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Almost three decades ago, Delbert McClinton showed John Lennon the harmonica licks for the No. 1 Beatles hit "Love Me Do." McClinton was in England to play harp for an obscure figure named Bruce Channel, and the way he tells it in a recent phone interview, the meeting seemed anything but historical at the time.
"Every night, guys from the other bands would come up and ask for harmonica licks, and one night, probably in April of '62, the Beatles opened up for us, and I showed John some stuff, and that's about all there is to it."
But in the context of McClinton's up-and-down career, the anecdote illustrates two significant points. First, it shows his long and close association with the history of rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues. (His early bands played with the likes of Howlin' Wolf, and he's even scored a Top Ten single called "Giving It Up for Your Love.") But perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates how McClinton is the only example you'll ever need to prove how fickle the record industry is.
When asked if he still frets about next month's bills, his answer is a wry "every fuckin' day." McClinton, fifty, hadn't released an album for almost a decade before last year. True, McClinton hasn't felt it necessary to radically revamp his signature rock-R&B-country "Western Motown" sound, but the record industry has still shunned it or embraced it seemingly on a whim.
McClinton believes his popularity is cyclical, and from the way he describes his current financial situation, you'd think he was in the middle of a recession. The truth is, McClinton just got done with the bottom part of the curve and is now in a decidedly upward swing. In fact, you could say he's a working stiff who just won the lottery but hasn't seen the first check yet.
Live From Austin, McClinton's only live album, released last year on Alligator Records, gained him his first Grammy nomination, in this year's Best Contemporary Blues Recording category.
It was an album that almost didn't get made. "I met [Alligator Records strongman] Bruce Iglauer when I did some stuff on Roy Buchanan's Alligator record in 1986, and he told me then that he sure would like to put out a record," he says. "I sure like what those guys are doing out there, getting out music that you otherwise wouldn't get to hear . . . but I wanted to hold out for a bigger label with better distribution. Then we did Austin City Limits, and it came off real well, and I called Bruce up and said, `I think we can make a record out of this.' It was just one night, live, and I sent them up the tapes, and they did it."
McClinton finally got his major-label wish recently with MCA/Curb Records, and even better, he says, "I went for years without writing a word, and I'm writing again now, which means a whole lot to me. The new single is called `I'm With You.' I think it's the best I've ever done. You'll just have to hear it. But I'm real pleased."
The last time McClinton fared so well was about a decade ago.
Working with a gravelly blues shout and horn-based R&B arrangements as down-to-earth as chicken-fried steak, McClinton released a couple of now-classic collector's pieces. Second Wind and Keeper of the Flame, showcasing McClinton's country-R&B-rock "Western Motown" sound, appeared in 1978 and 1979. And if Capricorn Records hadn't been in financial straits when he recorded them, there's no telling how high his star might have risen on the crest of the Seventies' progressive-country movement.
"Every record company I worked for went under while I was with them. Every fuckin' one . . . " the Texan drawls, as if he still can't believe it. "I've heard that there are people out there getting a pretty good price for some of the records now, and that's about the only way to find them, through collectors, because the companies sure aren't around anymore."
Even if he wasn't getting famous, McClinton was rapidly becoming one of the hippest "musician's musicians" and bandleaders on the progressive-country scene. His self-penned "Two More Bottles of Wine" went to No. 1 on the country singles chart for Emmylou Harris, and his "B Movie Boxcar Blues," a down-and-dirty, road-dog travelogue that would have sent Tipper Gore scurrying for the warning labels, was covered by the Blues Brothers Aykroyd and Belushi. Then there was pop success with "Giving It Up for Your Love." McClinton even remained a popular attraction on the nightclub circuit, but the record companies remained oblivious.
"Nobody ever knew how to market me," McClinton muses.
Now Curb/MCA thinks McClinton's future is at least as important as his past, but he's still had to take some of the record industry's hardest punches over the years. That McClinton continues to hunker down in the musical niche he's made for himself is a sign that he still insists on playing the record industry game on his own terms--for better and for worse.
Delbert McClinton will perform at Rockers on Tuesday, March 6. Show time is 8 p.m.
"Every record company I worked for went under while I was with them. Every one . . . " the Texan drawls, as if he still can't believe it.