William Clarke

William Clarke, a factory worker-turned-blues-harmonica-player whose “soul-jazz” style combined hot Chicago licks with West Coast swing, died suddenly before a performance, his record label announced Nov. 4. He was 45.

Clarke collapsed in a Fresno hotel room shower on Nov. 1 and died after surgery failed to control a bleeding ulcer, said Marc Lipkin, a spokesman for Alligator Records in Chicago.

The record company said Clarke died Sunday, but the day was listed as Saturday by the Fresno Community Hospital and Medical Center, according to hospital spokeswoman Wendy Cox.

Clarke had just completed a six-week national tour to support his new record, “The Hard Way,” Lipkin said.

His style, known as soul-jazz, combined the urban, electrified Chicago harp style with that of California swing bands.

Born March 21, 1951, in Inglewood, Ca., Clarke’s roots were in poverty-stricken rural Kentucky, Lipkin said. An uncle played country guitar and his mother was a big-band fan. His love of blues came from listening to early bluesy Rolling Stones albums in the mid-1960s.

He soon found that many blues legends, such as Aaron “T-Bone” Walker and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, were active in the Los Angeles area black community.

At 17, he sneaked into local clubs to hear his idols and was befriended. West Coast swing man George “Harmonica” Smith became his tutor, and the two played together from 1977 until Smith died in 1983.

But music was mostly a pastime during the 20 years that Clarke spent as a machinist.

“I was really happy working in the machine shop and playing on the side. For many, many years I was,” he recalled.

His wife finally persuaded him to try a musical career. Between 1978 and 1988, Clarke released five self-produced albums and also was a sideman on nearly a dozen albums, Lipkin said.

He hit the road full time in 1987. Success came in 1990 with his Alligator Records album “Blowin’ Like Hell.” The song “Must Be Jelly” won him the W.C. Handy Award for blues song of the year.

Clarke is survived by his wife, Jeannette, a son, William, and a daughter, Gina.

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