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Delbert McClinton talks like he sings, like the songs he writes and the songs that inspired him, in simple declarative phrases that sound like children's verse, but which rumble in the back of the mind like a passing train. "My stayin' up all night days are long gone," he drawls at one point, and it sounds like it could be his next great lyric.
Over the course of a five-decade career, it's been that innate musicality which has helped this Texas roots avatar find success as a sideman, writer, singer and performer.
His signature harp work on Bruce Channel's 1962 hit "Hey Baby" landed him on tour in Europe with the Beatles, where he taught a young John Lennon how to play harmonica. Throughout the rest of the '60s, McClinton worked steadily both behind the scenes and up front -- a spot he claimed with the Rondells, who scored a hit with "If You Really Want Me To, I'll Go." McClinton found the charts again in the '70s with Glen Clark as the duo Delbert & Glen.
Despite duet success with artists such as Tanya Tucker and Bonnie Raitt (with whom he shared a Grammy for 1992's "Good Man, Good Woman"), McClinton's own career ebbed and flowed in the '80s and '90s as he bounced from label to label (Mercury, Capitol, MCA, Alligator, Curb). Despite his journeyman recording career, his fan base remains dedicated; McClinton's albums still sell in the hundreds of thousands, far more than the average "cult" artist.
These days, life finds McClinton at his happiest. He's just released Nothing Personal for the Texas-based New West label. A triumphant comeback effort, the record is a back-to-basics affair that finds the gravel-throated singer doing what he does best, mixing a variety of styles with an unmatched ease. Nothing Personal also finds McClinton in the writer's seat, having penned the majority of the album's tunes, including "Birmingham Tonight," a countrified duet with Rosie Flores.
Mostly, though, in talking to the 61-year-old musician, you sense how grateful he is for his audience, the enduring support of his family, and the favorable response to his new record, which makes sense, since it may very well be his best ever.
Delbert McClinton: I was born in Lubbock in 1940, moved to Fort Worth in '51. I was always musical, I guess -- there was always Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams and Nat King Cole -- my dad was a big Bob Wills fan. In fact, when I was a kid, there was a big dance hall outside of Lubbock called the Cotton Club. And Bob Wills would play out there pretty regular and I can remember goin' out there with my parents, and they'd be in there dancing and all the kids'd be out there playing in the dirt parking lot, next to a cotton field. Imagine something like that happening today. It was a gentler time, I guess.
NT:Were you exposed to much in the way of blues back then?
DM: I had an aunt that had what they called "race" records -- Charles Brown -- and I heard all that stuff on the radio when I got to Fort Worth. Lubbock, west Texas, was pop. We didn't hear any blues artists there.
The music I loved to listen to the best was when you'd be creepin' around the radio dial looking for a station, and you could hear it, but you'd hear three or four stations along with it -- it'd fade in and out and it was like listening to God's own radio.
In fact I had a crystal set when I was a kid -- I traded a World War II German dagger for it -- dumbest thing I ever did in my life, but I did it. And I thought that crystal set was absolutely fuckin' magic. So I'd go to bed at night and get under the covers and I'd dot around on that thing and I'd pick up something from far off and I'd think it was just for me. Border radio -- man, that was it! Most of the time you didn't know where it was coming from, or if you did, it was a lifetime away from where you were.
I was about 14 years old at the birth of rock 'n' roll. Besides the Bob Wills and the other things, I just soaked up everything -- the Sun Records stuff, doo-wop, East Coast, West Coast -- everything.
NT: The perfect age at the perfect time. What's your earliest memory of rock 'n' roll?
DM: My first important exposure to rock 'n' roll music, I remember going to a midnight show, which back then was a big deal, and it was a midnight show of Blackboard Jungle, that started out with Bill Haley playing "Rock Around the Clock," and I remember everybody just goin' nuts! Man! Including me. It was something nobody had ever heard before. I remember hearing that and thinking, "My God! What is this?"