There 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.
- I Love The Life I'm Livin'
- Developing His Distinctive Style
- Chasing the Gator
- Regarding Bill's Music
- The Blues Is Killing Me
- The War Is Over
- Don't Let Me Be Forgotten
- 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 meI 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 clubsSouth-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.
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 sonWilliam 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."
Developing His Distinctive Style
"Well, as far as Bill's playing goes, Clarke-Lodovici continues, "at first he listened to other harp players. But once he learned how to play he never really listened to them again. It was always jazz that he listened to. I'm sure that people can tell that when they listen to him. In fact I remember George Smith saying that his favorite harp player was Larry Adler. He's very jazzy. Bill would listen to horn riffs and organ riffs and learn them on the harp. I'm sure though now most of the accomplished harp players who have been playing for years do the same.
Clarke attributed much of his jazz influence to jazz organists such as Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Shirley Scott, and Richard "Groove" Holmes, as well as jazz saxophonists Eddie "Lockjaw Davis, Gene Ammons, Lyne Hope and Willis Jackson. He said, "The combination of listening and absorbing the grooves of tenor sax-led organ trios had an everlasting effect on my direction in music. For my style, I incorporated the hardcore attitude and tone of the classic Chicago harmonica players, along with the swinging and highly rhythmic grooves of the organ trios, and to this I add my style and ideas, and you have the William Clarke sound."
"I also remember Bill saying that you can play something very simple, Clarke-Lodovici recounts, "but with soul, deep down from your heart, and make it really count. In the beginning Bill played a lot faster, but George Smith and Shakey Jake, mostly Shakey, would tell Bill to slow down and make every lick count. He listened to Shakey, and I'm glad. It did help his playing. Shakey was limited in his playing, but knew the blues."
Chasing the Gator
Following Rockin' the Boat, Bill sent a demo tape to Alligator Records. He was immediately offered a contract. His label debut, Blowin' Like Hell (1990), earned rave reviews upon its release and established him as a new, fully formed voice on amplified harmonica. Clarke hit the road hard, touring America and Europe over the next year. In 1991 he won the Handy Award for "Blues Song of the Year, thanks to "Must Be Jelly.
"Bill was the only Alligator artist that would send [label head] Bruce [Iglauer] the finished product, says Clarke-Lodovici. "Bruce likes to have a hand in everything, but Bill's condition was that he do everything." This creative license extended to Clarke was plainly evident in everything he would record on Alligator, as each subsequent release would be indelibly stamped with his evolving signature style, each showing more of his jazz influence.
His follow-up, Serious Intentions (1992), was equally blistering in its intensity, something for which Clarke was noted. "Whereas many artists reserved this intensity for the final set of an evening," it's been said. "Clarke played with this blistering intensity for every number he did. He was 'full-tilt,' in-your-face intent. This was reflected in both his live shows and recordings.
Groove Time (1994) added a horn section, bringing more of Clarke's jazz and swing undercurrents forward. The Hard Way (1996), his jazziest and most ambitious yet, pursued that direction even further. Everything he released was met with strong reviews.
"Later on in life I realized he had a goal and went for it, Clarke-Lodovici recalls proudly. "I told him later that I admired him for that, and for achieving what he did. It was so great, though, that he never forgot who let him do the music thingwe had two children and I went to work so he could play music. I was his biggest fan. In fact, when he won his first Handy Award, he called me up onstage and said that the award should go to me....and that if It weren't for me he would have never gotten where he had in blues.
Regarding Bill's Music
Clarke would do covers, and did so on his each of his Alligator releases, but each was given his own stamp "If you are covering a tune, or trying to get someone's style, the way Bill used to say it, it's okay to cover a tune, but make it your own. Don't try to sound like the person who originally did the tune, because you will never be able to do it as good as the person who did it first and you will always only be second best."
