The sound coming from the dressing room at the Los Angeles Forum that night in 1986 was instantly recognizable to Fort Worth guitarist Chris Clifton –– and he wasn’t happy to hear it. It was the sound of his prized black 1960 Fender Stratocaster guitar and practice amp, left in the dressing room while he played onstage with Cowtown blues-rocker Mason Ruffner. After the set, Clifton gritted his teeth for a fight.
“Nobody was supposed to be in our dressing room, period,” he said. “I was pissed. I don’t let many people play that guitar.”
Anger quickly gave way to amazement after Clifton burst through the door. Guitar wizards Jeff Beck and Brian Setzer were trading licks.
“I said, ‘Not a problem,’ ” Clifton recalled, laughing. “ ‘Don’t let me bother you!’ ”
Clifton, 60, can rattle off hundreds of stories about life on the road. He’s been touring for 30 years and playing lead guitar for such luminaries as Ruffner and James Taylor. During his years with Ruffner in the 1980s, Clifton toured with The Firm, Crosby Stills & Nash, U2, and The Beach Boys.
“We toured eight months out of the year,” Clifton said. “I feel more comfortable doing that than sitting on my ass somewhere. I get antsy and crabby.”
Clifton might be getting antsy before long. Most recently a resident of North Carolina, he moved back to Fort Worth recently to care for his ailing mother, and he’s decided to stay.
“I’ve been wanting to come back to Fort Worth for the past 15 years, but I’ve been out there playing,” he said. “I’ve been away too long.”
“I want to hang around and relax,” he said. “I want to get into a [studio] session scene if there is one. I love it here. I love the town, the feel of being here. It’s what I needed more than anything. I always said I’d never be buried on the East Coast. They’re going to throw my dust in the wind in Texas.”
Things weren’t so easygoing back in the early 1970s when a young and drug-fueled Clifton was tearing up Cowtown. He was still a teenager attending Carter Riverside High School when he first started playing at The Cellar, the notorious after-hours club. He dropped out of school in 1970 and devoted his time to music. Juke joint hero Delbert McClinton discovered the lanky kid jamming at Tootsie’s on White Settlement Road. Soon after, Clifton was on the road.
“We had a band called The Stray Dogs, and Delbert pretty much just hired that whole band,” Clifton recalled. “We toured around with him, playing most of the Southern shows he did. He was fun to be around. He didn’t treat us like hired hands. He was part of the group, hanging out with us. I probably learned more playing with Delbert than I learned from anybody as far as what my role would be as a hired player.”
The rules for hired guns are simple: “Do your job, keep your mouth shut, show up on time, don’t stink, and know what you’re supposed to play, and they’ll pay you at the end of the week –– most of the time,” Clifton said.
Clifton had the rules down pat by the time he hooked up with fellow Fort Worth native Ruffner in the mid-1980s. He played guitar on Ruffner’s self-titled debut album in 1985 and rocked on top of the World Trade Center towers in 1987 while filming an MTV video for Ruffner’s “Dancin’ on Top of the World.”
“Chris is a great guitarist, and I learned a lot from him,” Ruffner said, recalling their years together on the road. “He was always professional and reliable and always left it on the stage.”
Clifton has spent the last few years playing the North Carolina area as a member of Public Domain, The Tailgators, and the Chris Clifton Band, which also appears frequently at clubs in Key West, Fla. His group recorded a live album, 2008’s The Red Sessions, at the Hog’s Breath Saloon in Key West.
Friends will celebrate Clifton’s return home on Friday at the Keys with a performance by The Rhythmators.
The Rhythmators w/Chris Clifton
7:30pm Fri at Keys Lounge, 5677 Westcreek Dr, FW.
$5 (includes barbecue dinner and live music).