Every night across North America and around the world there are men and women who climb on to stages in dives, bars, honky-tonks, taverns, hotels, and anywhere else you can plug in an amplifier to play music. Some of them are just doing it for fun, and will soon fade away, not being able to stand the horrible hours, the bad money, and the inability to maintain stable relationships with any sort of ease.
Others will realize that this is as far as music will take them, that either from lack of talent or drive, they won’t be escaping the bar circuit. They will either pack it in at that time, or they will continue to play weekend gigs for fun and because they still might hold on to a vestige of that dream that got them up on stage in the first place.
I’m not talking about dreams of fame and fortune, but something a lot simpler, but so much more complex as well. While the money and the material comforts that come with celebrity (not to mention someone to carry your equipment for you) would of course be welcome, what’s even more compelling is that chance at immortality – to be remembered, not just by your family and friends, but by the world at large for doing what you loved.
What does it take to achieve that immortality? Talent, certainly; luck, most definitely, but neither one will be enough on their own. It takes that spark of greatness – indefinable, intangible, and indispensable, to lift a player from the crowd of players into the spotlight. But even that can be insufficient, unless that spark is captured at the perfect moment in time, it can flicker out as transient as a firefly on a summer’s night.
The same ignition and fuel that fires that spark can lead to self-immolation if it burns unchecked and without respite. Such was the case for the talented and brilliant blues harmonica player William Clarke from Southern California. At the moment when his career was graduating from bars to venues his life was cut short in 1996 at the age of 45.
According to Will’s late wife, Jeanette Clarke-Lodovici, he was already into the blues when they met and he was sixteen. He had started out as a drummer but had switched to harmonica and obviously felt he had found his passion.
[He] would practice for 8-10 hours a day locked in the bathroom. We were newlyweds and this was weird to me… I always thought he loved that harp more than me. I pretty much saw Bill evolve into a master on the harmonica. (Jeanette Clarke-Lodovici)
At this time it was the late sixties and in Los Angeles a lot of the old time blues and jazz musicians were still playing the clubs in the black ghettos where few whites would go. Will went and would play and listen, learning from some of the great musicians of the previous generation: Big Momma Thornton, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, and George Smith.
It was George who would have the most influence on Will in his early career. George had been a player in the Muddy Waters band and pretty much took Will under his wing in those early days. They played and recorded together during the seventies. Bill recorded his first album, Hittin’ Heavy in 1978. This was followed by Blues From Los Angeles in 1980, Can’t You Hear Me Calling in 1983, Tip Of The Top (a tribute to George Smith who had died in 1983) in 1987, and a live album, Rockin’ The Boat, in 1988.
It wasn’t until 1990 though that Will signed with a label, and his first album for Alligator Records, Blowin’ Like Hell, was followed in 1992 by Serious Intentions, in 1994 by Groove Time, and finally 1996’s The Hard Way. By this time Bill was playing in front of more than just bar audiences, thousands of people at a time, but like so many other musicians before him, he was a terribly shy man. In order to get up on stage he was drinking a fifth of hard liquor a day.
From the description provided by Will’s late wife Jeanette, it sounds like even though he was able to stop drinking after recording The Hard Way, the damage may have already been done. He bled to death in a hospital in Fresno, California.
Fortunately, Will left a treasure trove of tapes and unreleased recordings that are only now being released. Live In Germany is the second CD that Jeanette has released for public consumption and it’s musically a gem. Unfortunately there’s no mention in the packaging of where or when it was recorded, so you’ll just have to live without those details; it might just be that this material came from a master with no concrete information except designating it was recorded in Germany.
Whatever the case may be, if this disc is indicative of William Clarke’s playing, he was most definitely a force to be reckoned with as a harmonica player. I have to admit up front that when it comes to technicalities and terminology about harmonica playing, I’m totally at sea. I couldn’t tell you cross harp playing from a hole in the ground.
But the harmonica is one of those instruments where that type of knowledge isn’t needed to appreciate and assess the talent behind the instrument. Like its larger cousins in the woodwinds section, the saxophone, clarinet, et cetera, the harmonica in the hands of a skilled player can open up a window into its player’s soul.
The cry of the harmonica cutting through the chugging of the rhythms of a song should be able to reach out and grab you by the heart and pull you into the passion of the song. Many is the time I’ve seen players strut their stuff with a series of staccato huffs and puffs, bending notes and blowing hard, and have been left completely unmoved. Why? Because although their technique maybe great, they aren’t willing to step off the edge and surrender control to their emotions.
From the first time you hear Will’s harp on the track “Blowin’ Like Hell” on the Live In Germany disc you know you’re in for something special. Not only is his playing style unlike any blues harpist I’ve ever heard before, there is a rawness and purity to its sound that sent shivers up my spine. Will was exploring territory technically and emotionally where paths hadn’t been made yet.
The first thing you’ll notice is the sound of the band; it’s more what you’d expect from a jazz band than a blues group. The clean melodic guitar, swinging bass lines, and less aggressive attitude from the drummer all added up to a sound that is freer than one normally associate with the blues.
Instead of the formulaic quality that blues can generate, their sound left plenty of room for everybody to move around and improvise. Instead of the alto tenor sax of Charlie Parker putting a band through its paces, Will Clarke’s harmonica led the way.
For those who want Chicago blues, don’t worry, that’s here, too; Will’s song “Educated Fool” is as grand an example as any you’ll ever hear. Listen to his solos and how he drives the beat, how it pulsates like a heart and turns the song into a living creature.
Will doesn’t try to bludgeon you into submission with his harmonica by playing endless streams of notes at high speed. Instead he’d rather imbue one note with soul and have it transmit his message. It’s on the more jazz influenced tunes that you’ll understand by comparison how different and remarkable a player he truly is.
Will Clarke may never gain the renown of people like Muddy Waters or B.B. King; the market has changed too much, and his career was far too brief. But that doesn’t mean he will be forgotten. Will Clarke deserves a share of the immortal brass ring that musicians strive for. Once you hear him play harmonica, you won’t soon forget him.