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VALLEY WEEKEND | ROCKTALK

William Clarke Finds Giving Up the Good Life Really Not So Bad

Ill health forced the blues harmonica player to correct some bad habits. Now he's back on the club circuit.

July 04, 1996|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was on March 20 that 45-year-old blues man William Clarke got a message from God.

Clarke collapsed during a sound check for a performance in Indianapolis. Clarke says it was his good job of ignoring a list of health problems that did him in. Heading that list, he found out later, was congestive heart disease.

Too much of the "good life" had caught up with the blues harmonica man. After a week in the hospital, Clarke has worked to cut down on all that good stuff that got him into trouble in the first place.

"I haven't felt this good in years," he says. "I've lost 60 pounds and I try to eat the right stuff, but it's hard 'cause I like Mexican food and soul food."

And less than six months later, Clarke, who's playing at the Classroom on Friday, is out gigging again, which translates to about 250 dates a year.

Clarke discovered the blues through an early interest in the Rolling Stones and other British blues-rock bands. As a teenager, the Inglewood native would go to blues clubs in Watts to hear masters such as T-Bone Walker, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Big Joe Turner, Lowell Fulson and Big Mama Thornton.

By the late 1960s, Clarke, who started out playing guitar, was working and studying the harmonica with Chicagoans Shakey Jake Harris and George "Harmonica" Smith. Smith became Clarke's mentor and friend. They worked together for almost six years, until Smith's death in 1983.

Clarke has made eight albums, the first five were self-produced on minuscule budgets, and the last three have been on Alligator Records of Chicago.

Those albums have received rave reviews from Billboard, Downbeat, Living Blues, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and other publications. His ninth and latest album, "The Hard Way," will be released by Alligator later this month. A release party is scheduled at the House of Blues in Hollywood.

Clarke's harmonica and vocal style mixes Chicago blues with West Coast swing with touches of bebop jazz. He fronts a band with two guitars, upright bass and drums.

Unlike many blues players who use a standard diatonic harmonica, Clarke uses a chromatic harmonica. Diatonic harmonicas, the ones that most people play, such as a Hohner Marine band or blues harp, only have the notes of the major scale of a particular key, while chromatic harmonicas have a button that allows Clarke to play sharp and flat notes, giving him all the notes of the chromatic scale to work with.

Clarke says he's developed a technique on the chromatic harmonica in which he plays octaves of the same note, blocking the notes in between with his tongue.

"It gets a real big sound," he says. "And I'm into playing real jazzy things with sharps and flats."

Besides his Chicago and West Coast influences, Clarke says he draws inspiration from a number of organ and tenor-sax jazz bands that flourished in the Philadelphia area in the 1960s.

"It's not far-out jazz, it's foot-tapping music, something you can snap your fingers to," Clarke says. "They swing real hard, like I do, but with the organ and the tenor sax out front.

"It seems to keep the dancers happy."

* William Clarke plays Friday at the Classroom, 8333 Tampa Ave., Northridge. No cover. Call (818) 885-0250.

*

From the 'Where Are They Now' Department: For over five years, Tom Ianniello ran the Iguana Cafe in North Hollywood. Opening in 1989, the funky little coffeehouse was one of the first of many Valley cafes to come.

Unlike many of the later places, the Iguana's emphasis was always on the music, poetry and other performances it presented, rather than its Mocha Kona French Roast. The storefront club developed an identity among regulars as the People's Democratic Republic of Iguanaland, the world's smallest theme park.

The Iguana closed a year ago this month. So what's Ianniello up to these days?

For one, he's publishing a catalog of independent releases, acting as a mail-order distributor for artists who lack the entrepreneurial skills to sell their own products. Included in the catalog are CDs, cassettes, videos, books and almost anything else.

"I'm getting records from all over the place--Finland, Haiti," Ianniello says. "It's still small, but it's growing pretty good."

There are also some golden oldies--books by Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Wanda Coleman and others.

And the catalog features a two-CD set of the last night at the Iguana--July 30, 1995. Titled "The Last Dance," it features some 400 audience members plus 20 artists doing 30 tracks of material--all recorded direct-to-digital.

"It's an audio documentary of that evening," Ianniello says.

Ianniello also runs open mike nights at a couple of Los Angeles places, including one at Portrait of a Bookstore in Toluca Lake.

Billed as a production of the People's Democratic Republic of Iguanaland Government in Exile, the open night started last Sunday and will continue every Sunday. Sign-ups are at 4:30 p.m.

Ianniello, who in addition to his other activities is a singer-songwriter, is slated to be playing his own stuff July 25 at Portrait of a Bookstore.

* Open mike at 5 p.m. Sundays at Portrait of a Bookstore, 10144 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake. No cover. Call (818) 505-0930.

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