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
-- 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
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
-- Mary Katherine Aldin