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William Clarke

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The heir apparent to Chicago’s legacy of amplified blues harmonica, William Clarke was the first original new voice on his instrument to come along in quite some time; he became a sensation in blues circles during the late ’80s and early ’90s, stopped short by an untimely death in 1996. A pupil and devotee of George Harmonica Smith, Clarke was a technical virtuoso and master of both the diatonic harp and the more difficult chromatic harp (the signature instrument of both Smith and Little Walter). Where many new harmonica players had become content to cop licks from the Chicago masters, Clarke developed his own style and vocabulary, building on everything he learned from Smith and moving beyond it. His four ’90s albums for Alligator earned wide critical acclaim and remain his signature showcases.

Clarke was born March 29, 1951, in the South Central L.A. suburb of Inglewood; his parents had moved there from Kentucky and lived a blue-collar life. Clarke dabbled in guitar and drums as a youth, and grew up listening to rock & roll, but eventually found his way to the blues by way of the Rolling Stones’ early albums. He took up the harmonica in 1967, and soon found his way onto the Los Angeles blues scene while working a day job as a machinist. Clarke’s early style was influenced by Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Sonny Boy Williamson II, but he soon began to incorporate the influence of ’60s soul-jazz, mimicking the lines of the genre’s top sax and organ players.

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