "Killing for the Man every Night and Day."
John Fogerty took to Twitter to complain:
"I wrote the song 'Proud Mary' 50 years ago, and I was very excited to have written such a good song. In fact, it was my very first good song.
My songs are special to me. Precious. So it irks me when people seek to capitalize on the popularity of my music and the good will it has earned with the public for their own financial gain. Over the years, I have often found myself directly opposed to these uses.
This movie has nothing to do with me, or my song. They simply picked the title and wrote a completely fictitious story around it."
He added: "No one ever asked me about using my song this way, or even about the meaning of Proud Mary."
The film, as well as the trailer, features the Tina Turner version of the song. Fogerty lost the rights to his CCR songs in 1973, so there was nothing he could do about having a cover version of the song used in the film.
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.
This song was used to disastrous effect to open the 1989 Academy Awards ceremony in a bit where host Rob Lowe sang it with an actress playing Snow White, with the lyrics changed to be about Hollywood:
Klieg lights keep on burnin'
Cameras keep on turnin'
Keep the cameras rollin'