William Clarke - Biography

Blues singer, songwriter and harmonica player William Clarke seemed destined to rewrite the rules for blowing blues harp by incorporating jazz voicings with his sizzling, emotional style. He recorded briefly, but left behind an inspiring body of work to amaze blues lovers and give other harmonica players something to strive for.

William Clarke was born in Inglewood, CA, in 1951 and got into the blues under the influence of the Rolling Stones. By picking up the original versions of tunes the Stones covered he discovered the Chicago blues. He started out playing guitar and drums, but after he picked up the blues harp it took over his life. With the support of his wife Janette, who was also a lover of blues harp, he practiced in the couple’s bathroom ten hours a day on the weekends and every night, while working days.

When he discovered jazz organists like Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Shirley Scott, and Richard "Groove" Holmes, they had an influence on his playing. He also studied the work of Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Gene Ammons, Lyne Hope, and Willis Jackson. He became proficient on both the diatonic harp and chromatic harp and by 1969 Clarke was playing all night jam sessions in South Central LA with T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, Shakey Jake Harris, Big Joe Turner, Ironing Board Sam, and J.D. Nicholson. He was still holding down his day job too.

When Clarke met George "Harmonica" Smith, long time member of the Muddy Waters band, they became fast friends and started gigging together. Clarke played on albums by Smokey Wilson and Shakey Jake Harris and started to make his own records as a leader. Hittin' Heavy (1978 Good Time), Blues from Los Angeles (1980 Hittin’ Heavy), and Can't You Hear Me Calling (1983 Rivera) were solid efforts, but his career started to heat up after Tip of the Top (1987 King Ace) a tribute to George Smith that was nominated for a Handy award. Although the records were only distributed locally, Clarke’s name was getting known on the national scene. He continued gigging on his own and supporting legends like Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, Phillip Walker, Roy Gains, Jimmy Smith, Red Holloway, and Percy Mayfield.

In 1988 Clarke sent a demo to Alligator Records and they signed him. He quit his day job, produced his national debut Blowin' Like Hell (1990 Alligator) and hit the road with his band. Blowin' Like Hell got rave reviews and established Clarke as an exciting new talent. It included the song “Must Be Jelly” which won him a Handy award for Blues Song of the Year. He was one of the few Alligator artists signed with complete creative control. Clarke merely sent Alligator the tapes and they put out his albums. Serious Intentions (1992 Alligator) was even more intense than his debut, a ferocious album marked by his gruff vocals and indomitable harp work. On Groove Time (1994 Alligator) he added a horn section and some big B3 organ to emphasize his jazz tendencies.

In 1995 Clarke’s doctor told him he’d be dead within a year if he didn’t stop drinking. Always a shy man, Clarke had used alcohol to calm his nerves before gigs. He decided to quit cold turkey, but his withdrawal was bad enough to hospitalize him for several months. Just before detox, Clarke had completed The Hard Way (1996 Alligator) his most jazz influenced album; it also included Latin and jump blues influences. Before its release, Clarke died due to complications of a bleeding ulcer. In 1997 The Hard Way earned three posthumous Handy Awards - Album of the Year, Song of the Year for “Fishing Blues,” and Instrumentalist of the Year. William Clarke: Deluxe Edition (1999 Alligator) collects his best tunes from his four Alligator CDs. His wife Janette has discovered hundreds of hours of live tapes that span his career and will be releasing them in the years to come. Titles so far include William Clarke: The Early Years, Vol. 1 (2006 Hep Cat), William Clarke: The Early Years, Vol. 2  (2006 Hep Cat), and Now That You’re Gone (2008 26F).

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