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William Clarke; Blues Harmonica Player

November 06, 1996| From Times Staff and Wire Reports

William Clarke, a blues harmonica player known for combining the sounds of Chicago and the West Coast on a large chromatic harmonica, has died at 45.

Clarke died at a Fresno hospital Saturday after surgery for a bleeding ulcer. He had collapsed the day before in his hotel room shower before he was to perform at a club, said Marc Lipkin, a spokesman for his record label, Alligator Records.

The burly bluesman had collapsed last March before a performance in Indianapolis, and was hospitalized for a week with congestive heart failure.

"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," he told The Times in July.

Clarke's style, known as soul-jazz, combined the urban, electrified Chicago harp style with that of California swing bands and added a touch of Philadelphia tenor sax jazz from the 1960s.

He released five self-produced albums between 1978 and 1988 and was a sideman on nearly a dozen albums.

Success came in 1990, three years after he left his job as a machinist to concentrate on music. "Must Be Jelly," a song on his major-label album "Blowin' Like Hell," won the W.C. Handy Award for blues song of the year.

The album's success afforded him the simple pleasures of a washing machine and new TV for his home in Torrance.

Clarke, wearing sunglasses that seemed to be permanently affixed, performed frequently at the House of Blues in Hollywood, the Palamino in North Hollywood, the Classroom in Northridge and other Southern California venues.

"I'm into playing real jazzy things with sharps and flats," he told The Times. "It's not far-out jazz, it's foot-tapping music, something you can snap your fingers to."

Clarke was born in Inglewood and fell in love with the blues from listening to early Rolling Stones albums. At 16, he quit school for the factory and bought his first Marine Band harmonica with a borrowed $2.50.

He would sneak into clubs in Watts to hear his idols, blues legends Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, "Big Joe" Turner and Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton.

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