his huge frame and the immense sounds he coaxed out of his harmonica,
West Coast blues harmonica virtuoso William Clarke was a giant of the
blues. A full-time blues musician since quitting his job as a machinist
in 1987, Clarke regularly toured the U.S. and Europe before his untimely
death in 1996. His mix of Chicago Blues traditions with West Coast swing
placed him at the forefront of contemporary blues harmonica players.
Clarke's harmonica playing, particularly his chromatic work, was simply
astonishing. According to the Chicago Sun Times, Clarke was
"the most dynamic harp player on the circuit." The Washington Post
declared, "Few can match the imposing harp and vocal power of
Between 1978 and 1988, Clarke recorded and released five self-produced
albums all cut on shoestring budgets. He guested on nearly a dozen
albums, as a sideman for Smokey Wilson, Shakey Jake, Long Gone Miles and
other West Coast blues heavies. While fame eluded him, he built an
impressive word-of-mouth reputation, receiving six Blues Music Award
nominations (the Grammy of the blues community) despite the fact he
hadn't yet had a nationally distributed record.
After Clarke produced his sixth album, he decided to send a tape along
to Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records. The explosive,
soul-drenched performances caught Iglauer off guard, who said, "I
couldn't believe how such a wonderful harp player and such a terrific
writer, singer and arranger could have been a secret for so long. I knew
we had to sign him." Clarke's Alligator debut, Blowin' Like Hell,
was released in 1990.
Billboard called the album "a model of what a contemporary
blues record should be...strong, soulful tunes, ballsy vocals and
refined harmonica." Suddenly, Clarke and his band were in demand all
over the country. They accepted over 250 bookings throughout the United
States and Europe in 1991 alone, gaining new fans everywhere they
played. In 1991 Clarke won a Blues Music Award for Blues Song Of The
Year with his composition Must Be Jelly from Blowin'
Clarke's 1992 release, Serious Intentions, earned him
the Australian Blues Award for Overseas Blues Album Of The Year. The
album was filled with pulsating grooves, swinging shuffles and tasty
harmonica playing. The Chicago Reader said, "Shimmering, wild
chorded harp playing. He bends notes with the raucous abandon of a
Chicago juker...some of the most honest, unpretentious blues being laid
Clarke's next album, 1994's Groove Time, earned him
widespread critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Daily News called
him "a modern day harmonica master." Clarke's mixture of 1950s Chicago Blues with West Coast swing and funky jazz riffs brought him accolades
from critics and fans alike.
In the last year of his life, Clarke delivered his most ambitious album,
The Hard Way, and hit the road with a vengeance. He won
the three top Blues Music Awards: Album of the Year, Song of the Year
(for Fishing Blues) and Instrumentalist of the Year--Harmonica.
Sadly, he didn't live to accept his Awards. His death, at 45, robbed the
world of a true blues giant. Alligator Records released Deluxe
Edition in 1999, featuring songs from Clarke's Alligator
recordings -- a fitting tribute to a true giant of the blues.