Sitting in the venerable White Swan in East Austin, Texas, just before heading to the airport for an out-of-state gig, W.C. Clark leaned forward, placed his hands on the wooden table and told his story— sometimes singing or humming to make a point. He has been a keystone in the Austin blues scene for nearly half a century and has great memories of the artists he has known, clubs he has played and of Austin itself.
Like so many other bluesmen and women, Clark’s earliest musical influences came from the church and his family. But his stepfather listened to blues on the radio, and that sound drove Clark to make his own guitar out of a stick and a wire. He has been working on the blues since then, and along the way, has backed many postwar musical giants including Joe Tex, Freddie King, Percy Mayfield and Johnny Copeland.
Though he tours relentlessly today as a band leader, has recorded under his own name for almost three decades and has earned two W.C. Handy Awards, Clark is most often recognized for his association with Stevie Ray Vaughan, who coaxed him into his band as a bass player in the late 1970s while Clark was working as a car mechanic and gigging part-time. Clark, in fact, co-wrote one of Vaughan’s hits, Cold Shot from 1985’s Soul to Soul.
Now, years later, Clark has earned the title “Godfather of Austin Blues.” He has mentored dozens of young musicians and still teaches guitar. Listening to his stories, it is clear that music brings him joy.
Clark is always watching and listening for events and people who inspire him to come up with a new song. He has honed his soulful vocals, and his inventive guitar playing is admired by his peers. A W.C. Clark gig is a two-hour, no-break tour of Texas blues and R&B, likely with some deep soul, country and even a few Caribbean influences mixed in.
Clark raised his family while working day jobs, and he didn’t record his first record until he was almost 50. Cds for Black Top and Alligator Records followed and helped spread the word that a first-rate artist had largely escaped notice outside of Austin for decades. He has played most of Europe as well as Russia, Turkey, Cyprus, the Canary Islands and many of the major blues festivals in the United States and overseas. In August 2011 he released a live recording, Were You There?, on his own label and is working on another for 2015.
An engaging and thoughtful man, Clark is still searching for inspiration to write songs and new ways to keep the blues alive. As he enters the middle of his seventh decade, he is more than ready to board a jet or climb into a van to bring his music to his next audience.
There’s blues, rhythm and blues, and all those things is named by the record companies. But actually, the feeling by itself, there’s only two kinds. There’s a negative and a positive. Rock ’n’ roll is negative, blues is positive.
“Even a man that knows he’s the one that messed up the home but he won’t admit it—an old blues song can come out and he’ll go, [sings] ‘It’s my own fault baby.’ [laughs] But he won’t admit it to nobody else but himself. That’s the power of a blues song. That cleansed that man just then.
“I came up with my own theory saying what makes people old is when they go to that mailbox and see all that money they owe. But when you play the blues, you can release that stuff. The truth will set you free.
“My real name is Wesley—Wesley Curley Clark. I was born in Austin, but I was raised in Pflugerville [Texas]. Then I came to Austin. I was born the 16th of November, 1939.
“My dad was a mechanic, and he played a little guitar, just messing around. My mom was with my grandmother in the church. My grandmother was kind of the mother of the Baptist church where I was raised.
“My daddy, he had a garage, and he would just work hard all the time and come home on Sunday and put on his starched khaki pants and shirt and sit out in the yard. Then he’d take mom to church. He’d tell me you don’t have to go to church. Just go over there and put some money in the collection. My grandmother would cook, wash, sew, whatever—and my mother too.
“I remember my grandmother, she would have a big ball back here on her hair [pointing to the back of his head], and her money would be in there. Didn’t nobody know that but just us children. She used to say, ‘Don’t you talk about it.’
“And, [my mother and my grandmother] be going [hums the beginning of a gospel song]. I was just a little boy. That was haunting to me, man. I was listening.
“When I grew up, blues wasn’t forbidden, but it was a church neighborhood. The Baptist church bought some barracks from [a military] camp in Bastrop. My stepfather was a carpenter. [He and the other men] around there cut the buildings in half and made houses out of them, and people could live in those houses free. For families, needy people.
“My mother and stepdad got together when I was six years old. My mother had children, he had children, they had children. So, in all there would have been 11, but one died. Me and my two sisters come from the Clark side. The Shelbys came from his side, and then the ones that were him and her together, they became Shelbys. They were my half brothers and sisters.
