MUSIC WILLIAM CLARKE : Big-Time Blues : Harmonica virtuoso who worked as a machinist and played small clubs for years has hit it big at last.


He's got the slicked-back hair; he's got the shades; he's got the blues; he shreds on harmonica; he's got the hit album; he quit his day job; he's William Clarke. Here he comes.

Clarke is a Los Angeles native who learned the blues by hanging out in the blues clubs in Watts. An inquiring mind who wanted to know, Clarke first heard white boys with the blues, such as the Rolling Stones.

Then, checking the songwriting credits, he dug deeper and got into Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and like that.

Hanging around led to playing around (with various bands), and Clarke, a machinist by day, became a blues harmonica virtuoso by night.

He recorded a number of albums on a number of little labels that few people heard of or bought before he signed with Alligator Records of Chicago--the No. 1 blues label.

Clarke's 1990 release "Blowin' Like Hell" is a big hit, and Clarke is now nearly as popular as blue skies, green lights and free money. He's on the road every other month.

Clarke, who is already signed to play this year's Ojai Bowlful of Blues in September, will be headlining this week's presentation at Alexander's in Ventura and at Felix's Cantina in Santa Barbara.

In a recent telephone interview, Clarke discussed the blues:

How's the album, the current tour and all that?

Both are going real well. Every other month, I'm on the road for 30 days, and I've got a family I'm trying to keep together. I've been married for 20 years. The album is No. 1 on the blues radio charts. I've been on small labels since 1977, usually with limited distribution and promotion, or no promotion at all. Alligator knows what they're doing--their promotion is second to none.

Why the blues?

My mother was always into Big Band music and boogie-woogie. But in the mid-'60s, when FM radio was still new, they were playing a lot of blues and rock. I found myself going down to the black ghetto clubs in L.A. There were no real big names, but the stuff hit me hard. The sound of the blues was so real. It's the truth about living, and it's so rhythmic.

What is West Coast blues?

West Coast blues, as opposed to other parts of the country, uses more jazz and swing elements, and I'm not sure why. Chicago blues has a lot more rock 'n' roll and a lot of funk, but nobody swings like West Coast guys.

How did you start playing harmonica?

I got my first "harp" when I was 16. Originally, I was a drummer, but I couldn't get the drums together. Also, I play a little guitar, but only enough to write songs. Anyway, I started hanging out in these clubs, and sometimes they would let me play. Then one thing led to another, and I started playing with these little bands at these low-paying gigs. By 1977, I was in Shakey Jake Harris' band--he was this Chicago blues guy who moved to L.A. Then one time George (Harmonica) Smith sat in with us--he was probably the greatest blues harmonica player around--and he gave me his phone number. Anyway, I called him up, and that began a long relationship. He was the godfather of my son. In 1983, I got laid off my day job and went on tour with Smith. It was my first tour--I drove his Cadillac and got paid to play and hang around with Smith. He died in 1983, and that was a real bad time for me.

So, no more day jobs?

No, I quit my last one in 1987. I was a machinist for 18 years. My last job was for this aerospace company where they called you by your last name and the last four digits of your Social Security number. I was starting to become my machine. Anyway, my wife encouraged me to quit and become a full-time musician. There were other guys like James Harman and Charlie Musselwhite, and I thought: 'Man, I'm as good as those guys.'

What's the best and worst thing about your job?

The worst thing is being cooped up in a van. We drive straight through from gig to gig--we have to. Sometimes after we've been driving all night and get to the club, we don't get no respect from the club owners. Then again, other times, they treat us great, cook us dinner. The best thing is when the band is really sounding great.

What would be your dream gig and your nightmare gig?

I think it would be great to go back to 1957 or so and play with Muddy Waters, maybe Little Walter, Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins. My nightmare gig was one time when we played at this club and the owner tells me to play some dance music. And I said: "If you can't dance to this stuff, there's something wrong with you." We quit playing and didn't get paid.

Is blues getting bigger, smaller or what?

Blues is getting bigger, and it's because of guys like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose music has reached a lot of new people. When I was younger, I heard the Stones doing Muddy Waters, and I wanted to dig deeper. Like Vaughan's song "Texas Flood" was actually written by this old Arkansas blues guy. Anyway, in the late '70s, disco came along and it was tough on everybody. Nobody wanted to book a blues guy. I work all over town now. I only have three or four nights off a month when we tour.

Do blues guys get a discount on sunglasses?

I've been wearing sunglasses for a long time, partly because you have to wear safety glasses as a machinist. And I've been wearing black suits way before anybody knew about the Blues Brothers. I get sick of guys telling me I look like them--I did it first.

How come there's no blues on MTV?

There's a lot of big money involved on MTV. My label, Alligator, is the biggest blues label, but compared to Capitol, it's nothing.

What's the most misunderstood thing about the blues?

The problem is with the people who think blues is this big depressing thing. I put on the blues to feel good--I don't even need a beer. Blues is about life and emotion.

What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?

George Smith told me not to play so many notes, but to make my notes count.

What's next?

Last night, we started on our new album for Alligator. I also did a blues Christmas song for an Alligator anthology album. Also, I'm working on a blues anthology album for a Dutch label. I got a lot of those guys out of the ghetto and put them on this album.


William Clarke Band Tuesday at Felix's Cantina, 525 State St. Santa Barbara, 962-1432, 7:30 p.m. $5. (Also Monday at Alexander's in Ventura).

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