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William Clarke: Now That You Are Gone

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In his all-too-brief musical career, he made an indelible mark on the blues, and established a high watermark by which other blues harpists will be measured for years to come.
William ClarkeThere seem to be those who will reluctantly call William Clarke a legend. They argue that only time will give him that designation and the time since his earthly departure has been all too brief. But there is no arguing that, in his all-too-brief musical career, he made an indelible mark on the blues, and established a high watermark by which other blues harpists will be measured for years to come. A technical virtuoso on both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, he was not content to cop licks from other artists. He borrowed from jazz influences that gave his music an undeniable personal signature, a sound unmistakably his own.



Born in South-Central Los Angeles into a blue collar family, Clarke was introduced to the blues as many white artists of his generation were, crediting the Rolling Stones and other British blues bands that hit the shores of the United States during the early-to-mid-1960s as his earliest introduction to the blues. He started his musical exploration by playing the drums, but by 1967 began playing the harp. He met his wife-to-be Jeanette when he was sixteen and she was fifteen. He soon found his way onto the Los Angeles blues scene while working days as a skilled machinist. Clarke-Lodovici accompanied him throughout his life as he established himself as a blues artist. Times may have proven lean, but she remained his most ardently devoted fan.



The night before Clarke's final gig he went to Pacifica Studios in Los Angeles, and picked up tapes that had been sitting around for fifteen years. He had the music re-baked and brought back to life. He never made it to that gig. He died with only one final wish, he not be forgotten.



To keep his final wish, Clarke-Lodovici has released the second CD of these never before released "lost tapes." Blues Harp Chronicles web publisher and AAJ contributor David King talked with her, and in her own words, she talked of her late husband, William Clarke. There is little doubt that, when the final tally is taken, Clarke will undoubtedly rank amongst the heir-apparents in the Chicago and West Coast blues lineage.

Chapter Index

  1. I Love The Life I'm Livin'
  2. Developing His Distinctive Style
  3. Chasing the Gator
  4. Regarding Bill's Music
  5. The Blues Is Killing Me
  6. The War Is Over
  7. Don't Let Me Be Forgotten
  8. Now That You Are Gone



I Love The Life I'm Livin'



"When I met Bill, we met in History class, Clarke-Lodovici explains. "I was fifteen, he was sixteen. I had heard Jr. Wells and thought, ' That was it!' I loved his music. But when Bill tooted on the harmonica one day I said, 'Wow, that sounds sexy!' That is sort of how Bill and I got together, the blues.



"Well from then on...he played. He first played the drums when I met him. He never sang in front of me for years, but would practice for eight-to-ten 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, William Clarke



By the late of 1960s, Clarke was spending a lot of time in the Los Angeles ghetto clubs—South-Central Los Angeles. Clarke would go to one club until it closed, switch to an after-hours club, and then go to jam sessions that could last until 11:00 AM the next morning.—and still hold down a day job. It was while playing clubs that he met George Smith— a veteran of the Muddy Waters band. According to one source, Clarke, recounting his earliest meeting with Smith, said, "To me George was bigger than life. I was always afraid to start up a conversation with him, not because I thought he was mean, but because I thought of him like a god on the harmonica."



In 1977, Clarke and Smith had become friends, Clarke was taken under Smith's wing as his protégé, and they began to perform and record together. This relationship would continue until Smith died in 1983.Regarding this friendship, Clarke was reported to have said, "George and I were very close friends and, in a lot of ways, he was like a father to me."



During this period, Clarke would guest on sessions by West Coast artists like Smokey Wilson and Shakey Jake Harris, and release several of his own LPs, all on smaller labels. The first, Hittin' Heavy (Good Times, 1978) was followed by Blues From Los Angeles (Hittin' Heavy, 1980). In 1983, Clarke released Can't You Hear Me Calling (Rivera), more of a proper debut. Still Clarke hadn't quite hit his stride. That would not happen until Tip of the Top (King Ace, 1987), a tribute to Smith. This earned Clarke a W .C. Handy Award nomination. Clarke finally quit his job as a machinist that year, and followed Tip of the Top with a live album, Rockin' the Boat (Rivera, 1988) . By this time, his reputation was beginning to reach beyond Los Angeles, despite the fact that he had not yet achieved full national distribution.

William

Of the relationships he made while clubbing, Clarke-Lodovici recalls, "Bill played with Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, Shakey Jake Harris, George Smith, Lowell Fulson, Phillip Walker, Roy Gains, Jimmy Smith, Red Holloway, Percy Mayfield and many others. In fact, I was very good friends with Shakey Jake and George Smith. George is even the godfather to my son—William and I had two children. I feel fortunate to have been in L.A. back in the '70s and '80s, when a lot of the blues players were alive and playing in small black clubs where white people didn't go. We had the best time."


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