My first William Clarke CD was the aptly-named 1992 release on Alligator Records, "Serious Intentions."
I found the CD in a record store in Rochester, N.Y., and had high expectations just from the cover art.
William Clarke stared out through dark sunglasses, his face goateed and unsmiling. His seemingly oversized head was perched neckless on shoulders draped in a shark skin suit. His hair was greasy and combed back, but still a bit disheveled. He held a 16-hole chromatic harmonica in his claw-like hands.
When I got the CD home, I was blown away. From the opening notes of the first song, "Pawnshop Bound," to the mournful refrain of the last, "Soon Forgotten," it was as powerful and moving as any blues I'd ever heard.
It still is.
When it came to being a blues artist, William Clarke was the total package. As a vocalist, he had the power and soul of a blues shouter. He knew how to craft a blues song, too. A prolific songwriter, his exquisite compositions covered the range of human emotions and conditions, as well as styles from straight ahead Chicago blues to west coast jump blues and, on his later recordings, big band jazz.
His real calling card, however, was his innovative harmonica style that was at once ground-breaking and steeped in tradition. Many have tried, but few have come close to matching the force of his vibrato, depth of his tone and intensity of his attack. He was equally adept at playing both the 10-hole diatonic and chromatic harmonicas and mixed sophistication and technical mastery with raw, primal power.
As a chromatic player, Clarke was a force unto himself. The chromatic is the "big harmonica" with the button on the side. Pressing the button in sharpens the note being played by a half tone. Thus, a C becomes C-sharp with the button in, an F becomes an F-sharp and so on.
The chromatic has its drawbacks in that notes are difficult to bend, which is the technique blues players use with the diatonic harmonica to create a wider range of tones and expression than manufacturers actually build into the instrument.
For example, drawing in (or inhaling) on the 2-hole of a harmonica tuned in C will create a G note. By manipulating the air flow in your mouth and throat, that note can be bent down to an F-sharp and an F, so, theoretically, you can get three distinct notes out of that single draw note. Amazing, huh? It works on other holes, to varying degrees.
Due to the lack of bending opportunities, chromatic harmonica seems better suited for classical or jazz music, but William Clarke made it sound natural for the blues. He made good use of octaves - simultaneously playing the same note on either end of an octave while blocking the notes between them with his tongue. One example: on a 12-hole chromatic harmonica tuned in C, drawing on the 1 and 5 holes will produce D notes, with the 5 hole an octave higher in pitch than the 1 hole. This can be done by opening your mouth wide enough to envelop the 1 through 5 holes, then blocking holes 2, 3 and 4 with your tongue, thus isolating and playing the lower and upper D notes simultaneously. This technique, which works with many other note combinations, creates an organ- or horn-like quality. William Clarke could play entire choruses using octaves, or combine them with other techniques to add color and texture to his playing. A fine example of octave playing is Clarke's version on the "Serious Intentions" CD of Cannonball Adderley's "The Work Song."
Clarke came by his dexterity on the chromatic the old-fashioned way. He learned first-hand from a bona fide blues legend - Muddy Water's former sideman, George "Harmonica" Smith. Clarke befriended Smith and performed regularly with him from 1977 until Smith's death in 1983.
I've got a warm spot in my heart for "Serious Intentions" - probably because it is my first William Clarke recording. I've spent countless hours jamming along with it in the hope - futile - that the sounds he created on that album would rub off on me.
That said, Clarke's other Alligator recordings - "Blowin' Like Hell" (1990), "Groove Time" (1994), and "The Hard Way" (1996) are gold mines of first-rate blues music. To me, and many others, they are absolute classics.
William Clarke performed in Williamsport in 1991 at the second annual Billtown Blues Festival. He was a blue-collar guy who spent much of his career working as a machinist during the day and performing in nightclubs at night and on the weekends.
In 1987, he quit his day job and soon gained a word-of-mouth reputation as an extraordinary and hard working entertainer. He released six self-produced albums - garnering a handful of Blues Music Award nominations in the process - before sending a tape to Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records. According to the label's website, Iglaurer was stunned, not only by what he heard, but by the fact that no record company had signed Clarke. Iglauer was more than happy to correct that oversight. Clarke's first release on the label, "Blowin' Like Hell," yielded a Blues Music Award for Song of the Year for the song "Must Be Jelly."
Clarke's final recording, "The Hard Way," brought him three Blues Music Awards for best album, best song and instrumentalist of the year, harmonica. He died before he could accept those awards.
William Clarke lived the hard and sometimes lethal life of a bluesman and it did him in. He died in 1996 at the very young age, for a blues legend at least, of 45.