“We were all in the same house together. That was common back then with people like that because the bigger the family you had the more money you could make out in the fields, picking cotton and chopping corn like that.
“I was so naïve at a certain age that I used to hear my stepfather tell my mom ‘Well, it’s raining yesterday, today and tomorrow, can’t work out in the rain doing carpentry. So, I’m going to go out to Mr. Fox’s house to get some money.’ So, he’d go out and come home with money and groceries and stuff. I thought what do people go to work for? You can just go out to Mr. Fox’s house, and they’ll give you some money, but then I learned later.
“I heard singing around me all the time [at home]. My stepfather listened to blues on the radio, and he played a little harmonica, but he wasn’t a professional. The blues players would go up in the field and drink that Mogen David wine and play them guitars, harmonicas and violins and play blues.
“And so, then [I was] playing with those guys in the field. I didn’t have a guitar. I was like eight, nine. I started putting wire on a stick. I’d make a tune and stuff. I’m there. But, you know the old saying, ‘It takes a neighborhood to raise a child?’ Well, when it comes time to be home, they’re going to send me home or bring me home and let my mom know that I’m there. ‘Boy, you better get home. I don’t want to get in no trouble.’ That was the church neighborhood.
“I’d go around and get me pieces of bicycles and put them together and make me a bicycle, and I would ride all over. I wouldn’t tell people I want to cut your yard. I’d just go knock on doors and say, ‘You all have any work?’ These were all white families.
“My stepfather was so wise. He’d tell me, ‘W.C. you get the newspaper, and you find those obituaries, and you go to those widows’ houses, and they’ll have stuff for you to do.’ So, I’d do that, and I’d end up with about five different regular people. I would clean up the yard. They needed the help. They would always give me more money than I’d expect in the first place. They’d give me food to take home, clothes to take home.
“But, back then black people went to the back door. When I get to working and it was time for us to eat, they eat in there and I eat out on the back porch.
“One day I started shining shoes at the Allendale Shopping Center at Bell’s Barbershop. And I started earning money, and I was giving some of my money to my mom. My mother didn’t worry about me because she knew if I was off making money I was going to bring some home.
“I would save a little bit, and I got up enough money to buy a guitar from a pawn shop. It was a Stella. A white Stella. I’d bring it on the gigs sometimes [later], and guys would go, ‘What’s that you’re playing, man?’ I learned how to [fix it up] myself. I could make my own bridges and things. I think I paid $27 for it. That was a good price back then.
“I got the guitar when I was about nine or ten. I started playing music with it and come to find out by being around my grandmother and them, humming, singing, gospel and blues, I already had it in me. All I had to do was bring it down to my fingers. My momma used to tell me, ‘Baby, put that guitar down, and go to bed. You’re going to make people hate you.’ [laughs] I’d play in bed at night, or I’d get out and sit in my stepfather’s truck and play. I loved it from the very beginning.
“So, now I’m into music and I know a little bit. And my cousin, Big Pete Pearson— that’s my first cousin—see, he was already into the blues, and I was doing gospel then on guitar. But I wanted to play the blues.
“We had a little café [in town] that had a jukebox. At that time [c. 1957], I was working with a quartet, and they had gave me one of their guitars, a nice guitar to play. I take that guitar and go up there in that nightclub, and sit down by that jukebox and play the blues. I was trying to learn. Big Pete was a bass player during that time. I’d go sit in with him sometimes, and when he left with other bands I’d play bass in his place.
“Then T.D. Bell and the Cadillacs come along, and I started playing bass with them in the early 1960s. On my first CD, Heart of Gold, on the back of that CD you see me standing there on the stage. I was 15 years old right there, and I was looking at T.D. Bell. I was trying to get into playing bass with him then. I eventually got there.
“The first time I got up there to play—and I tell all of my students I teach, I tell them this—I say, ‘I got up there and I played that night, and when I got off the stage I told myself, ‘Shit, they messed up all night long.’ But it was me, and I didn’t know it. I tell all my students that. Sometimes it’s you messing up and you just don’t know it, and somebody on the stage is good enough not to complain about you.
“After [working with] T.D., I went to Charlie’s Playhouse, which was the most famous black club in Austin at one time, and I played with [Blues Boy] Hubbard and the Jets on bass [c. 1964]. I did that for about six years. We were the house band at Charlie’s Playhouse.
“Then Joe Tex came along. He was from Navasota [Texas]. I left [Hubbard] and started playing guitar with Joe Tex, and we went all over. I remember Joe Tex would grab the cord [on the microphone stand], and he’d be singing and [he’d throw the microphone], and then he’d be singing and [pull] it back, and then he’d put his foot on the bottom of the microphone stand and push it, and it would come back up. He never hit anybody.
“The first place Joe Tex used to come to was Charlie’s Playhouse. All the top musicians, B. B. King, Freddie King, Joe Tex, the Five Royals, the Midnighters, all of them was coming to Charlie’s playhouse. We would learn their songs and back them up.
“I was kind of rebellious then. We had to be dressed to smacks, clean at all times. If you’re not, you do something wrong, or you have a cigarette on stage, [Charlie’s wife] would be at that door with a big old flashlight right on you. She didn’t fine us or anything; she’d just let us know.
“But she was a big help to me because she’d go out and get the Top 40 songs, and we had to learn those songs, and the band every musician had to learn the other guys parts too, and I’m glad for that because in the future what that made me be able to do was to know what somebody else would do before they’d play it. Coming from that type of situation I don’t need nobody to tell me what key they’re in or what they’re going to play.
“By the late 1960s the young white boys had started coming over here [East Austin] playing the blues, and the young university students had come over to the Eastside listening. It was really funny because I remember the time at Charlie’s Playhouse when blacks Would sit on one side and whites on the other side. People like Roy Head, he probably don’t realize what he did was that important. He used to come to Charlie’s Playhouse, and he would dance and win talent shows there, and he’s white, and he would win the talent shows. All the blacks and whites would start coming together. He probably doesn’t know he did that.
“It wasn’t a prejudice against young blacks and whites then. It was the past. It was tradition. The music started to slowly bringing it together.
“From there I [played all over]. I played guitar with Percy Mayfield and Johnny Copeland, opened up for James Brown, B.B. King, Freddie King. In fact I’m on one of [Freddie King’s] albums somewhere. I was playing bass, and they recorded it.
“I was more or less 20 years old when I started playing guitar with top guys. I remember Bobby Bland was stationed at Fort Hood [in Killeen, Texas]. He would come to the Victory Grill [in Austin]. We had a talent show on Monday, and he would win that talent show, and I would play with him. The next thing I know he got with Don Robey out of Houston and got records, and he was gone.
“Then I had my own family, and I had to try and raise my own kids. But I kept my music number one while I was working. I started working at McMorris Ford in Austin. I was a mechanic. My dad was a mechanic and, believe it or not, this came from the blood.
“Around age 17 I had bought a ’47 Mercury. Me and another friend of mine bought it together, and I was proud of it, and it started making a noise underneath. I knew I had to get it up into the air, so I made a ramp and backed it up onto the cement porch. My stepfather said, ‘Put this thing back together, and get it off this porch.’ He knew I could do it. I didn’t know I could do it. But I did. That’s where I got my confidence in myself, right there.
“When I went to McMorris Ford, they said, ‘What kind of a meter do you read?’ I said, ‘I don’t. I understand cars.’
“I went to school through the ninth grade. I’m self-taught. I got the job, and I became one of the top mechanics there. Bill McMorris he had so much faith in me, when his mother came from Louisiana in a car, he wasn’t going to let those technicians [near it]. He sent her to me. And I [eventually learned] to read all those machines. He wanted to send me to school, but that music was too strong. I went with music instead.
“From about ’62 to ’65 I worked for the state. I worked for the State Health Department testing animals for rabies. I wasn’t gigging as much then. I had my children. I have two, a son and daughter. [Clark’s son, Carl, recently died of cancer.] I was raising them and playing and trying to keep my music. I needed to work. I came from the old tradition.
“My dad used to say, ‘Boy, you go out and make the money bring it home. And that’s not your house, that’s the woman’s house,’ meaning, she takes care of the house. You take care of the job. I wouldn’t let her work because of that, and so I had to get work then and still play, and then one day I made up my mind. ‘I’m going to wherever music take me.’ That’s when I left McMorris Ford, and I told her you might have to get a job and help me. She said, ‘A job?’ I put her in that state. It was my fault.
“I played all over this place. I worked Monday through Friday. I get off Friday and go down on 6th Street and play mariachi music with the Mexicans until eight. I would leave there at nine and play from nine to twelve at the 18 Club, and I’d be there ’til one and play until four and five in the morning every Friday and Saturday after I get off work. This place right here, the White Swan, all around here, all this was just booming back then, booming, all with blues. The Eastside was booming; 12th Street and 11th Street was even better, and 7th Street too.
“I remember the time when the Eastside and middle-class people started getting better jobs, and you started seeing new cars in the driveway and two cars in the driveway and consoles and big Tvs. Well, they stopped going out. They wouldn’t go out anymore because they had everything at home. That’s when the blues scene started slowing down a bit. Clubs started closing down “You know, people would come down to McMorris Ford, especially the young Stevie [Ray Vaughan]. ‘Man, why are you treating your hands like that? [Look at] all that grease under your fingernails. Come on and play with me. Put that shit down.’
“Well, eventually I did, and I started playing bass with him [c. 1977]. But I had been playing guitar in between, and I didn’t want to play bass for anyone. But Stevie was so intelligent and promising I wanted to get in there and give him something to ride on.
“I had a band called Southern Feeling [in the early 1970s]. That was Angela Strehli, Denny Freeman and Roddy Colona. We played all over—San Francisco, Seattle. Stevie would just come in from Dallas to see us play in Austin. I had already been playing some with Jimmie [Vaughan].
“Back when I left Joe Tex, the hippie scene was coming in. And I didn’t know what is this, ‘the hippie scene’? All these young white kids running away from their mom and coming to hear the blues. Angela told me, ‘W.C., when I got out of college, I heard Howlin’ Wolf howl, and I been hooked ever since.’ [laughs]
“When I came back to Austin one time from New York, Joe Tex had a trumpet player named Don Jennings, he was playing with Jimmie Vaughan. And Jimmie came to me and said, ‘W.C. we need a bass player. Will you come play?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I hadn’t even met him before.
“I went and played with him, and I got back to New York, and I thought, ‘That band was so good that I had nothing to complain about.’ I got back and I thought, ‘How do those guys play like that? I ain’t never seen that before.’ So that’s when I quit Joe Tex and came back and joined them. That’s how I got into that with Southern Feeling and then into Stevie.
“So Stevie, he’d be playing with the Cobras, but wherever I’m playing, here he come with his guitar. When I’m playing he’d be right where he could look and see what I was doing. He was good then, but what he got from me was categories and scales. He used to tell me all the time, ‘Man, you make the hair stand up on my neck.’ His brother Jimmie was trying to keep him in the blues.
“Stevie, he never did know how good he was. I played bass for him [in Triple Threat Review]. It was Stevie, Lou Ann Barton, Mike Kindred on piano and Freddie Pharoah on drums. We’d be out somewhere playing, and they’d be giving him compliments all the time. They called him ‘The Hurricane’ he was so good. He’d say, ‘But you ought to hear my brother Jimmie.’ Jimmie stayed in the blues. He didn’t go no further in the categories. But Stevie was a musician, and he listened to everything that was good, and he’d try to find out why. And that’s how he became such a good musician.
“I haven’t had a day job in probably 40 years. I been in music ever since. They call me, ‘The Godfather of Austin Blues.’ I didn’t name myself that.
“I knew that my music had to be heard. I also knew that musicians shouldn’t sit around and wait for something. You got to do it yourself. I’m still that way. I made my first album made under my own name with my own company, The W.C. Clark Blues Revue.
That was Something for Everybody . It was on Drippin’ Records.
“Then [guitarist] Clarence Hollimon and his wife [Carol Fran] and Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff introduced me to Black Top Records. They were already there. I started doing Cds there. I recorded three for Black Top [Heart of Gold, 1994; Texas Soul, 1996; Lover’s Plea, 1998].
“When Kaz first came to Austin, he came to me. We started playing together at Antone’s. This is when he really hooked up with me. Kaz produced all recordings for me on Black Top here in Austin. Me and him been tight ever since. Every album I did, he has helped me.
“When Black Top went under, Alligator Records picked me up. I did two Cds on Alligator Records [From Austin With Soul, 2002; Deep in the Heart, 2004].
“All the accomplishments are because I did it, and I did it my way. I’ve got two W.C. Handy Awards. My first I’ve got was “Artist Most Deserving of Wider Recognition.” The most recent was “Blues Song of the Year” for Let It Rain. I’ve been all around the world representing Austin, the music capital of the world.
“Me and my manager are planning to put out another CD on our own. The last one I did here in Austin was Were You There? Live at the Saxon Pub . For several nights, I would have them record me, and I’d keep all those recordings. Right after we put it out, my manager got a letter from Japan, and I licensed it to Japan. Right now it’s booming in Japan. I’m selling it here, too.
“I’ve got a regular band. My drummer is Ty Grimes. He’s one of Ricky Nelson’s original drummers from way back when. Tom Robinson is the saxophone player. He played with quite a few different people. And my bass player, one of the guys here from the early ’70s, his son, Ben Eisenberg, is my bass player. I’m the guitarist and vocalist and that’s it.
“On my gigs, if I get a two-hour show, I don’t take a break. You know, I sing all the time. I play maybe three instrumentals, and all the rest of them are songs. I sing 15, 16, 17 songs a night. I don’t do a set list. I work with the audience.
“One of the biggest problems on the stage with musicians is communication. I can communicate. James Polk is one of the most famous black musicians in Austin. He was the music director of Texas State University. I came up with him. And, if I’m playing and I’m hitting a wrong note, he might grab that instrument and go, ‘Don’t play that note.’ He knows he has to teach theory for me to understand. I’d go home and take that note, and I’m just beginning to get into scales, and I’m trying to figure out where that note fits. I start [thinking about the key], and that’s how I got all that technique and stuff.
“There’s a big problem today. Musicians didn’t come up like that. [Today] they’re playing their own thing within and whatever they come out with. They get on the stage and start playing, and they forget about the song. People are not playing for the song anymore.
“Back [when I was learning] you had a job to do. Didn’t nobody play in the bass player’s area. Didn’t nobody play in the lead guitar player’s area. Somebody said, ‘Don’t step on me,’ or ‘You’re stepping on me.’ The lead has to be the one everybody else is playing for. You have to know how to fill in holes.
“And, I say, Blues is not made to be turned up real, real loud. Blues is made to be listened to. If some of those people would turn this music down they’ll hear something they never heard before. If you turn it down, you go, ‘What is that? Play that again.’ They never heard it before.
“When I get on a stage, with a loud rock kind of band, I’ll say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to break it down. Slow it up a little bit.’ And then when I get to the next song that I play is going to be something fast, and I’m not going to give them a chance to even think. If I got them moving, I know I’ve got them in my hand. Now I can do what I want.
“People say, ‘You sure are gifted.’ What they don’t realize is, God don’t give you the knowledge to play the guitar. He give you a receiver, and from that receiver the gift he gave you was five senses to figure this stuff out.
“A lot of people consider me a guitar player. I still consider myself a bass player. I don’t think there’s an end to learning guitar. Bass there is an end if you want to stop there. But if you know mathematical figures in timing, you can figure out where it starts and go around to where it started from.
“I hear the music in my head. I can read chords, and I can sight read, but I don’t need to. One time I got a song called, [sings] ‘All I can see is you. And the moon just keeps on shining bright tonight…[hums]…all I can see is you.’ It was inspired by my windshield wipers. There’s the moon, and I’m on the highway trying to make it home, and the big old bright moon is there. And just by that windshield wiper going [hums] oh wow that’s the beat. That give me the idea.
“I got a song out now. [sings] ‘You got to love me.’ When I was writing that song, my wife, she’s a school teacher, she was doing a lesson, and I took a pillow and put it over my head laying on the floor like it was a mic under the pillow and sung that song. When it come to me, I got to do it.
“Like one song would ring in my head when I would wake up in the morning. That happened so much. I picked up my guitar and made a song out of it. And I let the music tell me sometimes. First I have to get a subject. Like I had a song that goes [hums] well that song told me, ‘My baby don’t wear no drawers.’ And that’s what I wrote.
“[My wife] she tells me that a lot of my songs are sound tracks, movie sound tracks, and she say I got a lot of Caribbean in me because I’ll be playing and all of a sudden I’ll start playing some Caribbean style of soloing.
“I’ve got some ideas. You know, I’m not going to retire until my fingers don’t work.”