Originally written/recorded by John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival who released it in 1969. 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 bassist 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.
When we recorded the tracks at RCA Studios in Hollywood in October ’68, I channeled Wilson Pickett and Howlin’ Wolf with my lead vocal. Listening to the playback, I wasn’t happy. The band’s background vocals sounded abrasive—like punk rock, not harmonious. I wanted a gospel feel. When I told the guys I was going to overdub the vocal harmony tracks myself, we had a big fight. Bruce Young, our road manager, took them to dinner. I stayed behind and overdubbed all the background vocal parts. I also overdubbed a guitar solo using a Gibson ES-175—a big jazz guitar that I bought for the recording session. I recorded my solo line twice so it sounded more pronounced.At the restaurant later, the guys were still angry and threatened to quit. I convinced them to hear the results. Back at the studio, I played them the song with my vocals. Nobody said anything. Then Bruce said, “Wow.” The single came out in January ’69 and topped out at No. 2 on Billboard’s pop chart in March for three weeks. The band eventually broke up in ’72.
When I added rhythm to the chords, the song had the motion of a boat. I had always loved Mark Twain’s writing and the music of Stephen Foster, so I wrote lyrics about a riverboat. The line “rollin’ on the river” was influenced by a movie I once saw about two riverboats racing. I finished most of it in two hours. Then I opened my notebook for a song title. There was “Proud Mary.”
This was a #4 hit in the US for Ike & Tina Turner in 1971, and a highlight of their live shows. “Proud Mary” attracted 35 covers in the year 1969 alone. Over 100 have been made since.