The Early Years, Volume 1 & 2
Watch Dog Records
Few blues artists have given me so much
enjoyment through their recordings as Southern California harmonica
player William Clarke, both before and after his untimely passing
10 years ago. Imagine my excitement when I received an email from
Clarke's widow, Jeannette, advising me that she had independently
released two volumes of material that had just been sitting around,
mostly unlabeled with no recording dates.
The 27 recordings on the two volumes were
recorded mostly between 1975 and 1985, prior to Clarke's signing with Alligator
Records for whom he recorded four albums from 1990 through 1996. While
Clarke had previously recorded and was already known for his innovative
harmonica style, his association with Alligator gave him international
renown among blues fans. The four Alligator CDs deserve a prominent spot
in every serious blues collection.
The quality of music on The Early Years
is every bit as good as anything Clarke recorded during his career.
There's not a weak cut to be found on the two discs.
The session information is sketchy at
best, but what's known is that Clarke was at times joined on these
recordings by some of the best L.A. area blues musicians: Hollywood
Fats, Smokey Wilson, Junior Watson, Cordell Boyette, Ronnie Earl,
Johnny Dyer, Mitch Kashmar, Rasheed Abdullah, and the man who was the
major influence and spiritual leader for all SoCal harp players, George
Volume One opens with a pair of
instrumental numbers, the up-tempo shuffle "Hittin' Heavy" and the slow
"Blues Afterwhile," both of which reflect a heavy Little Walter
influence in Clarke's harmonica playing.
The absolutely excellent "Diggin' My Potatoes" is the first chance for
Clarke to step up to the microphone on this collection. While still
containing the gritty, "back alley blues" quality of his Alligator era,
Clarke's voice has a more youthful sound on the earlier recordings. The
interplay between his harmonica work and Hollywood Fats' guitar work is
sublime. This is a song to be heard over and over again.
"Teenage Girl" is the first cut on
One to feature Smith, who does the vocals but apparently does not play
harmonica here, leaving the harp playing to Clarke. It's a good,
We get to really hear the guitar genius
that was the late Hollywood Fats, who takes over on the urgent shuffle
"Come On Baby." These two guys sounded great together ... it's sad to
think of how much wonderful music these two could have made together had
Fats not left us in 1986 at the age of 32.
"Teardrops Fallin'," a George Smith
song, lets us hear Clarke's work on the chromatic harmonica. While he's
not credited, it's apparently Smith on the vocals here ... a great slow
blues with nice slide guitar (guitarist unknown).
Smokey Wilson makes his lone appearance on
the mid-tempo "Fine Little Mama," playing guitar and singing in front of
a band that also included guitarist Rick Holmstrom and pianist Fred
Kaplan. Holmstrom, who first came to prominence with his 1990s work with
Johnny Dyer and with The Mighty Flyers, must have been a young kid when
this cut was recorded, but it shows that he already knew his way around
a recording studio. He was a member of Clarke's band in the late '80s,
which may help to place the date of this recording.
Cordell Boyette (aka Louisiana Guitar Red)
is featured on his own composition, "I Miss You So." Boyette's rawer
sound is contrasted nicely by Clarke's jazzier playing on the chromatic
Two opens with a good, basic blues, "Early In The Morning," with an
unknown band backing Clarke. It's followed by a slow blues, "The
Feeling's Gone," with nice piano accompaniment from an unidentified
source and a strong harp solo from Clarke.
Smith returns for a slow blues on an
"Untitled Tune," and is credited for both vocals and harp, while Clarke
also plays harmonica. For lack of substantive session information, we'll
assume that Smith does the chromatic solo at the beginning of the song
while Clarke backs him on the regular, 10-key harmonica. There's also a
tasteful guitar solo near the end of the cut; while the session info
indicates that the rest of the band is unknown, Smith is heard urging on
a 'Craig', so the assumption is that the guitarist is Craig Printup, who
appears on several of Volume One's cuts.
Guitarist Ronnie Earl shows up in the
credits for the long, slow blues of "Bloody Tears On My Pillow," a
Clarke original that rivals the best of his Alligator recordings.
Following that number is a fine version of John Brim's "Ice Cream Man."
Johnny Dyer makes his only appearance on
the Sonny Boy Williamson number, "So Glad I'm Livin'," a slow stop-time
tune which also features Holmstrom on guitar and simultaneous harmonica
playing from Dyer and Clarke.
Another number that features dueling harps
is the mid-tempo instrumental "Horn Of Plenty," with Clarke and Mitch
Kashmar trading riffs. Kashmar's regular backing band from that era, The
Pontiax, are credited as the accompanying band.
Volume Two closes with three excellent
live cuts, presumably recorded in 1987 for a future Rivera Records
album: "I Had My Fun," "Deal The Cards," and "Boogie Woogie
Woman." Appearing with Clarke that night were Joel Foy (guitar), Willie
Brinlee (bass), Fred Kaplan (piano) and Eddie Clarke (drums). In
addition to giving the listener a chance to hear Clarke at his best,
which was performing live in front of a receptive audience, this trio of
songs also showcases the brilliant piano playing of Kaplan, who is still
active on the Southern California blues scene.
It's really hard to find anything wrong
with this excellent collection. If I have to critique anything, it's that the liner notes
are sometimes a little hard to read due to the print quality and there
are a few misspellings. But those are very, very minor nits. After all,
we're here for the music.
Quite frankly, the blues doesn't get much
better than this. Get it while you can, because unless some record
company gets these two volumes into much-deserved wider distribution,
they probably won't be available very long.
Don't miss out on some of
the best blues to be released in 2006. If you can't find the CDs on Amazon or
eBay, try checking in with Jeannette Clarke-Lodovici at
--- Bill Mitchell