Gary Clark Jr. and His Blues Guitar Visit the Wonder-Full Seventies

The Texas bluesman talks about working with Stevie Wonder and George Clinton on his new album, JPEG RAW.

Music Features Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark Jr. and His Blues Guitar Visit the Wonder-Full Seventies

The first album from Gary Clark Jr. in five years, last month’s JPEG RAW, features guest appearances from Stevie Wonder and George Clinton. They sound perfectly at home, because Clark’s entire record is soaked in the sound of 1970s progressive-soul—that brief era when Black pop was bristling with psychedelic guitars and synthesizers, with protest commentary and sci-fi storytelling, all anchored by a funk beat as rubbery as it was fat. Clark wasn’t born until 1984, but nonetheless he grew up on this sonically dense music, because his parents constantly played the records by Clinton’s P-Funk family, by Wonder and his Motown comrades such as Marvin Gaye and Norman Whitfield, and by masterminds such as Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix.

“I grew up on that music,” Clark says over the phone from his Austin home. “All my parents ever played were Stevie Wonder records, P-Funk records, the O’Jays. That’s the soundtrack to my life. When I see my Pops walking through the room, the Shaft soundtrack pops into my mind. Those sounds are what I hear as I go through life. When I became a teenager, that’s when Nirvana and Snoop Dogg came in, but I’ve always had hints of that earlier music. I’m just pushing that stuff upfront now, highlighting the bright lights.”

Clark first emerged as an adolescent guitar prodigy in the early 2000s, and the blues scene in his hometown of Austin gave him a chance to show how cleanly he could play the trickiest, most syncopated passages. Soon, he was following in the footsteps of local blues heroes such as Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan and W.C. Clark (no relation). Gary was even cast as a young, itinerant bluesman from 1950s Alabama in the 2007 John Sayles movie, Honeydripper, alongside Danny Glover, Charles Dutton and Mary Steenbergen.

But when Gary Clark Jr. signed with Warner Bros. and released 2012’s Blak and Blu, his first big-budget album after four small-label releases, it was clear he owed as much to Wonder and Clinton as to the Vaughan Brothers. The progressive-soul element in his music kept growing till it overtook the blues-rock and forced us to reconsider what kind of artist Clark really was. “You don’t want to fight the hand that feeds you, but I didn’t get interested in music as a blues guy,” he says. “I got into it because I saw my sister getting trophies for music. I went to the Austin Symphony on field trips as a kid, and my first concert was Michael Jackson’s Bad Tour. I heard my parents’ records. All that was there before I got into the blues.”

“The blues are always going to be expressed in my music,” Clark continues. “I’m always going to stomp on a fuzz box and hit a pentatonic run. But it’s an evolution. It’s not all the guitar front man and the power blues that we love. Imagine Little Stevie Wonder still doing that harmonica thing many years later. We would never have heard ‘Living in the City.’”

Clark made his reputation as a guitar slinger, but a first listen to JPEG RAW finds little in the way of guitar heroics. A second listen reveals that his guitar is all over the place, but it has been so drenched in studio effects (buzzing, bleeping, roaring, shooting off into space) that it often sounds like another electronic keyboard in an oceanic layering of such sounds. It’s only Clark’s propulsive phrasing on the fretboard that reveals which strands in the mix originate from his primary instrument—and that instrument is swimming in a sea of exotic sounds. “I like to hear a lot of ear candy on a record,” he adds, “whether it’s Pink Floyd or Outkast, Prince or P-Funk. My new album still has the basics, but they’re colored with surprises—strings, effects, even a trumpet. I used all these colors because I was trying to express the urgency of this time, the feeling of tragedy and triumph, to enhance the emotion. If I took a sound out, and I stopped nodding my head or stopped tapping the foot, I knew it had to stay in.”

