Austin, Texas has been a nurturing place for blues music for decades – long before Stevie Ray, or even the Armadillo World Headquarters, there were T.D. Bell & the Cadillacs, Erbie Bowser, and Dr. Hepcat. Guitarist/vocalist W. C. Clark has been there through each of these eras – not just as a witness, but as an integral performer shaping the scene that elevated Austin to the music capital of the world. "It's hard to describe where it came from, but when I was born, it was already here," Clark recalled in a recent telephone interview. "It was never listened to at home, but the blues was all around me – out in the fields, where they was drinkin' and playin'. I learned most of it through my cousin, Big Pete Pearson."
But at home, other influences left their mark. "I was raised in a Baptist neighborhood - St. John's – and many of the homes were owned by the church association. Gospel music was everywhere." Those two influences are still the core of Clark's music – blues songs and instrumentation, blended with gospel vocal talent often compared to Al Green or O.V. Wright. But an equally important element is Clark's experience from decades of performances – much of it as a bass player. "I switched from guitar to bass early in my professional life – when I first formed a band," he said. Clark's earliest gigs came as a member of T.D. Bell's Cadillacs, the dominant blues band in the region during the 1950s and 1960s. Clark also joined Blues Boy Hubbard for a six-year stint at Charlie's Playhouse. "But the scene was changing in Austin – shifting away from the east side to the west side. So I went on the road with Joe Tex."
Clark never recorded with Tex, who charted with several soul hits in the mid-1960s. But as part of the band, Clark learned to keep up with the energetic Tex. "We were in Detroit at a bowling alley – and there was this one girl that was following us, messin' with a couple different guys in the band. All of a sudden, Joe yells, ‘I Gotcha!' and started coming up with the song right there – saying, ‘the bass line should go like this, and the drums should do this.'" Tex also had another technique of teaching songs, Clark remembered. "He'd put $5 in the jukebox and play a song over and over until we memorized it."
Returning to Austin, Clark's first brief gig was as bass guitarist for a band called Storm, featuring a young Jimmie Vaughan. "There was a different movement starting – the beginning of the scene here now," he said. "All of the players – Jimmie, Derek O'Brien, Denny Freeman, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli – were starting to play at the same time." In the early ‘70s, Clark, Freeman, and Strehli teamed to form Southern Feeling, one of the earliest interracial blues bands. "We were one of the boldest bands out there – working as a mixed couple out there," Clark said. "It was my idea to do a Sonny & Cher-style show, with Angela out front where she could be seen. She has the personality – men love that."
A young guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan occasionally sat in with Southern Feeling, and when that group split, Vaughan, Clark, Mike Kindred, Lou Ann Barton, and Freddie Pharoah united as the Triple Threat Revue. "At that time, Stevie wasn't sure what he wanted. So we had three band leaders – we wanted to get Stevie more experience. It was in this band that Clark and Kindred co-wrote "Cold Shot," later recorded by Vaughan. "Eventually, Stevie went off to form Double Trouble, and I formed the W.C. Clark Blues Revue. Asked if he tires of continuous questions about Vaughan, Clark indicated other sentiments. "I don't get tired of the questions, because Stevie did so much for Austin, and for Texas – he opened so many doors for other musicians," he said. "I feel an obligation – someone has to be there to tell the story. It's really a pleasure – I know his brother, his mother, and the whole family – I'm like part of their extended family."
After one self-produced recording, Clark's Revue released two stellar albums for Black Top: Heart of Gold and Texas Soul. But in the spring of 1997, the tour van was in a serious accident. Two were killed – the group's drummer, and Clark's fiancee. "When something like that happens, you can't really put a finger on trying to figure it out," he reflected. "It happens too fast. I have to remind myself that those things happen – and I try to be honest when all those little hurts come up. I just try to face things and figure a way to cope without losing my mind. It's made me more sensitive, and more strong – I've learned some things. But for people who believe – like I do – I was protected. Where I was in the van was the only part not damaged. I was thrown out – into the water, and it brought me to right away."
For those who might believe Clark was spared for a "mission," he views one of his roles as a blues mentor. "When I went back to the guitar, I heard the comment, ‘people need to hear you play.' I didn't understand it at the time, but now I do – it's that my style of playing comes from a place where things haven't been changed. That's the sound young people need to hear. The young players coming up – that's the future. They'll have an audience with them that's their age for many years. We are responsible for the music – they have to listen."
Clark also has observations on changes in the Austin music scene. "The positives are that musicians can make a better living now – and they can even pay managers and agents commission. We have people to play to. The negatives are that club owners are changing – and the clubs change – because the city has rents too high. Owners change fast – we can't keep a place to play once we build an audience, because the place closes. Then we have to start all over again." He also feels that the city's blues cycle is currently at a low point. "Austin needs more blues. Both Kim (Wilson) and Angela have moved to California, and others like Freddie Pharoah have passed on. There are plenty of people moving in – musicians, too – but that group is filled with apprentices and beginners. We need mentors."
Clark is looking forward to another new venture – working for a new label. Black Top operations are being folded into Alligator, giving Clark a new team with more players. "I've always wanted to be on his (Bruce Iglauer's) label. We're looking at going into the studio next March or so." That should give him time to break in a new group of players in the Revue. "They're young, energetic, and happy. That's good – they can learn all these things. Barbara Jordan once said, ‘you can't do the work of tomorrow with today's skills.' I say, ‘you can't play the blues of today without the blues of yesterday.'"