West coast harpist William Clarke died of a bleeding ulcer in November of 1996 after cutting four well received Alligator CD's and a number of earlier, small label, regional albums. This is a memorial CD reissue of Clarke's self-produced (and hard to find) 1987 album, put together by his widow Jeannette with 4 unissued bonus tracks added on. The romping opener, Jimmy Witherspoon's "Drinking Beer" combines R&B funk with jump guitar licks. Its followed by classic Chicago styled versions of Big Bill Broonzy's "Just A Dream" and Robert Lockwood's "Take A Walk With Me". In his earlier work Clarke leaned a bit more to a harder edged Chicago sound, and his jump-blues influences were not quite as predominantly in evidence. Clarke had a fat and funky harp tone, with a fleetness riding on the top--he could get down as well as blow outside.
The original vinyl release of TIP OF THE TOP included several guest artists; guitarist Ronnie Earl sounding uncommonly funky (for him) on "Hot Dog & A Beer," fellow harpist Charlie Musselwhite taking the vocal and swapping harp choruses on "Charlie's Blues" and Clarke's mentor, chromatic harpmaster George Smith singing a slow piano-driven blues, "Hard Times", backed by Clarke on acoustic harp. Clarke also pays tribute to Smith in a slow 7:40 chromatic blues piece dedicated to him--it includes a nice piano ride by regular bandsman Fred Kaplan.
Clarke's backup bands included LA stalwart guitarists Hollywood Fats and Junior Watson--each take the lead on 4 tracks apiece, three of them unissued. Some of the tunes, like his instrumental "Blowing The Family Jewels" remained in Clarke's repertoire--he later recut that one on his 1994 Alligator album, GROOVE TIME. The album also includes a pulsing live track "Chromatic Jump", from a 1985 "Battle of the Harmonicas" in San Francisco. Its another smoking instrumental number, with Clarke's trademark oscillating octave chromatic chords pile-driving the beat. The majority of numbers here are originals, excepting those above mentioned, plus "Going Steady" (a down-home Jerry McCain instrumental) and "Drinking Straight Whiskey" (Johnny Young). The bonus tracks include the good-time "Party, Party," "Got My Brand On You" (a Muddy Waters song, but erroneously credited to Clarke here) and the ironic cheating-woman numbers "My Dog Don't Bark" and "My Wife Got Mad." They're all solid tracks if not anything outstanding. Clarke was an okay singer and his harp playing ranged from good-of-type to fiery and inspired. Overall you get some of each here, and this CD is a worthy addition to his history.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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