Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the June 6,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Song Maker Cliff Eberhardt
Cliff Eberhardt was raised in the suburban Philadelphia
town of Berwyn, not far from the Main Point Coffeehouse. In the 1960s,
Main Point was a legend in the making, and Eberhardt was often there
to witness musical history unfolding. As a result of seeing great,
powerful performers like Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, Tom
Paxton, Bonnie Raitt, and James Taylor at an impressionable young
age, all he ever wanted to do was become a singer-songwriter.
Today, at age 47, Eberhardt is one of the singer-songwriters most
praised by critics. More important, however, is the fact that more
than two dozen of his compositions have been recorded by the likes
of Richie Havens, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Christine Lavin, and Shawn
Colvin. Eberhardt appears in Twin Rivers in an Outta Sights and Sounds
concert on Saturday, June 9.
Eberhardt, the youngest of three sons and to this day an avid record
collector, was raised in a musical family. "My dad played guitar
and my mom played piano," Eberhardt relates from his country home
in Northampton, Massachussetts, where he goes to escape the hustle
and bustle of Manhattan, where he also maintains an apartment. "My
older brother, Geoff, used to drive me to the Main Point, or we’d
get on a train and go see James Taylor for $1.50," he says. When
he was 14, he and Geoff started "a little duo of our own."
By junior high school, Eberhardt was writing his own songs.
Even though his parents were supportive of these early efforts, the
road was by no means smooth. "I don’t think any parent thinks
it’s a good career choice," he says, recalling the time he told
his parents of his decision to move to New York City in 1978 and
pursue his dream of becoming a full-time musician. By that point, he’d
already spent some time in Carbondale, Illinois, working as a
singer-songwriter and holding down a variety of day jobs. Once he got
to New York, Eberhardt took a job as a cab driver because it offered
him the flexibility to park his cab for several weeks and go on short
coffee house and festival tours around the Northeast.
Eberhardt was an integral part of the Greenwich Village folk revival
of the early 1980s and became a fixture at Village clubs like Folk
City, Speakeasy, and the Cornelia Street Cafe. Borne out of a
close-knit crew of singer-songwriters, the revival includes such
distinguished alumni as Suzanne Vega, Lavin, John Gorka, and Colvin.
Eberhardt’s mother changed her opinion about her youngest son’s
questionable career choice when he finally caught a break in New York
in 1986, after seven years of driving cab six days a week. Eberhardt
had the chance to sing on a TV commercial. He sang fellow folksinger
Robin Batteau’s jingle, "The Heartbeat of America, is today’s
Chevrolet." The royalties were nice enough that he was able to
leave his cab job and concentrate on his songwriting and performing.
While in New York, he befriended the late songwriter Jerome
"Doc" Pomus, who championed and aided the careers of many
up-and-coming and established
musicians including people like Lou Reed, Jimmy Scott, Dr. John, and
"After I got the `Heartbeat of America’ commercial, my mom
by that point that I wasn’t going to try to do anything else for a
living," Eberhardt explains, "and now, I’ve got five albums
under my belt and a sixth album that will be out on Red House Records
in January." Red House, based in Minneapolis, is a songwriter’s
label that is home to great musicians like Gorka, Guy Davis, Paul
Geremiah, Suzy Roche, and Spider John Koerner.
Asked if the commercial job raised accusations of "selling
by his fellow singer-songwriters, none of whom had a record deal in
1986, Eberhardt says, "I was driving a cab six days a week, 12
hours a day, and once we did that commercial, I was able to stop
the cab and concentrate on music. I also learned more about recording
and production and using mics doing jingle work than I did anywhere
else." Eberhardt estimates he’s done about 20 commercials, and
recalls cutting a Sears commercial with Dr. John. "Most people
wanted my job at the time," he says.
