Blues lovers are in a particularly difficult situation when it comes to their blues heros.
Since many of the members of the blues royalty are older, the blues fan runs the risk of picking up the paper or turning on the radio to find out that another bluesman (or
woman) has passed on. Although it's not easy to absorb the loss of any blues favorite regardless of age, the loss of a younger blues personality seems even more difficult to bear. Such is the case with William Clarke, whose 1987 W. C. Handy nominated LP, Tip Of The Top, has just been re-released by King Ace Records.
After leaving his job as a machinist in 1987, a then 36 year old William Clarke certainly believed that he had many years for success to look forward to. A student and protégé' of the "King of the Chromatic Harp," George "Harmonica" Smith, Clarke matched his giant physical stature with some giant harp and vocal talent of his own. By 1994, Clarke had release five recordings on several independent labels and three on Alligator Records. In 1991, Clarke won his only Handy Award in six nominations for blues song of the year with "It Must Be Jelly."
Tragically, Clarke's promising future was cut painfully short on November 2, 1996 when he died on an operating table in Fresno, California from a bleeding ulcer. He was just 45 years old. At the time of his death, Clarke was touring with what would be the final release of his lifetime, The Hard Way. Two other recordings were
released posthumously, Blues Harmonica in 1996 and Deluxe Edition in 1999.
Tip Of The Top is an amazingly raw and powerful recording featuring some of William Clarke's finest early work. Supported by a crew of exceptional musicians with guest appearances by his mentor George "Harmonica" Smith, along with Charlie
Musselwhite, Ronnie Earl, Junior Watson and Hollywood Fats, Clarke burns his way
through the fifteen song CD which includes four previously unreleased bonus tracks.
From the opening number, the party down song "Drinkin' Beer," to the last, "My Wife Got Mad," William Clarke makes it clear that he had plans to becoming the new "King of the Chromatic Harp" after the passing of George Smith in 1983. Listeners receive a special treat on the CD which includes a song dedicated to George Smith ("Tribute to George Smith") as well as a song performed by Mr. Smith who provides amplified harp and vocals on "Hard Times." Clarke performs "Party Party," a fantastic rocking tune, with another tragic blues figure, guitarist Hollywood Fats, who passed away at the early age of 32 in 1986. Fat's also provides his distinctive guitar on three other songs; "Take A Walk With Me," "Tribute To George Smith" and "Charlie's Blues."
Two of my favorite songs on the CD are "Charlie's Blues" and "Chromatic Jump."
"Charlie's Blues" features an admittedly lubricated Charlie Musselwhite on vocals,
trading harp licks with Clarke all though the song. Regardless of his physical state,
Charlie is amazing, as always. On a lighter note, Musselwhite indicates in the liner
notes that the song was "not nearly as bad as I thought I was going to sound....I could have done better had I been sober though. Oh, well. We had a hell of a good time." My other favorite, "Chromatic Jump," was recorded live at the 1985 "Battle of the Harmonicas" in San Francisco. The chromatic harp that Clarke blows on this number is totally unbelievable and represents the cornerstone of the recording. It is a "must listen" for any harmonica aficionado.
The last four tracks on the CD; "Party Party," "Got My Brand On You," "My Dog Won't Bark" and "My Wife Got Mad" are previously unreleased and provide a fine bonus to the CD. In another excellent guest appearance, Junior Watson appears on the final two songs, "My Dog Won't Bark" and "My Wife Got Mad," blending his signature guitar style with Clarke's emotional harp.
Tip Of The Top is an excellent CD from one of the tragic figures of the blues. Fans of William Clarke will rejoice at the re-release of this classic recording, while all blues fans will be amazed at the fine collection of songs performed by Clarke and his all-star cast. Copies of Tip Of The Top can be purchased through King Ace Music at
www.kingace.com or from various online retailers such as Amazon or CD Now.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, 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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