The Great Uniter

Bluesman W.C. clark brings the races together

Everyone knows the best stuff is produced in sweltering clubs that are as moist 'n' stinky as a summertime shvitz. This week's riches are to be mined Saturday night at the Blue Cafe, when W.C. CLARK holds court.

Clark isn't well-known outside Austin, Texas, but there—in one of America's most semen-heavy musical spawning grounds—he's known as "The Godfather," both for his exquisite musicianship and for mentoring a host of Austin's most celebrated white blues artists. Clark plays mathematically perfect guitar solos without sacrificing passion; his voice is a soulful, acrobatic instrument that can move from a low, smoky moan to a soul-stirring falsetto in a single bar. His style is a seamless blend of Texas blues, deep-fried Southern soul and sanctified gospel with dollops of jazz and country. He's a living, breathing testament to the pleasures of American roots music. Bonus: Clark bears an entertaining resemblance to Uncle Ben, the old guy on the rice box.

"In order to be good at what you're doing, changing categories and things like that—blues to soul to jazz—you gotta know your boundaries," says the sagacious 62-year-old. "You gotta know what to play and when to play and when not to play. I learned that from guys hollering at me, 'No, don't play that note!' I had to figure out why they didn't want to hear that note." He figures not everybody was so lucky. "I think musicians got a little lazy or were in too big a hurry, and it became everybody doing their own thing instead of a traditional law that was already there. I understand those boundaries, and that's why I'm one of the dying breed of, you know, stylists."

The guys hollering at Clark were members of Joe Tex's band; he spent the early '70s on the road with the master soul man, learning his trade firsthand following a childhood spent sucking up his lessons vicariously. "I was raised in a little area here in Texas called St. John," says Clark. "St. John was a Baptist-supported community, and there was music around all the time, door to door, house to house. There was gospel singing but also blues guitar players, harmonica players, violin players—they were all around, and I had my choice of which to listen to, so I knew more than I thought I did even before I started playing."

Clark noticed a phenomenon in Austin in the early '70s: a host of seriously talented young white kids were playing blues, adding their own experience to the established tenets. He was impressed enough that he quit Tex's band in the mid-'70s to join the fray. He formed a band called Southern Feeling with vocalist Angela Strehli and guitarist Denny Freeman. A young kid named Stevie Ray Vaughan followed them 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 legends in Austin circles. For his efforts, Clark became known as a barrier-shattering figure in a town still suffocating from the white hood imposed upon its collective head.

"He's probably the link between black and white in this town," says Austin music historian Steve Dean. "He's the guy that the Vaughans and all the white blues bands went to to find out about the East Side scene. He was pretty much the link between the old school and the new school. He bridged that gap. Austin is very segregated. They built Interstate 35 here on that premise—to separate the races. And the whole black blues scene remained on the East Side until W.C. came over to the West Side. To this day, the African-Americans playing on the West Side probably owe W.C. a big debt for introducing them to a new audience."

For his part, Clark saw limitless potential in the funny-lookin' little hotshot named Stevie Ray, and to that end, he switched to playing bass to let the kid shine in Triple Threat. In the process, the teacher learned a big lesson of his own.

"I could see that Stevie was a wonderful, promising guitar player, even though he was gonna be out there by himself," says Clark. "His endurance? If most guitar players had 50 percent to 75 percent endurance, he had 100 percent and more all the time. I had never seen anything like that in a musician before, and he rubbed off on me. I had to stop and ask myself the question: Was I serious about this or not? I finally ended up making a decision to go all out with music. I'd been doing other things to make a living throughout my life. Working with Stevie, that's when I decided to go that direction, too. That's where I'm at now, all-in. I won't take any other work but playing."

Since then, Clark has released three superb soul/blues solo albums on Black Top Records. He's currently between labels but negotiating with several, and he has a goal of opening his own blues club in Austin. Until that happens, Clark's show is on the road. Saturday night presents a chance for locals to check out a guy whose juice deserves to be savored by more than a handful of rib-chomping, English-mangling Texans, so don't miss out!

W.C. Clark performs at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Sat., 9:30 p.m. $10. 21+.
 
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