William Clarke: Now That You Are Gone
"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."
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.
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."