"Lucy Kaplansky sang a `Heartbeat of America’ commercial too,"
he recalls, "and I’m grateful to Robin Batteau and David Buskin
for including unknown singers in their jingles, sort of as patrons
of the arts. I certainly didn’t get rich off those commercials, but
it allowed me to write a lot more and get my live show together
Eberhardt’s current release, "Borders," is a brilliant
of songs that run the gamut from slow ballads like "Your Face"
to blues-influenced tunes like "Lines." Like his first Red
House album, "Twelve Songs of Good and Evil," it’s a thematic
album, he explains. He met Red House Records chief Bob Feldman at
his friend John Gorka’s wedding in Minnesota, and that in turn led
to his present deal.
"Talk about networking," he says. "The thematic concept
for `Borders’ was geographical and emotional borders and psychological
and intellectual borders, so in every song there is some thread of
crossing a line or crossing a border or realizing a personal
And some are about crossing emotional borders."
Of his previous album, 1997’s "Twelve Songs of Good
and Evil," he says, "all the songs are about how there’s good
and evil in everything, and how you can have the worst person in the
world still have a good side to them, and how the best person in the
world can still have some bad inside them."
Eberhardt caught another break when he was signed to Will Ackerman’s
then independent-and-hip Windham Hill Records label. His first album,
"The Long Road," was released in 1990, before the company
was sold and then sold again. Eberhardt’s releases for Shanachie
include "Now You Are My Home," in 1993, and "Mona Lisa
Cafe" in 1995.
Eberhardt, who first made waves in the contemporary folk world with
"My Father’s Shoes," an ode to his late father, who worked
as a consultant for non-profit groups in greater Philadelphia, says
songs come to him everywhere — on the road and at home —
so he always travels with a notebook.
"It’s an immaculate conception," he says of the creative
"and they just come to me and it’s like they were already written.
When I do sit down to write songs, I don’t ever think about what I’m
going to write beforehand. I just sit down with my guitar and if it’s
a good day, a song comes out."
Eberhardt’s song, "Goodnight," something he wrote when he
was 18, he notes in a rare moment of boasting, was included on Buffy
Sainte-Marie’s "Greatest Hits" album, "and in the liner
notes, she says it’s her favorite song in the whole world! Imagine
that, from someone who wrote `Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong.’ "
Eberhardt says he’s always sought to write songs in a lot of different
styles, so he doesn’t describe his live performances as folk music.
"I’ve been influenced by everyone from Cole Porter to Muddy Waters
to Hank Williams, James Taylor and Jesse Winchester," he says,
adding perhaps that’s why his songs have been covered by so many other
"I don’t think I do all that much folky stuff," he says,
to think of himself as an entertainer, a song-and-dance man. "I
was always very much into blues as a kid, so there’s always been a
touch of blues in everything I do."
Asked for a self-appraisal of his career since his first big break
in 1986, and his first record deal in 1990, Eberhardt says he’s happy
to be so busy now. "I have a very successful recording and touring
career, and it’s kind of the best of what I hoped for. I don’t think
huge stardom would have agreed with me very well. I like writing
songs, and I like hearing beautiful songs. When I hear something great
on the radio in the car, I’ll pull the damn car over and buy the
While the wider recognition may have been a long time in coming, one
thing is certain: the audience that gathers on June 9 will be
moved by Eberhardt’s "song-and-dance" routine. Eberhardt isn’t
sure if a piano player will accompany him, but he is sure he’ll be
accompanied by Liz Queler, a fellow singer-songwriter, on backing
vocals. Eberhardt plays both piano and guitar at his concerts, but
he may be joined by Queler’s husband, Seth Farber, on piano.
"I’ll do one or two cover tunes, some old tunes from the 1940s,
`Glory of Love,’ or `Making Whoopee.’ My concerts are best described
as an emotional roller coaster. I aim to change the way people feel
from the time they walk into that room to the time they walk out,"
he says, "and I always involve the audience in what I’m
— Richard J. Skelly
Community Room, Abington Road, 609-259-5764. $12. Saturday, June
9, 8 p.m.
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