William Clarke (1951-1996)
In Memory
by Tom Ellis III and Mary Katherine Aldin

Southern California bluesman William Clarke died November 3 in Fresno, California. He was hospitalized just prior to a solo gig in Fresno and died as a result of complications from a bleeding ulcer.

Considered one of the greatest living harmonica players, Clarke was born in 1951 in Inglewood, California. He was the son of Kentuckians who had moved from coal-mining country to Los Angeles. He was a skilled machinist.

At 18 he began frequenting blues clubs in the nearby South Central Los Angeles ghetto, playing with Smokey Wilson and Shakey Jake Harris. In 1977 Clarke became a student and close friend of George "Harmonica" Smith, and under his tutelage soon became known throughout Southern California for his outstanding playing on both the diatonic and chromatic harmonicas.

Clarke's two albums recorded in the '80s for Rivera Records, both featuring Hollywood Fats, Junior Watson, Smith, Fred Kaplan and others, are considered classics. But he wasn't well known outside Los Angeles until signing with Alligator Records in 1990, releasing four compact discs, including this year's The Hard Way, an infectious mix of blues and swing with a distinctly jazz flavor. He was working on a compilation of tracks from his independent albums.

Clarke collapsed at a club in Indianapolis in March and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Following his release, he embarked on a strict regimen to regain his health and strength. He lost weight and had stopped drinking, he said during a well-received summer and fall tour. "I've lost more than 60 pounds, and I try to eat a good diet when I can," he told writer John Bruening in late September. "It was a wake-up call for me, but things have kind of fallen into place since then."

Blues writer and producer Dick Shurman commented, "It's always especially sad when someone makes great steps to get their act/health together, then doesn't get enough time to show the world what they can do with the situation. He was one of the best harp players out there, with maybe the biggest tone, a bluesman with as much soul and swing in his music as anyone could ever ask and a real friend and family man."

Clarke is survived by his wife, Jeannette, son Willie and daughter Gina. Condolences can be sent to the family at the home:

    1012 Portola Ave., Torrance, CA 90501.
Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, notes: "There is a real financial need and if any fans wanted to send gifts care of Alligator (Box 60234, Chicago, IL 60660 -- checks should be written to Jeanette Clarke) we would be glad to forward them. Bill had health insurance but no contingency for an early death."

-- Tom Ellis III

A friend in need ...

Throughout his sadly short life, William Clarke had an enormous respect and admiration for the older bluesmen from whom he learned his trade. He repeatedly and unfailingly credited both George "Harmonica" Smith and "Shakey" Jake Harris, his personal mentors, with teaching him the basics of the blues and with setting him on the road to becoming a professional musician.

I initially met Bill Clarke many years ago when he was just starting his early band, the Night Owls, and almost the first words out of his mouth when we were introduced were about George Smith, who he knew was also a friend of mine. He followed their musical and personal example in another way, too; both Smith and Harris were legendary among those on the L.A. blues scene for their willingness to help others.

I'd be hard pressed to remember a blues benefit show held here during the last three decades that one or both of those men didn't participate in, and Clarke was right behind them, frequently donating his time and his band to play whenever there was a brother or sister musician in need.

His loyalty to his two "musical fathers" lasted long after they had died; on his last visit to my home, he ignored everything else in the room and immediately zeroed in on one particular photograph propped against a bookshelf.

"Cool picture of George," he said. "You take that one?" It's some comfort to think that these three old friends, Bill, George and Shakey, are together again on the greater stage, jamming, as they did so many times in this life.

-- Mary Katherine Aldin

This page and all contents are © 1996 by Blues Access, Boulder, CO, USA.