Happy Hour Harmonica Podcast

William Clarke retrospective, with Paul Barry

June 23, 2022 Neil Warren Season 1 Episode 64
Happy Hour Harmonica Podcast
William Clarke retrospective, with Paul Barry
Show Notes Chapter Markers

Paul Barry joins me on episode 64. Paul is our resident expert on William Clarke, and is currently writing a biography about him.

Bill (as he was known to his friends) was born in a suburb of Los Angeles, and starting going to the blues clubs in the south of the city, age 17. Bill met his great inspiration, George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, in 1977, with George showing Bill how to play that big old chromatic harmonica . 

Bill released his first album in 1978, with other albums following where he always featured original material. He then signed for Alligator records in 1990, releasing his superb album: Blowin’ Like Hell. The four albums he released with Alligator gave Bill the chance to fully shape the sound he had been developing, influenced by jazz players and including a horn section. 

Sadly Bill passed away at age 45, but he has still left us with an essential body of work for both diatonic and chromatic blues harmonica.


Paul Barry’s band website:

LA newspaper interview with Bill 1991:

Tom Ellis: William Clarke Memorial article in Blues Access magazine:

Bob Corritore: William Clarke Remembered photo gallery:

Interview with his wife: Jeanette Clarke-Lodovici

HarpTranscripts: for transcription of Blowin' The Family Jewels: (under 'G harmonica')


Hitting Heavy album:

William Clarke playing Lollipop Mama:

William Clarke playing Pawnshop Bound:

William Clarke playing on Bro Matt’s Bluez Shift:

Podcast website:

If you want to make a voluntary donation to help support the running costs of the podcast then please use this link (or visit the podcast website link above):

Spotify Playlist:
Also check out the Spotify Playlist, which contains most of the songs discussed in the podcast:

Podcast sponsors:
This podcast is sponsored by SEYDEL harmonicas - visit the oldest harmonica factory in the world at www.seydel1847.com  or on Facebook or Instagram at SEYDEL HARMONICAS
and Blows Me Away Productions: http://www.blowsmeaway.com/

Paul Barry is our resident expert on William (Bill) Clarke
Paul met Bill after his band opened up for him (and George Smith) at a club in 1983
Paul is writing a biography about Bill, out in 6-9 months time
Was working on an instructional book before Bill died
Biography is due to be called Blowin’ Like Hell
Liked to be known as Bill to his friends
More about Paul: who is a harp player and released an album called Blow Your Cool, including Mitch Kashmar also on harp
Bill is one of the great Blues chromatic players
Bill was born in Los Angeles in 1951, started playing harp age 16 and started playing in the LA blues clubs aged 17
Dropped out of school age 17 to pursue his goal of being a bluesman
Had a day job as a machinist before he became a full-time musician
Bill came from a working class background
His song Pawnshop Bound reflects real events in his life
Wife Jeanette was a big supporter of Bill’s career
Inspired to take up harmonica after hearing the Rolling Stones
Discovered the great harp players like Junior Wells and Walter Horton
By age 18 was playing with Shakey Jake Harris, who released Bill’s first album in 1978, Hittin’ Heavy
Met George ‘Harmonica’ Smith in 1977
Bill learned from George by watching him, not from formal lessons
George Smith was a pioneer on blues chromatic, especially the use of octaves
George Smith also pioneered third position playing
Blowin’ The Family Jewels is a great third position song by Bill
Went on tour with George Smith in 1983, shortly before George died
Bill was a fan of jazz organ groups, and brought horns into his sound as his albums progressed
The Night Owls was Bill’s early band, used on his Blues From Los Angeles album in 1980
Bill’s instrumentals and his love for jazz shaped his sound
Was very hard-working on his music, and demanded a lot from his band members
Bill made sure that each live show was spontaneous, so band played a different solo each time and didn’t use a set list
Released several live albums
Can’t You Hear Me Calling album from 1983, where he had more control over the production
Tip Of The Top album, released in 1987, shortly after he quit his day job as a machinist
Tip Of The Top includes a song recorded with Charlie Musselwhite
First live album release: Rockin’ The Boat in 1988
Signed for Alligator records in 1990, releasing Blowin’ Like Hell as first album with them and how he signed for Alligator
Bill’s toured the US, Canada and Europe
Must Be Jelly won he Handy Award for Blues Song of the Year
Serious Intentions album from 1992 with more jazz influences
Groove Time album from 1994, with a full horn section
How Bill ‘thought like a horn player’
Recorded several songs about being on the road, a long way from home
Recorded a lot of original material
Live In Germany album
Final album, The Hard Way, released in 1996, and one of his best songs: The Boss
More on his horn-like sound, especially on chromatic
Albums released after his death
Didn’t do much work as a sideman
Was a perfectionist when it came to the material he released
Was singing from the beginning, and played some guitar
Bill worked really hard at his music
Used Bill’s I Want To Be Your Santa Claus song in the Bad Santa 2 movie
Paul was putting together an instructional book with Bill before he died
Won several posthumous awards, 6 WC Handy awards in total
What was Bill like as a person
Played Hohner harmonicas: diatonic the 1896 and chromatic 270s & 280s (16 hole)
Chromatic octaves are sometimes out of tune on his recordings: don’t think this was deliberate
Wasn’t too keen on playing 1st position
Embouchre: tongue block
Didn’t use overblows
Guitar was a practise tool for him
Played an original 1959 Fender Bassman
Difference between original and re-issued Bassman’s
Didn’t use a small amp
Used an Astatic shell with a CR element
Didn’t do much acoustic playing
Used a tape delay early on and then a Boss delay pedal
Problems with alcohol
Collapsed earlier in 1996, and then he gave up drinking for the last six months of his life
Died November 3, 1996, age 45
Perhaps knew that his end was coming
More on the biography Paul is writing