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

<!– Narciso Martinez –>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


Live photo by Clayton Shorkey/Texas Music Museum


<!– Dave McEnery –>“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 and by once putting up a musician named John Coltrane for two months after the band Coltrane was touring with broke up and left him stranded. “You should have heard us running around the house blowing ‘How High the Moon,’” he recalls. “Even my mama was humming along.” Scott’s ticket out of town was an offer to barnstorm with Lionel Hampton’s band, which took him to New York, where he heard and was influenced by people like Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt. But in spite of his distinctive jazz upbringing, his moment in the moonlight came as the featured honker with a rhythm and blues unit headed by Bill Doggett, with whom he co-wrote “Honky Tonk,” the 1956 rock instrumental hit, which has sold more than 10 million copies. “Bill Butler had this guitar signature he kept fooling around with, and I just put some dressing on the potato salad,” Scott says matter-of-factly. His “Honky Tonk” lead was the prime reason that Garth Hudson, from the rock group The Band, sought out and asked Scott to tour with him several years ago. And while Scott will oblige any audience with a rendition of the song that made him famous, he’s just as likely to delve into acoustic jazz, tore-down blues, or even dabble in gospel or Dixieland back home in San Antonio. “I love all kinds of music. I even love the way my dog barks,” Scott says, giggling. “He barks in B flat.”

Lydia Mendoza—La Alondra de la Frontera

<!– Lydia Mendoza –>Widely acknowledged as the most important woman in the history of Mexican American music, Mendoza started recording in 1928, playing mandolin with her parents when they performed as El Cuarteto Carta Blanca. She has since made several hundred records, including her greatest hit, the 58-year-old “Mal Hombre,” in which the Lark of the Border passionately castigates a no-good man for scorning his lover. A women’s liberation anthem composed long before women’s liberation existed, the song has always been her most requested tune. “I’m never bored or tired of it,” she has said. <!– –>But Mendoza has been much more than a put-down artist, interpreting tangos and paso dobles with as much skill and feeling as she did traditional boleros. She showcased those talents in the thirties and forties on the border-blaster radio stations in Mexico that were heard all across North and Central America. More recently, Mendoza has starred in the Les Blank documentary Chulas Fronteras (Beautiful Borders”), been enshrined in the Tejano conjunto and Texas Women’s halls of fame, and been the subject of a play, La Gloria de Tejas, which premiered in November at the Guadalupe Cultural Art Center in San Antonio. Those kinds of achievements put Mendoza in a category without peers. “I don’t know what it is, but when I sing a song, I’m really in the song,” Mendoza has said. “When I’m singing a song with a lot of sentiment, I don’t know why, but my soul feels that song.”

Cliff Bruner—The Texas Wanderer


Photo by Clayton Shorkey/Texas Music Museum


<!– Cliff Bruner –>Bob Wills may be more famous, but among the musicians who invented and popularized western swing, Cliff Bruner is considered the best fiddler of them all. “We lived way out in the country near Tomball, and I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I’d improvise my music,” Bruner recalls. “I’d catch freight trains and seek my fortune with my fiddle.” A job offer in Fort Worth to play with Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, generally acknowledged as the finest of all western swing bands, was his ticket to the big time. After Brown died following a car wreck on the Jacksboro Highway in 1936, Bruner relocated to Port Arthur and started his own group, Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers (which later evolved into Cliff Bruner’s Show Boys). The band starred on its own radio programs, which aired though out southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana, and worked the region’s dance halls. Bruner’s popularity was fueled by a string of 78 rpm hits for Decca—”It Makes No Difference Now,” Bruner’s best-seller, written by Floyd Tillman; “Truck Driver’s Blues,” recognized as the first record about trucking; and his plucky theme song, “Jessie Polka.” Bruner later played in bands sponsored by Texas governor Jimmie Davis, the author of “You Are My Sunshine.” Three years ago, he became one of the first musicians to be inducted into the Texas Swing Hall of Fame. “Music paid me real well,” the Houstonian says. “It was better than picking cotton for a penny a pound.”

Lavelle White—Miss Lavelle

<!– Lavelle White –>If Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, and O. V. Wright epitomized soulful torch singing on the recordings they made for Don Robey’s Duke and Peacock labels out of Houston in the early sixties, so did Lavelle White. A skilled composer and passionately seductive vocalist, Miss Lavelle can take a single set of lyrics and improvise on them for an hour. The six singles White recorded for Robey beginning in 1958, including the rhythm and blues hit “Stop These Teardrops,” led to bookings on package shows with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Brook Benton, B. B. King, Ray Charles, and Albert King on the black “chitlin circuit” across the South. After spending much of the past two decades working clubs in Southside Chicago and New Orleans, she returned to Texas in 1987, where a new generation of white female blues artists, including Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli, and Sarah Brown, have embraced her as their mentor and role model. “I never did become a big star,” says the Houston songstress. “I never got that big break. But in so many ways, I’d rather have had a continuous career. I’ve seen a lot of people get successful too quick and burn out, get the big head, or let drugs and alcohol kill them.” Her latest project is recording an album for Antone’s Records. She recently appeared in a four-hour documentary on Texas music produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation. “That video is the high point of my career,” says the spunky Miss Lavelle. “It’s going to put me over.”

The Texas Music Museum is a non-profit corporation that was founded in 1984 as a Texas Sesquicentennial project to develop support for the establishment of a Texas Music Museum and Performance Center in Austin. TMM promotes and preserves Texas music by presenting two or three major exhibits a year in Austin, often with musical performances. The museum conducts research, collects photograph, artifacts, and documents relating to all aspects of Texas music and provides traveling exhibits to other museums, schools, libraries, history centers, and other public facilities throughout the state. The Texas Music Museum is endorsed by all three major state music organizations: the Texas Music Association, the Texas Music Educators Association, and the Texas Music Teachers Association (for further information call Chester Rosson, 512-320-6967.)