"I truly believe that Bill's style came from all those great harp players that he listened to at first, offers Clarke-Lodovici. "I can hear a lot of [James] Cotton's tone in Bill's playing. You know who is playing harp when you hear Bill. He is very distinctive. I can hear other guys out there now though that sometimes fools me. They sound a little like Bill's style. It took lots of hours and being very dedicated to the blues for Bill to get where he did in his own sound. He dropped out of high school because he knew that he wanted to be a blues musicianno matter what it took. Luckily he had a good woman to be there for him no matter what. .I am so glad that I was able to be in Bill's life."
On Clarke's approach to keeping it simple and playing with soul, Clarke-Lodovici explains, "One time Bill played at the Harmonica Blowdown up in San Francisco. At the end of the night, Rick Estrin, Rod [Piazza] and whoever else played on the festival were all onstage together. Everyone up there onstage was an excellent player. Bill went up there and just swayed back and forth and played something very simple, but with balls...the crowd went nuts! He was like a superstar that night. The audience could feel the soul coming out of Bill. And, like I said, all the other players were great. I don't mean to take anything away from them. I just want to get the point across that it didn't matter how many notes, or how complicated anyone was playing, it was the feelings of the player coming from deep down that the audience could feel."
The Blues Is Killing Me
"Let's see where do I begin, says Clarke-Lodovici. "Well, let's start out with him going to the doctor because he was bleeding from his arm. The doctor said to Bill, 'Please remove your sunglasses.' Bill did. The doctor said, 'You have a drinking problem, don't you.?' Bill didn't deny it. The doctor asked me to leave the room. Bill said to him that I should stay because I knew everything about him and he didn't want anything hidden.
"The doctor told Bill he had about a year left of his life to go if he didn't stop drinking. In fact, I remember the doctor asking him why he drank. Bill said that he was basically a very shy person and that drinking helped him face his fans when he was playing. The more popular he became, the more Bill drank...He was now in front of thousands, not just little local bars.
"When we left the doctor's office, Bill decided that he would quit the hard stuff (a fifth of Whiskey per day) and just drink beer from then on. That was hard for him, but he did it. Well, he actually started getting sick, like getting pneumonia and just different ailments that he never had before. He joked about the alcohol killing the germs and that was why he was getting sick now. Anyway, he continued touring with his band. In 1995 Bill had a gig in Indianapolis, Indiana. His band members called me and said, 'They can't wake Bill up.' He had actually fallen out on stage just before the show.
"The paramedics came and took him to the hospital there in Indianapolis. They called me and said that Bill might not make it and I needed to fly out there right away. I did.
"When I got there Bill was in a terrible shape. Shaking, he was going through withdrawals. It was the most horrible thing to see someone you love going through this. He was delirious. I never really knew what DT'S [delirium tremors] meant until I saw it for myself...the person actually is delirious and they tremble from shaking so much. They actually had to strap Bill into the bed because he became violent. It was terrible. His fans would come to the hospital and I would have to make sure to keep them out. All I did for a week was pray and cry. They told me to stay next to him because he could die. I did.
"After a week of Bill being totally out of it, I mean he would look at me and ask, 'Who are you?'I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The doctors said that his withdrawal was worse than a heroine addict would go through. Well, he made it through. Charlie Musselwhite and Smokey Wilson were very supportive to me when I was there with Bill, as were many fans.
"On the last CD that Bill put out there is a special thank you to the Wishard Hospital. Well, that is where he went through this for a week. We took a plane homeno cocktails on the plane. He finally got rid of the monkey on his back...booze!
"He had quit touring for a few months just to get healthy. He dropped about sixty pounds and was playing better than I had seen him play ever; he could do anything he wanted on the harp now. He even told me that. [The Hard Way was recorded before Bill had quit drinking]. He became this very spiritual man, so happy to be alive. It was as if he had 'just been born,' as Bill said to me. It was wonderful. He began touring again. From what his band members told me and fans, he was better than ever. His last tour was for six weeks from the west coast to east coast. When I saw Bill I said that he looked better than ever and even about ten years younger! He said he felt great.
