W.C. Clark still feeding off Vaughan's passion
W.C. Clark is known as the "Godfather of Austin Blues," quite an impressive sobriquet when one considers that Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton and Omar and the Howlers are only a few of the better-known Austin blues artists of modern vintage. Now consider that the amazing Mr. Clark may well be the most talented, well-rounded and experienced musician of that whole lot and his impact begins to come into focus.
"I didn't name myself 'The Godfather,' the people did," says Clark. "That's because I came and got involved in the movement that was going on with white blues players in Austin. I had all this experience and these kids was interested in learning how to play and how to get along with black musicians and book jobs and how to deal with taking abuse from clubs, all that. I kind of became a goalie, and I guess I still am."
Clark's history precedes his storied mentoring of Austin's melanin-challenged set, however. While still a teen-ager, Clark was honing his guitar, bass and vocal chops at the feet of black Austin blues legends such as T.D. Bell, Erbie Bowser and Blues Boy Hubbard. In the late '60s, he got his first taste of life on the road when he joined the touring band of soul legend Joe Tex.
"That was a wonderful experience, my first chance to get out and see the world a little bit," Clark recalls. "I learned a lot from that, the showmanship and all. And at the time, I was so naïve ... there'd be a line of girls and Joe would have someone at his door, letting one girl in at a time. Back then I thought, 'What is that all about?' I ain't never seen nothing like that before. You see, I was a country boy, you just didn't see stuff like that, man. To me, it was a big deal if a car passed by in the night 'Look man, there's a car out there!'"
When Clark got home from the road, he noticed change in the air. Austin was a deeply and historically segregated city, but suddenly young people were making a conscious attempt to change the town's Jim Crow customs.
"This was at a time that the hippie movement was maybe a quarter of the way home, and that was a part of it," Clark explains. "It was a strange time, things were changing. White girls were coming on over to the east side, picking up little black babies and taking them over to the west side to play with the white kids in the park. Blacks and whites were doing things to stop separating themselves. Everything was changing and the music was changing too, so it was a real interesting time to me."
He formed a band called Southern Feeling with vocalist Angela Strehli and guitarist Denny Freeman. A young kid named Stevie Ray Vaughan followed them around from gig to gig, and Clark later formed another band called the Triple Threat Revue with Vaughan and sultry vocalist Lou Ann Barton both bands are legendary in Austin circles. Clark paid special attention to the potential he saw in the young guitar hotshot named Stevie, and to that end switched to playing bass to let the kid shine in Triple Threat. Shone he did; Clark has frequently said he never met a more dedicated, serious musician in his life. The teacher learned a big lesson of his own from his disciple: how to commit 100 percent of yourself to music.
"I was a mechanic for Ford at the time," says Clark. "Stevie would come down there and visit me and talk about the grease under my fingernails and how I was mistreating my hands, things like that. I had always worked a job and done music at the same time. I had always been around good players but they always had something else going, they was never serious enough to depend on music and that's all. Stevie, he was all in. So I learned that from him and I made myself a choice. You either got to do it or not. I made that choice to dedicate myself 100 percent because of Stevie, and I've been happy ever since.
"It was always easy for me to see how successful he would be," Clarks continues to riff on his experience with Vaughan. "It was obvious by the way people was acting around him that he had something special. Getting close enough to him to see his drive and endurance, I didn't think anything could hold him back."
Duly inspired, Clark set out as a solo artist in the late '80s. He's toured the world and released five superb albums since the latest, "From Austin With Soul" (Alligator), is a tour de force in which Clark shows his expertise at melding every style of American music under the sun from blues and soul to country and gospel.
"I was raised up in a neighborhood where there was gospel singers all the time, I was raised with those sounds from a little boy," he remembers. "But at the same time, everything on the radio was more hillbilly. And then there were the big bands. There wasn't much blues played in the house except for when my step-father would come home and listen, and there were a few guys playing blues in the neighborhood. I was just always exposed to all this stuff, I had it embedded in me early, and once I got a guitar I'd try to make all those sounds. All I needed was an instrument to bring it out."
Eclecticism is essential to the Clark method. The man plays mathematically perfect guitar solos without sacrificing an iota of passion in the process. His voice is a soulful, acrobatic instrument that can move from a low, smoky moan to a soul-stirring falsetto in a single bar. Always, the sway of his myriad influences is well apparent, something in which Clark takes great pride.
"There's a lot of good guitar players out there, both white and black, and some of them are even better than me as far as the blues goes," he says, modestly. "But there's very few real good singers. I'm talking about Albert King-, B.B. King-type singers. I don't like that limited way. My interests expand on and on, unlimited. That's the way I like to play music and the way I like to hear it."
At age 63, Clark's career has been on an upswing. No longer Austin's best-kept secret, he recently completed a tour that took him through Russia, Turkey and Cyprus, where he says he was giddily received by blues fans. The drive instilled in him by Vaughan still sparkles in his soul, but these days, Clark's ambitions seem largely sated.
"My interest is just to play as much good music as I can for as many people as I possibly can." he says. "I'm doing that, so I'm satisfied."