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William Clarke

The heir apparent to Chicago's legacy of amplified blues harmonica, William Clarke was the first original new voice on his instrument to come along in quite some time; he became a sensation in blues circles during the late '80s and early '90s, stopped short by an untimely death in 1996. A pupil and devotee of George Harmonica Smith, Clarke was a technical virtuoso and master of both the diatonic harp and the more difficult chromatic harp (the signature instrument of both Smith and Little Walter). Where many new harmonica players had become content to cop licks from the Chicago masters, Clarke developed his own style and vocabulary, building on everything he learned from Smith and moving beyond it. His four '90s albums for Alligator earned wide critical acclaim and remain his signature showcases.

Clarke was born March 29, 1951, in the South Central L.A. suburb of Inglewood; his parents had moved there from Kentucky and lived a blue-collar life. Clarke dabbled in guitar and drums as a youth, and grew up listening to rock & roll, but eventually found his way to the blues by way of the Rolling Stones' early albums. He took up the harmonica in 1967, and soon found his way onto the Los Angeles blues scene while working a day job as a machinist. Clarke's early style was influenced by Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Sonny Boy Williamson II, but he soon began to incorporate the influence of '60s soul-jazz, mimicking the lines of the genre's top sax and organ players. He was a regular in South Central L.A.'s blues clubs, often hopping from one venue to another in order to keep playing all night. In this manner, he met quite a few West Coast blues luminaries, including -- among others -- T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson, Big Mama Thornton, and George "Harmonica" Smith, who ultimately became his teacher and mentor.

Smith and Clarke first began to perform and record together in 1977, and kept up their relationship until Smith's death in 1983. In the meantime, Clarke guested on sessions by West Coast artists like Smokey Wilson and Shakey Jake Harris, and released several of his own LPs, all recorded for small labels. The first was 1978's Hittin' Heavy, which was followed by 1980's Blues From Los Angeles; both were released on tiny local labels. 1983's Can't You Hear Me Calling was more of a proper debut, though Clarke still hadn't quite hit his stride yet. That would start to happen with 1987's Tip of the Top, a tribute to Smith that was issued by Satch and earned a W.C. Handy Award nomination. Clarke finally quit his job as a machinist that year, and followed Tip of the Top with a live album, Rockin' the Boat, in 1988. By this time, his reputation was beginning to spread beyond Los Angeles, despite the fact that none of his albums had yet achieved full national distribution.

Clarke subsequently sent a demo tape to Alligator Records, and was immediately offered a contract. His label debut was the galvanizing Blowin' Like Hell, which earned rave reviews upon its release in 1990 and established him as a new, fully formed voice on amplified harmonica. Clarke hit the road hard, touring America and Europe over the next year; he also won the 1991 Handy Award for Blues Song of the Year, thanks to "Must Be Jelly." His follow-up, 1992's Serious Intentions, was equally blistering in its intensity. 1994's Groove Time added a horn section, bringing some of the jazz and swing undercurrents in Clarke's music forward. He pursued that direction even further on 1996's The Hard Way, his jazziest and most ambitious outing yet, which earned strong reviews once again.

Unfortunately, Clarke's health was deteriorating; always a large man, hard living on the road was taking its toll on his body. He collapsed on-stage in Indianapolis in March 1996 and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Despite losing weight and living clean and sober from then on, the damage had been done; Clarke resumed his heavy touring schedule a few months later and seemed to have recovered, until he collapsed on-stage again in Fresno. He was admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer and died the next day, November 2, 1996, when surgical attempts to save his life failed. He was only 45 and in the prime of his career. Posthumously, Clarke won three Handy Awards stemming from The Hard Way: Album of the Year, Song of the Year ("Fishing Blues"), and Instrumentalist of the Year for harmonica. In 1999, Alligator released a best-of compilation titled Deluxe Edition. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

I would go into Bogarts in Long Beach see William Clark, it was a great place, also saw Albert Collins..
I still hold a pair of unused concert tickets to one of William's shows that I never got to use because of his untimely death. He died doing what he loved... RIP Mr. Clarke...
hahah
woooh
yessir
William Clark is with the angels and still playin. Even though we miss you. You will never be forgotten. May god bless you rest in piece. Thanks for sharin your music.
Im still tryin to learn how to play my harmonica, I love big harp players. I try to play when music is on I come close but when its off I sound bad my dog only howls when I play lmao :D
danielledee2 6
he was a great man and truly missed my ex husband was his protege so i was honored to know bill quite well!
lm126
Love his sound and he was a kind soul...you can hear that....
Met bill on my way to nam. True story!
melissathomp s o n 9 1
Bill was,& Jeanette still is a great friend,& fellow Blues Lovers. Bill was an incredible harp player, not just anybody can get that TONE that he got. He was sounding,& feeling so good right before his passing.His music should be study and enjoyed by anyone who even considers picking up a harp!!!!! RIP Bill we miss YOU!!!
Not Bad....At All.. Good Harp
ngham53
W.C. is SUPER BAD! Groove Time was worn out by me in the '90's. All my friends who claimed they didn't like the blues, used to beg me for it. Lol. I played him alot on my Blues Radio show in nineties. He can blow and SING with FEELING. Very near the top of the Harp Men in Blues, in my humble opinion. He is great background for the Q with a little Wolf too. The Blues Doctor
Great harp-man...I know them when I hear them, play the blues harp myself...one of the great's... I like to hear.
Never heard of him before, and it's a damn shame. He was good.
bad blues man .oyea
he's new to me...HE IS BAAAAD!
Yes i Love his blues !!! Shure wish i got the chanch to see him live !! Love me some chormatic harp also!!!
The cat could blow some harp. His vocals rocked me too.
timbrry
...Not Harp! he always let His Heart Out on the Harp!
timbrry
He Knew how to play HIS HEART!...
cheezwithout
I was fortunate to see Bill play in a little suburb of Philadelphia . He was as good, if not better live than he was recorded. I'm still saddened at the loss of this great artist and still amazed at how advanced his playing was. RIP William Clarke.
as a fellow harp player and blues lover i was deeply saddened at the loss of one of the greatest.
bublynch
He may be the best!
this brother left us too early ,the brother was bad.
wow! I like him! This my first time hearing him. He is really good! Better than good!
beutiful

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