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Home in Music City for a rare, brief respite from the road, Delbert McClinton seemed anything but relaxed. Once our attempt at having a telephone conversation--interrupted a near-dozen times by barking dogs, call-waiting beeps and ghostly, third-party voices--was consummated sans interference by switching to a private phone line, there were the yard-maintenance guys to pay.
"Jeez, man," drawls the veteran R&B-rockabilly singer and songwriter apologetically, "I'm sorry about all this, but let me pay the sons o' bi. . . ." There's a pause while the Texas native hands bills to the hedge trimmers and tries to hush his complaining pooch. Another telephone rings in the background.
"Man," he says, half-breathless upon return, "these phones have been doin' nothin' but ringing for several months now." He takes a deep breath.
"Great, isn't it?"
Ma Bell's gain is due in large part to McClinton's recent garnering of the Best Rock Vocal Duo (with Bonnie Raitt) for "Good Man, Good Woman." The song appears on Raitt's Luck of the Draw and now on McClinton's newest Curb Records album, Never Been Rocked Enough--the other reason for the hyperactive telephones. Never Been Rocked Enough marks the finest work McClinton has offered since his premiäre solo work, 1975's rockabluesy Victim of Life's Circumstances on now-defunct ABC Records. Though his Grammy with red-hot Raitt may have sparked this newest round of ringing phones, McClinton observes that the musical winds had been blowing favorably for some time.
"This is just adding to something that was already happening," he points out, clearly contented. Of course, McClinton notes, this excitement follows an almost-decadelong withdrawal into a black hole of woes that threatened a dissonant end to his musical career--or worse. "It's been a wild ride," he offers, only half-chuckling.
"I was foolin' around with the guitar and harmonica--this was in 52, 53--and listening to the Platters, the Penguins, the Drifters," McClinton says. "I was young, impressionable and it was nothin' I'd ever heard before." Despite his growing affection for those early precursors of soul, McClinton always saved room on his musical plate for old Lone Star favorites, especially Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell.
While he maintains that he can't recall when he first started singing, or precisely when he took up the guitar and mouth harp, McClinton was but 17 when he debuted professionally at the Big "V" Jamboree, a popular hoe-down at the old Village Theater in the Liberator Village area of Fort Worth. It was 1957. He remembers this event as much for the state of the venue than as a personal milestone.
"The front of the theatre was burned out, so we all had to enter through the rear," he laughs. "You can't do that sort of thing anymore, of course. I played harmonica and sang 'Crazy Arms' Jerry Lee Lewis-style." Scarcely 20, McClinton formed the Straightjackets, weaving his country, early rock and R&B tastes together to form a unique sound that landed his group a job as the house band at Jack's Palace, a famed blues joint in Fort Worth. There he shared the spotlight with such legends as Big Joe Turner and Howlin' Wolf. In 1960, using the moniker "Mac Clinton," he recorded and released a version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Wake Up Baby," on Le Cam Records. Not long after "Wake Up Baby," the Straightjackets had a brush with the big time, turning out a few sides for United Artists that never managed to find their way to the record bins. The Straightjackets crumbled soon afterward.
Two years later, McClinton played harmonica on Bruce Channel's "Hey, Baby!," which became a worldwide hit. It was during the European tour with Channel that same year that the patchwork quilt of McClinton's musical styles would receive some new threads.
"We were going all around Europe, especially England, and local bands would open for us," McClinton recalls. "The first night in Brighton, this girl who'd been following Bruce all around the continent--I guess you could say she was a groupie type--came up to our hotel room. She insisted that we go downstairs to listen to the band that was opening for us. Well, we'd been at this for more than a month, and we'd lost interest in that kind of thing. But she wouldn't leave us be. She said that they had just gotten back from Hamburg."
So McClinton, Channel and company repaired to the hotel's ballroom and listened to a band called the Beatles.
"You know, they weren't famous or anything then, but let me tell you this: They were fucking great."
In fact, to the 23-year-old American ("the same age as John," Delbert notes), the whole music scene in England seemed zany.
"Here I am," laughs McClinton, "it's 1962, a squeaky-clean-looking Texas boy--man, it was so foreign to me. I was used to good-ol'-boy Texas beer-joint types, but there was all this long hair, and everybody was smoking dope. I mean, I saw a little of that stuff in the States, but over there, everybody was smoking dope. It was amazing. Hell, all I knew about England before goin' over there was World War II, Robin Hood and Jack the Ripper.