Monday, January 11, 2010
Anthony "Swamp Dog" Clark
Growing up in York, Pennsylvania, Anthony Clark had a love of music so strong his parents bought him a snare drum and signed him up for lessons when he was just a toddler.
Later, a teen-aged Clark would add harmonica to his repertoire.
Now, three years out from his retirement as an information technology manager,Clark, 58, is pursuing his musical interest with more fervor than ever, blowing his harp throughout the D.C. area, his adopted home for over 30 years.
Under the name "Swamp Dog," Clark has performed at such venues as Bangkok Blues, Chick Hall's Surf Club, the Eastport Democratic Club, the Congressional Blues Festival and the Greenbelt Blues Festival.
Clark says he wants to entertain audiences in "Spain, England, Italy, Holland, back here and then back over there again." Still he is not looking for fame and fortune. "Don't have to be a star. Just want to work," he says.
Clark's first experiences as a performer came through marching bands. In high school, he drummed at parades and football half-time shows.
He eventually learned how to play a full drum set, joining a top-40 band when he was about 15 years old. At this time, Clark's interest in harmonica was starting to intensify, and he began studying books on the instrument and listening to recordings of famous players. Sonny Boy Williamson was his first inspiration. "The first book I ever bought talked about him the most, the first albums I ever bought" were his, Clark says. "I picked up most of my chops from him at the time."
James Cotton, Little Walter and Paul Butterfield also left their marks. "When they play it they mean it. You can hear it," he says
Learning how to bend notes was the hard part, he says. "That, and getting tone, that certain vibrato," he says. But as he mastered it, he began to incorporate the harmonica more into his top-40 gigs.
His musical career digressed a bit in 1976 after he moved to the D.C. area and began working gigs as a jazz drummer. "This was on the job training for sure because my background didn't have any of this type of music in it," he says.
He played drums behind Wilson Pickett in the early 1980's at an outside show arranged by popular D.J. Moonman Bacote.
"As a drummer I always played on top of the beat...that day he told me to play a little behind the beat," Clark recalls. "That's about as much interaction as I had with him that day. I knew his songs. He just counted them off, we went into them and that was it."
But eventually the blues prevailed as Clark's music of choice and the harp as his instrument of choice. "The ease of just whipping out my harp at lunch and blowing kept me motivated to continue playing music. Finally I heard of the Surf Club and the fact that at that time they had open mic blues jams. I started going there to hone my chops."
He was tapped by guitarist John Vengrouski and drummer Art McKenny to join them in forming the Capital Blues Ensemble band, which performed at the Silver Spring Blues Festival in May, 2009.
He formed the All-Stars in July. In addition to Clark, the band features Ken Sparks on guitar, Charles "Red" Atkins on bass and Mike Simon on drums.
"We do (Herbie Hancock's) 'Chameleon', we do 'All Blues'--which is obviously blues--by Miles Davis... we do (The Meters') 'Cissy Strut'...so we do a few songs that are not blues but they hit which is one of my strong prerequisites to doing a tune. By hit I mean funk, funky like. Because a lot of the songs we do are obviously blues but there' a funk edge to the blues."
Sparks says Clark's background on the drums augments his already formidable skills as a bandleader. "He basically has a feel for how everybody's part should go in the songs, and he lets us play our instruments the way we want," Sparks says. "But he also has a particular sound he wants us to produce and conveys that to us well."
Clark was the first person Old Bowie Town Grille owner Robert Thompson thought of when he decided to supplement his club's regular Wednesday night jam with a second one on Thursday. "He gets along well with all of the musicians," Thompson says. "He's very professional but I thought that he would be able to develop a different crowd then my Wednesday night," which is hosted by drummer Chip Clemmer.
The Thursday night offering has had its "ups and downs" but is "developing into a pretty good jam," he adds.
Attending all of Clark's gigs is Marcella, his wife of 29 years. An "absolute" blues lover, she is probably his toughest critic, scolding him whenever, for example, he allows too much down time between songs while performing.
Still, she thinks his playing has "gotten a hundred percent better" since his retirement. "When he plays he feels it," she says. "and to me that makes all of the difference in world."