Born in 1951 in Inglewood, California, William Clarke was heir to Chicago’s legacy of amplified blues harmonica.
As a youngster, he played guitar and drums. He loved rock and roll but the blues standards on some of the early Rolling Stones album inspired him to take up harmonica in 1967. A dedicated student of George “Harmonica” Smith, he developed his own style as a virtuoso player of both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas.
His prowess in the harmonica was initially spotted in Los Angeles blues venues, while he was holding a regular day job. Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Junior Wells and Sonny Boy Williamson II had a great influence on his early style before he progressed to add soul-jazz, similar to the most popular sax and organ players, to his repertoire.
He began learning jazz through listening to jazz organ players such as Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Jimmy McGriff and Richard “Groove” Holmes. They had a great influence on Clarke’s style of playing; together with jazz sax players Eddie Lackjaw Davis, Gene Ammons, Lyne Hope and Willis Jackson.
William Clarke’s Last Album, The Hard Way
He once explained: “The combination of listening and observing the grooves of tenor-sax-led organ trios had an everlasting effect on my direction in music. For my style I incorporated the hardcore attitude and tone of the classic Chicago harmonica players along with the swinging and highly rhythmic grooves of the organ trios and to this I add my style and ideas, and you have the William Clarke sound.”
While he was regularly playing in South Central LA blues clubs, hopping from one place to another he also eventually met with well known West Coast blues players like T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thorton, Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson and George “Harmonica” Smith who became his trusted friend, teacher and adviser.
Smith was then a veteran of the Muddy Waters Band. According to Clarke: “To me George was bigger than life. I was always afraid to start up a conversation with him, not because I thought he was mean, but because I thought of him like a god on the harmonica”. Smith and Clarke became friends when he was 26 and they performed together until Smith died in 1983. He was a godfather to Clarke’s son, a friend and father to Clarke in so many ways.
Clarke was a witness when the blues went electric in Chicago. To keep up with electric guitar, the harmonica needed to be amplified, so Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, both masters of the blues, made it happen. In the late 1970s to 1990s Clarke was recording as a sideman, and self-produced and released 5 albums. He gained popularity and won 6 WC Handy Blues Award nominations. Four albums, recorded in the 1990s for Alligator, showcase the best of his career.
Clarke’s songs like “Gambling for My Bread” and “Pawnshop Bound” show his sentiments as a working-class player who had a hard life. At the outset, his group was traveling a lot by car wherever they needed to perform, even if it was only for a night’s stand. They ate frugally and stayed in low-cost hotels.
Later, as he wrote many of his great songs, he finally began to make good money. Indeed he will be remembered as a singer and song writer, as well as a gifted harmonica virtuoso. His last album was “The Hard Way.” (See the second video above for the full album)
He died at age only 45 in 1996 at a hospital in Fresno, California after collapsing before a show. He left behind his wife Jeanette, his son Willie and daughter Gina.