That thickened gumbo of musical flavors was a trademark of progressive soul, whether it was Wonder playing every instrument himself in his months-long, obsessive studio sessions or Clinton enlisting a “funk army” of guitarists, keyboardists, horn players, percussionists and singers to document the sounds inside their heads. They needed so many sounds to encompass all the contradictory events and forces of the time. As Charles Dickens might have said, it was the best of times and the worst of times. It was a time of citizens dying in traffic stops and in wars overseas, a time of sexual freedom and sexual restriction, a time of greater equality in some arenas and even less in others, a time of creativity unleashed and creativity boxed-in, a time of presidents breaking laws and demonstrations in the streets. It was the 1970s, but it could have been the 2020s.

Clark had first worked with Wonder on the latter’s pandemic single, “Where Did Out Love Go?” a Top-25 R&B hit in 2020. That June—in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery—Clark released a nearly-10-minute video on Instagram where he poured out his anger, fear and frustration at being a target himself in a situation that never seems to change. He got a lot of feedback for it, much of it positive, but it was the message from Wonder that meant the most. “Stevie called,” Clark remembers, “and said, ‘I saw your video on the internet, and I can hear you. I’m going to send you a song called “What About the Children?’’’ He sent me this riff with the chorus, and he mumbled through the lyrics on the verses. He called back and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re in the studio right now.’ We were working on something else, but when Stevie Wonder calls, you drop everything and work on that.”

Clark and his studio buddies (drummer J.J. Johnson, keyboardist Jon Deas, bassist Alex Peterson and co-producer Jacob Sciba) fleshed out Wonder’s initial sketch. A fuzzed-out rock ‘n’ funk riff anchors the tune, and Clark plays a cleaner blues-guitar line above the crunchy rhythm guitar. Clark and Sciba packed up the tracks and flew to Wonder’s studio in L.A. “We spent two days there,” Clark recalls, “and one day was him just singing his ass off. He did a take and asked how it sounded. We said, ‘That’s great.’ He said, ‘Don’t just tell me it’s good; we’ve got to get this right.’ So we worked with him on take after take. After we thought we were done, Jacob got on the talkback and said, ‘How about playing some clavinet on this?’ It was such a great experience; I don’t know if I slept that night.”

The urgency of the music reinforces the lyric, which Wonder sings in a warbling tenor that manages to be idealistic enough to still be shocked by what’s happening in our cities. “What about that good girl,” he asks, “working on the street, giving up that good-good, so her babies can eat.” He sounds shocked by the circumstances but even more shocked by the indifference of “heartless people like you.” It’s a skillful political song that moves from specific storytelling to broader questions. Even on tracks where Wonder didn’t participate as a writer or performer, his influence could be felt throughout Clark’s new album. The propulsive opener “Maktub,” for example, echoes Wonder’s “Higher Ground” in its twitchy, buzzing riff and melodic hook. The lyrics, too, reflect Wonder’s call for all of us to struggle through the violence and reed to reach a higher spiritual elevation, much as Curtis Mayfield had exhorted the poor to “Move on Up.” Clark’s version asks everyone listening to “move in the same direction” toward “a new revolution.” Clark updates the model with loops and a bit of rapping.

Although Wonder was primarily a keyboardist, the progressive-soul movement of the ‘70s brought the guitar from the background of R&B radio—where it had resided for most of the ‘60s—to the foreground again. Not only was the six-string instrument playing lead lines and solos once more, but it was doing so with an expanded menu of electronic textures—trading in the railroad sound of traditional blues for the spaceship sound of psychedelic rock. The man who wrote this menu was Jimi Hendrix, the greatest blues guitarist of his generation. Hendrix had never had much luck on R&B radio before he died in 1970, but many of his disciples brought his gospel of interplanetary guitar into those airwaves. Prominent among those plugged-in apostles were Sly’s brother Freddie Stone, Motown’s Joe Messina and Dennis Coffey, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Al McKay, James Brown’s Jimmy Nolen, War’s Howard Scott and the Isley Brothers’ Ernie Isley—briefly a Hendrix bandmate.

