By Jud Cost
John Tristao has reached rarified air encountered by few others in rock 'n' roll. He is currently the frontman for Creedence Clearwater Revisited, the band that features original CCR bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford, and spreads the joyous sound of all those chart-topping Creedence Clearwater Revival songs to the faithful around the world. Before being tapped by Creedence, Tristao had logged many years with San Jose hitmakers People and West Coast faves Daddy-o. But his formative years weren't much different from a small army of American teenagers inspired to play rock 'n' roll when they first saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
Born and raised in San Jose, Tristao took up the drums at age 14, then met a band called the Rip-tides at Santa Clara High School when he was 16. "They told me they were looking for a singer," says Tristao. "And I told them I was a singer, even though I'd never sung before." He was invited to audition.
Having bragged about his vocal prowess, Tristao ran home, quickly learned a Beatles song, came back and passed the audition. The band soon changed its name to the Chosen Few and became a popular local attraction, winning a national battle of the bands in 1966. Count Five was just getting started, and Kenn Ellner and Tristao became close friends. Says Tristao: "Kenny and I had a contest in high school to see who could straighten his hair the best, since curly hair was not in at the time." Tristao won the contest.
When he was kicked out of the Chosen Few for insubordination, Tristao started Uncle Wiggley's Philharmonic. "It was one of the first bands to do costume changes and a stage show," he recalls. Uncle Wiggley's drummer was Steve Price, Tristao's first percussion student, later to achieve fame with Pablo Cruise. Next on tap for Tristao was a band called the Madras, which would become Coffee, another popular South Bay combo who opened for several big-name groups, including San Jose heroes, People.
After a couple of years with Coffee, Tristao was approached at a People concert by their guitarist Geoff Levin and asked to join the band upon the departure of vocalists Larry Norman and Gene Mason. Originally cut by the Zombies, "I Love You" was already a national Top Ten hit for People, and Tristao was recruited to continue their rise to the top. The first time Tristao played with People was at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, prophetically enough, opening for Creedence Clearwater Revival one week and for Santana the next. Tristao would record eight singles and one album with People but never achieved another Top Ten hit.
In 1971 Barry Wineroth, owner of fabled fretboard purveyors Guitar Showcase, started a '50s-style band called Daddy-o as a spare-time project. "After four years of goofing off we decided to go pro," says Tristao, who had already asked Jim Gordon to join the band on keyboards. He then recruited guitarist Gary Pomeroy and convinced previous drummer Sam Ramos to rejoin the group.
"Since our material lent itself to performing skits for a particular song, Gordon, Pomeroy and I began to envision and craft a theatrical show," remembers Tristao. "We had segues for each song with particular characters that inter-acted on stage. I applied my acting and comedic abilities and began to develop and create many characters for our songs."
Tristao functioned as the Creative Director for the band, while Gordon handled the business direction. "We began collaborating on many of the skits Daddy-o became famous for," says Tristao. "It was like a musical Saturday Night Live, evolving from a '50s band to feature characters patterned after current events. We had seven members doing very colorful characters and interacting with the lead character. It was an exciting, energetic, entertaining and very funny show."
Daddy-o played Las Vegas, Reno, and Disneyland and began to catch the eye of various producers for possible TV exposure. The band actually performed on the Gong Show. Needless to say, they won.
Tristao's theatrical bent was further nurtured when he began creating commercials with KLIV and KEEN personality John Bettencourt for a successful side career in advertising that lasted for many years.
When Daddy-o went on a two-year hiatus, Pomeroy and Tristao continued the act as a duo, the Bongo and Guy Show. After 17 years with Daddy-O and Bongo and Guy, Tristao finally retired and moved to Washington State to run a deli/gift shop. Not for long.
In 1995, Tristao got the call from Stu Cook of Creedence Clearwater (a San Jose State man, incidentally, as is CCR drummer Doug "Cosmo" Clifford) offering him the job as vocalist. The tender came thanks to a referral from Michael Connolly, a Daddy-o alumnus and manager of Dean Markley Strings. Now renamed Creedence Clearwater Revisited, the band hired Tristao to replace John Fogerty as lead singer. Tristao has been globe-trotting with CCR ever since. In 1998 they recorded a live double-album of Creedence hits called "Recollection." The album went gold in 2004 and platinum in 2006. After 40 years in the music business, Tristao had finally made it to the very top of the mountain.