William Clarke
Tip of the Top
KingAce 1063

William Clarke (1951–1996) was a harmonica virtuoso with a famously broad tone and great skill on both chromatic and diatonic harps. He worked in a vein comparable to that of James Harman, Mark Hummel and Rod Piazza. But even if you’ve got recordings by them and Clarke’s fine Alligator CDs as well, this item from 1987 is far from redundant.

Tip of the Top is 15 selections of straight-up blues with Clarke backed by such West Coast-genre stalwarts as Hollywood Fats, Junior Watson and Bill Stuve. Clarke blew with a deftness and melodic resolution many big-tone players lack. He often seemed to construct a solo so it comprised a whole within a chorus, which is different from blowing note clusters like most players do. Such evolved playing is why instrumentals like "Tribute to George Smith," "Chromatic Jump" and the speedy "Blowin’ the Family Jewels" from this collection impute more closure than a vast, vast majority of the harp blowouts his contemporaries offer.

Clarke was also a good singer. Like Charlie Musselwhite, Clarke’s was a declamatory style, sans the wavy melisma present in most blues singing but still thoroughly convincing.

The jumpin’ kickoff cut "Drinkin’ Beer" is a Jimmy Witherspoon song. Spoon called it "Have a Ball" and did it with horns, but in Clarke’s small-combo context it still cooks. Another good cover is "Take a Little Walk With Me," done at a faster gait than Robert Lockwood’s original. Junior Watson plays hot guitar on the former, Hollywood Fats on the latter, and both these guitarists are in characteristically fine form throughout the CD. Guests include Clarke’s chromatic mentor George Smith ("Hard Times"), Charlie Musselwhite ("Charlie’s Blues"), and Ronnie Earl ("Hot Dog and a Beer"). All contribute authoritatively.

Good choices were made as to what cuts to use on the original album. Four previously unreleased cuts are OK but less inspired than the ones from the LP. Still, mention must be made of "Party Party," an aptly titled tune on which Hollywood Fats’ magnificent playing compactly exemplifies the whole style and ethos of West Coast jump guitar.

When this session was recorded, Clarke was little known outside the West Coast and far from famous even there. But he was fully formed musically and managed the rare task of taking his blues to a high peak of musicianship while retaining a vivid sense of the street. Hard to imagine a fan of true blues not admiring this CD considerably.

— Tim Schuller

©2001 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA