Hello porkpie hat

Austin bluesman W.C. Clark gets a rave on that is soul real

W.C. Clark, playing blues guitar that will make you dance on fine furniture, your furniture, which is fine furniture.

W.C. Clark, playing blues guitar that will make you dance on fine furniture, your furniture, which is fine furniture.

Live! 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, $14. At the Palms Playhouse, 726 Drummond Ave., Davis (530) 756-9901.

When I met a then-unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan in Texas in 1980, one of our earliest conversations centered on W.C. Clark, now known worldwide as the godfather of Austin blues. This musician and mentor/friend of his, Vaughan explained, was most deserving of getting a record deal; he hoped out loud that Alligator Records, where I then worked, might be that label.

Jump forward to 1986, New Orleans—same conversation, different label, Black Top Records. Clark, by then, had co-written Vaughan’s first hit, “Cold Shot.” Vaughan’s wish was granted. Guitarist/singer Clark made three well-regarded albums between 1994-’99 for Black Top. That label went under, but Clark and Alligator persevered; their first album together is titled From Austin With Soul.

Clark has reached down deep inside to make a really brilliant one—his singing on it ranks with the best of Al Green, O.V. Wright and Syl Johnson, the 1970s Memphis soul clan who were all noted for smooth but smoldering Southern sensuality, backed by gorgeous paddings of Hammond organ, funky horn sections and tom-toms instead of cymbals. Clark’s guitar playing, precise and clean, supports his supple, confident voice. Ladies will swoon, men will be jealous.

Saxophonist Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff, who produced all four of Clark’s albums, issued Clark a challenge: “Singing was where we were going to get the most out of W.C.,” he says. “We looked at the great soul singers of all time, and I said to him, ‘Let’s see if we can climb up into that category.’ I was trying to find a way of getting both of us up to another level. I knew we could do it. But it took time.”

And depth, the kind that comes from pain. In 1997, every touring band’s greatest fear befell Clark on a cold March night after he left Milwaukee, driving home to Texas. Thousands of miles later, after crossing the Texas border, he lost control of his vehicle. Upon waking, he realized his fiancée and drummer were dead.

A few months later, Clark’s album Texas Soul got a W.C. Handy Award for “Best Soul/Blues Album of the Year.” Thankful but devastated, Clark sought healing through music. “I didn’t see a psychiatrist or anything,” he says. “I worked it out myself. But I wasn’t sure if I was gonna play again. I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. I was sitting there, thinking, what am I gonna do? Then, all of a sudden, my mind became aware of my hands and feet. I started thinking, I got all my parts. Nothing’s broken, and I’m worried about if I’m supposed to play again? Sure I’m supposed to play again.”

Clark’s questioning nature and spiritual qualities, along with his natural born guitar, bass and vocal talents, made him a pivotal figure in Austin during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Similar to how Stax/Volt’s and Muscle Shoals’ interracial musical magic developed, Clark became godfather to a scene that began originally in East Austin with Charlie’s Playhouse, a black blues-and-soul showcase club where greats like Albert King, Freddie King, Albet Collins and T-Bone Walker played. Clark was in the house band. White college kids would show up, as did young, curious white musicians who later became the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. “We all played with each other—that was the beginning of the movement,” Clark says, laughing. “Their mamas and daddies thought they were in the bed and they were jumping out their windows, coming to the east side to Charlie’s to listen to the blues.”

Some of those curious players return on From Austin to pay old debts to Clark. Kazanoff marvels at one golden moment in the studio. “The band just started playing this ballad, ‘How Long Is a Heartache Supposed to Last?’” he says. “And W.C. came into the cutting room in the studio and started singing it right at the right time. It was amazing. We knew right then and there we could do anything.”