"Bill had a gig up in Fresno, CA. after about a week of being home from this last tour. I was with Bill on this gig. This was his last gig...He bled to death because of a doctor who didn't take proper care of him. It was proven that the hospital was at fault for Bill's death in a lawsuit against them. This was so horrible. I just know that we all have a time to go and that it was Bill's time. So sad, though, to loose a man who had been through a lot in his life. He struggled with many things but became a great Blues musician nevertheless.
The War Is Over
"I think that if you could ask Bill his greatest accomplishment in his life it wouldn't be the fact that he won Handy Awards, was known as one of the best out there or anything else, Clarke-Lodovici explains. "It would be that he didn't drink anymore. I'm sure that if Bill were here today he would agree with me.
"There was such a change in this man, it was as if he was preparing to leave this earth. I know it sounds weird, but I believe this. He became very good friends with a preacher, who was also a harp player. He would come over and pray with Bill...this was a shocker! This preacher, who was only in his late forties, died a couple months after Bill. Never found out what happened.
"Not that many people actually know what happened to William Clarke, but this is it. Bill was the best husband to me and a great father to our kids. I never met anyone so honest, loyal, humble...I think that he made me a better person too. He was a wonderful man, husband and father. I do miss him a lot still."
Don't Let Me Be Forgotten
"Before Bill died, Clarke-Lodovici says, "he told me that I would always have his music after he was gone and to not let him be forgotten. I am trying to keep his music alive. It's hard though...It's tough to listen to him sometimes. For about a year, maybe two, after he passed away, I couldn't even listen to any blues at all. It would make me cry. To hear harp would really put a tear in my eye.
"I have actually found some lost tapes of Bill. Well, this weekend I started going through themthere must be at least 100 tapeslots of live stuff from way back in the 1970s all the way up to just before Bill passed in 1996. George Smith is on some also. Some real cool stuff. I am excited. The only problem is, on several of the tapes, I have no idea of who is on them. Some of the styles, like Watson, Holmstrom, Alex and Fats are very distinctive. And I am pretty sharp when it comes to who is playing what because I was right there every time Bill was in the studioin fact, when he was mixing the music, I sat right next to him, because he would always want my feeling on the music. So, I sort of feel that I know what Bill would have wanted. I still have quite a few tunes that were done in the studio that never came out. I am planning on releasing them in the future also. I feel that I should for the fans of Bill. And I am finding out now that he has quite a lot of fans.
"And that video is on DVD. I had sold about one hundred and fifty of the tapes, then people from Europe started asking about DVDs, so I now have those. I really didn't advertise other than the website. My daughter actually sells them on eBay for me now. We are out of the DVDs with the covers, so we are waiting to put the ad back on eBay. My daughter lives in Memphis and she helps me sell her dad's music and I give her a cut, it helps her out. Heck she was there for the lean times, when her dad was trying to make it as a blues musician. There were a lot of lean times."
Now That You Are Gone
"I have actually remarried, Clarke-Lodovici concludes. "I am married to another great harp player. My husband, Joe Lodovici was one of Bill's best friends. He actually has Bill's amp and plays through it. . Joe doesn't sing though. When Joe plays sometimes, it is almost like hearing Bill. It used to freak me out when I would come home from work and hear Joe playing... Even when he plays at a club sometimes I have to hide the tears....it's weird."
For information on either Now That You Are Gone, William Clarke :Live In Germany or The Early Years, Volume 1 & 2 email Jeanette Clarke-Lodovici at: [email protected]
William Clarke, Live In Germany (Watchdog, 2005)
William Clarke, The Hard Way (Alligator, 1996)
William Clarke, Groove Time (Alligator, 1994)
William Clarke, Serious Intentions (Alligator, 1992)
William Clarke, Blowin' Like Hell (Alligator, 1990)
William Clarke, Rockin' The Boat (Rivera, 1988)
William Clarke, Tip Of The Top (King Ace, 1987)
William Clarke, Can't You Hear Me Calling (Rivera, 1983)
William Clarke, Blues From Los Angeles (Hittin' Heavy, 1980)
William Clarke, Hittin' Heavy (Good Times, 1978)
Top Photo: Jeff Dunas
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Jeanette Clarke-Lodovici