Long before Austin filled up with Strat-toting, blues-picking white boys with tiny beards under their lower lips, there was an African-American blues scene in the Texas capital. Since Austin's black population has always been smaller than those of Houston or Dallas, its scene never had the magnitude of its larger in-state rivals. Still, it packed a punch. Central Texas was an early hotbed of black country fiddling, and later, piano men like Roosevelt "Grey Ghost" Williams, Robert Shaw and Lavada Durst came to prominence.
In the late '40s, Dallas's T-Bone Walker had the same effect in Austin that he had everywhere else: He made everyone want to go out and play guitar. One so inspired was T.D. Bell, who in 1955 met a teenage bass player named Wesley Curley Clark at the still-in-business Victory Grill on Austin's east side. Actually "bass" is a bit of a misnomer, for Clark actually played a regular guitar with three of the strings removed. Bell told Clark to ditch the improvised bass and rewire his box with the full complement of strings, which he did for many years, with one notable exception.
That came in the 1970s, after Clark had spent close to two decades as a headliner on Austin's east side and touring in Joe Tex's band. Many African-Americans were losing interest in the blues and classic soul, but luckily for Clark, just as many white hippies were discovering the music. After a stint in Southern Feeling with a young Angela Strehli and guitarist Denny Freeman, Clark, who was working a day job as a mechanic, ran into a fresh-faced white guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan persuaded Clark to go back to the bass, they enlisted young chanteuse Lou Ann Barton, and the Triple Threat Revue was born. With keyboard player Mike Kindred, Clark penned what became an SRV staple -- the slow-burning shuffle "Cold Shot" -- ensuring him a lifetime of income.
After the Triple Threat's breakup, Clark's fame was slower to escape Planet Austin than that of his bandmates. A 1990 Austin City Limits tribute helped land him a deal with Black Top, for whom he cut three albums. Texas Soul scooped up a Handy Award for Best Soul/Blues Album in 1997 and won Clark the 1999 Handy for Artist Most Deserving of Wider Recognition. In 2000, after Black Top's demise, Clark signed with premier blues label Alligator.
At the same time, Clark's life was put to tests as stern as the rewards were sweet. The same year he won his first Handy, Clark lost control of his tour van near Dallas on the way home from a Midwest tour. His drummer and his fiancée were killed in the crash. Three years later, Clark was diagnosed with prostate cancer. "It wasn't always easy, but I knew it was the right thing to do to continue playing my music," Clark recently told Austin journalist Michael Point. "I felt I owed it to everybody I knew. The only time I really felt at peace was when I was onstage."
Or in the studio, as this year's From Austin with Soul attests. Clark's stinging guitar and Al Green-like pipes are as fine as ever, as is his smooth shifting between broiling Texas shuffles, simmering Memphis soul stew and bubbling Big Easy R&B. But then they don't call Clark the Godfather of Austin Blues because he's an easy man to keep down.
Get the Music Newsletter