But many of the best axe-slingers worked for George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic empire and its ever-multiplying bands. These guitarists included Eddie Hazel, Michael Hampton, DeWayne McKnight, Glen Goins, Garry Shider, and Bootsy’s brother Catfish Collins. In the studio, but even more so during P-Funk’s long, sprawling live shows, some subset of this group would mix Hendrix-like riffs, solos and sounds into the heavy dance beat and satirical lyrics of Clinton’s songs. And the results had a tremendous impact on subsequent generations of guitarists—from Prince Rogers Nelson to Gary Clark Jr.

Of all the bridges that link Clark’s generation to the glory days of Clinton, Wonder and their ‘70s peers, the tallest and broadest conduit is Prince. From the spelling of his major-label debut, Blak and Blu, to the sleek futurism of the new song “Hyperwave” (which does, in fact, sound like new-wave rock on funk steroids), Clark takes his musical cues from the Purple One. “Prince is definitely one who showed me how to do it,” Clark told me in 2015. “He found his own lane in the highway. He created his own sound, his own style, so he’s someone I look up to, I grew up with Prince in my house. The first song that really grabbed me as a kid was ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ which was all over the radio at that time; you couldn’t get away from it. But really I love his whole catalog.”

But Clark was drawing not only from his sisters’ record collection but also from his parents’ shelves. Prominent on the latter was Clinton’s savvy mix of sci-fi comic books, James Brown bottom and Hendrix guitar. “My drummer JJ came up with this killer riff,” Clark remembers, “and we developed it into the song ‘Funk Witch U’ for this album. When we listened back to it, we all said, ‘We’ve got to have the Godfather of Funk on this.’ It took a while to track George down, but when we did, he agreed, and we flew out to California. He said, ‘What do you want me to do on it?’ I said, ‘Just do George Clinton.’”

That’s just what he did. Over Clark’s throbbing slow jam, Clinton’s fluid baritone—part street corner huckster, part intergalactic prophet—dropped lines like, “When you want the truth, we come funk witch you with something simple yet profound.” It sounds like classic P-Funk, right down to the tidal synths once played by Clinton’s longtime sidekick Bernie Worrell and now played by Clark’s John Deas. “I’d always wanted somebody who could be my Bernie Worrell,” Clark says. “I love those futuristic sounds from P-Funk and West Coast hip-hop. This was the first time my new band had all been in the room together making sounds. It wasn’t like, ‘This is what I’ve come up with’; it was ‘Let’s cook up this musical bowl of gumbo together.’”

On RAW JPEG, Clark and his bandmates had time to experiment with layers piled upon layers, because they were all stuck at home during the pandemic. The result was an album not designed to bolster the live show but for maximizing all the possibilities of the modern recording studio. You can hear this in the techno-pop treatment of a sample from jazz pianist Thelonious Monk’s “Hackensack” on the title track. You can hear it on the Valerie June guest vocal atop a sample from Chicago bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’.” You can hear it most obviously on the nine-minute extravaganza “Habits” that closes the album. It begins with a soulful lament about “habits I just can’t break.” That morphs into a rave-up rock ‘n’ roll march, then a jazzy plea of “Come back, my love,” which builds into a gospel choir of harmonies married to an anthemic rock-guitar solo, before subsiding into wistful reverie. It’s as impressive for its emotional weight as for its formal ambition.

“I thought all those little movements in ‘Habits’ were separate songs,” Clark reveals, “but one day I put them all together. It goes with my dream of writing music in movements, with time-changes that catch you off-guard. As for the lyrics, I was scared to put, ‘habits I can’t break’ and ‘come back, my lover,’ together, because it would make too much sense. I was making something beautiful out of a not-so-great situation. The song’s not just about me; it’s about anyone who can use it even if they don’t know it.”

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