To the untrained eye, they are old-timers, hardly distinguishable from other senior citizens in the autumn of their lives. But to any pair of ears that have heard them over the decades, they are all trailblazers, seven masters of Texas’ greatest art form, music—the one cultural asset whose sources of inspiration are homegrown. Even before radio, television, film, and records blessed these living legends with transitory fame, the musicians were providing the glue that bonded friends, lovers, families, and communities at country dance halls, dimly lit city nightclubs, and any social function that called for some foot-stomping, hand-clapping celebration. In spite of brushes with stardom, none is a household name. And yet, long after the spotlight dimmed, their love for music has remained strong. At one time, the prospect of making money may have been their motivation, but these days it is the pure joy of making music that drives them to entertain a crowd. They may have lost a step or two to advancing years, yet each of these musicians delivers the goods in that hallmark Texan manner, which emphasizes passion over technique. It is impossible not to tap one’s toes and wiggle one’s hips in response to these timeless treasures.
Milt Larkin—Big Foot Swing
Milt Larkin learned the nuances of music making at the old Harlem Grill in Houston and by touring the nation as a player in several big swing bands. But he didn’t realize his calling until he was booked for a two-week engagement at Joe Louis’ Rhumbogie Club in Chicago that extended into a nine-month gig. There, he saw the best and brightest black entertainers perform and first put his own name in front of an ensemble. The Milton Larkin Orchestra, ambitiously billed as the “Greatest Band of All Time,” quickly evolved into a top territory band, famous for its “big foot swing,” a style that, he says, “keeps people moving because it’s all beats and sounds.” What made Larkin’s beats and sounds impressive were the musicians who played them—recognized Houston jazz giants like Arnett Cobb, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Wild Bill Davis, and Illinois Jacquet. “Most all of the bands would rob me and steal my men,” Larkin complains. “They called me a starmaker.” After World War II service, he spent the fifties and sixties conducting orchestras that backed the vocal group the Dominoes and blues guitar master B. B. King, among others, and leading house bands at venues such as the Celebrity Club in New York. Since returning to Houston in 1977, Larkin has tirelessly supported education, inspiring the creation of the Milt Larkin Jazz Society, which assists younger musicians. He occasionally performs for shut-ins as part of the Get Involved Now program. Larkin says, “I just feel proud to have helped.”
Narciso Martinez—El Huracán del Valle
The first person to make an accordion record as well as being one of the fathers of traditional conjunto music, Narciso Martinez claims he was merely being practical when he picked up his chosen instrument back in 1925 while working on a cotton farm. “Those were hard times, and that was a way of making a little money to get by,” says the Hurricane of the Valley. “So I borrowed an accordion. It was much easier to play then the piano.” Since the South Texas audiences he played for included Italians, Bohemians, and Germans in addition to Mexicans, he became as adept at playing redowas, waltzes, schottisches, and mazurkas as he was at polkas. “The different people all danced alike then,” he observes. His versatility was recognized by Bluebird Records, which released numerous titles under his own name and also marketed Martinez to other ethnic groups under pseudonyms such as Louisiana Pete. The La Paloma resident has seen plenty of changes through the years. “Before 1947, women weren’t charged admission to dances,” he says. “Now they’re working and earning money as well as men, so they pay at the door, too.” Martinez has been recognized with a National Heritage Award, a Grammy nomination, and invitations to numerous folk festivals, and in October the city of San Benito dedicated the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center. At 80, though, he is nowhere near ready to hang up his squeeze-box. He is currently promoting a new album recorded for the R y N label.
Dave McEnery—Red River Dave
“I was born within rifle shot of the Alamo,” says Red River Dave of the geographic quirk that instilled in him a love for cowboy songs and entertaining. By the age of eighteen, he could sing, play guitar, compose, and perform rope tricks well enough to wrangle his own live radio program in San Antonio in 1932. Six years later, McEnery became America’s singing cowboy thanks to a daily broadcast on WOR in New York carried by more than two hundred stations across America.
A true ballad writer and singer in the tradition of the Mexican corrido, he had written thousands of topical songs, including “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” written while he was cooking up a cowboy stew two days after Earhart’s disappearance in 1937. The song has been covered by at least thirty other artists. The image of him performing a the 1939 World’s Fair inside a little box at the RCA pavilion earned him distinction as the world’s first country music singer on television. After spending several years in Southern California, where he was a fixture at Knott’s Berry Farm, McEnery returned to his hometown, where he continues to write, records, and perform. Recent songs include “The Soldier’s Letter,” which is about Operation Desert Storm (“My timing wasn’t too good,” McEnery admits, “since it was released the same day the war ended”), and a ballad about Pee-wee Herman (the song’s message: “Get yourself a wife”). “I’ve had a lot of good breaks,” Red River Dave says humbly. “I’ve led a happy life.”
Clifford Scott—Honky Tonk
Clifford Scott picked up the basics of the tenor saxophone by hanging out at Don Albert’s Keyhole Club on the East Side of San Antonio