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.
By the late '70s, McClinton's songs were being turned into hits by country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris and covered by everyone else from the Blues Brothers to Junior Wells.
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.
New Times: Let's talk about the music of your youth growing up in Lubbock and Fort Worth.
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?"
NT: Tell me about your first band.
DM: I ended up playing beer joints before I was old enough, starting around 17 years old. Had my first band in 1957 -- first electric guitar was a Les Paul Custom. Heaviest damn thing in the world -- I bet it weighed 45 pounds. I traded it for a Martin acoustic. Wish I still had 'em both. These days I mostly play harp onstage, but if I play guitar it's a Fender Tele or a Gibson 335.
NT: What led you to the harp?
DM: Jimmy Reed. I got to work with Jimmy Reed a lot back in the late '50s, early '60s.
NT: There's a famous story about Jimmy Reed upchucking on you . . .
DM: On my microphone. Yeah, I told somebody that now it's gotten to be a regular tale. He drank a lot of gin every night and I had this Shure microphone -- one of those big broadcast mikes, big old thing -- and I'd had it in layaway for God knows how long; I didn't have any money. And Jimmy Reed was comin' in that weekend and me and my band was gonna back him up, so I scraped together all the money I could and I went and got that mike out of layaway, and on the second show that night he was drunk, so drunk he had to sit down. And in the middle of a song, there he went. I mean he didn't blow chunks all over it, but . . .
NT: One chunk is plenty.
DM: Yeah, I know. It just shot out of his mouth, hit that mike and splattered -- up, down and sideways. And I thought, "Oh no!" But I cleaned it up and used it three, four years after that. At the time I didn't think there'd be much legend to it.
NT: I can see where it might have made you cautious about sharing harmonicas.
DM: (laughs) Yeah.
NT: You were anointed, though.
DM: Yeah, I did get anointed. But nobody sounded like him -- I still listen to him regularly. There's the one record where he's talking during a recording and he starts out in the wrong key and it just sounds like a fuckin' car crash: (goes into perfect Reed imitation) "Hold it hold it wait a minute I'm sorry I'm in the wrong key" (laughs).
NT: Your new record, Nothing Personal, is a perfect mix of country, blues, rock 'n' roll. There's even a Jimmy Reed-style tune on there.
DM: Of course I say this about every record I make, but this is the best record I ever made. I think this one beats the last one (1997's One of the Fortunate Few) all to hell. I'll tell you why: I financed this record myself. And by doing so, I had a luxury that I've never had before; you know every other time I went in to make a record for a record company they'd say, "Okay, you got five days in the studio to get it done," which leaves you no room to try anything different or experiment -- you gotta get at least two songs a day. Which is not that difficult to do, but I did this record in about 10 and a half months. I took my time, I recorded it in two different sessions, four months apart, and had time to live with it, and one song, "Livin' It Down," we recut three different times before we got it right. Tried it three different ways, and then I went in with my band and we did it in one take. The more of it you get in one take, you get the spontaneity. If you work on it and beat on it and wear it out, people quit being spontaneous, they start trying to just get it covered. Spontaneity is like that intangible truth that you hear it and you go, "God! Listen to that! They're about to go off the edge!" but they don't -- they're just banging it out. And that's what the fun is in it, you know. If you can capture that, that's the kind of thing that puts smiles on people's faces.
The other thing that I'm really fortunate is I don't have to depend on radio. I've got a fan base out there that'll take a bullet for me.
NT: And having the setup you do, it makes playing live very simple.
DM: The epitome of what really answered it for me was I was doin' a concert one time and there was this great big sound man. He must've weighed 400 pounds and had a black tee shirt on and it said "Loud Is Beautiful." And I said, "Yeah, well, okay. I'm fucked." 'Cause being loud is not what makes music sound big. A lot of people mistake big for loud, and it's not. Big is doin' it altogether right, and makin' it big.
NT: And music that comes from the gut has its own built-in authority.
DM: Yeah! The difference between the telling of a story and the retelling of a story. That's what I always thought music was, is having the authority to be convincing -- to get it across to where people not only hear it, but feel it.
Fortunately I don't worry about that shit anymore. I'm doing what I want to do and I'm doing it as close to my way as I can do it.
NT: That makes you one of the fortunate few.
DM: That's right -- it certainly does. But I've been out there doin' it for so long, and the people are there for me, and it's a wonderful feeling.
NT: I would guess, particularly in a career that goes back as far as yours, that there have been a lot of knocks.
DM: Well, you know, there is. You can't live this long without getting a lot of knocks. At least half of the knocks are the ones you bring on yourself.
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NT: At least half.
DM: At least -- I was trying to be gentle. It's amazing that I didn't do myself in. Finally, an angel came along in the form of my wife, Wendy, she came along and picked me up when I was -- when my career was in the toilet. My second marriage had gone south, the IRS had hit me for a tax shelter that had got disallowed, and I was doing all that shit I shouldn't have been doing -- and she came along, the most wonderful, smart person I had ever met, anywhere. And she kind of picked me up and dusted me off and said, "You can do this." And she got me all back together. I don't know what in the world would have happened -- well, I do know what would have happened to me if she hadn't-a come along: I'd be a no-good son of a bitch -- if I was still alive. I'd be that guy everybody'd go, "Oh shit, look out -- here he comes -- let's get out of here." I didn't get it down as far as I could, but I was in a jet going down. It's good to find somebody that gently points out how you can go around what you're doing, and make you like it.
NT: You sound a lot younger than you are.
DM: I am a lot younger than I am (laughs). Having a young daughter and my wife, that's certainly part of it, and not having to play the game and depend on radio helps. Doing what I like and having people like it -- you know, I don't have the world by the tail, but I can see the tail, and that's enough.