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.
Although he was born in Lubbock, Delbert McClinton grew up in Fort Worth, where his railroad-switchman father and beautician mother indulged young Delbert's musical inclinations.
"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.
"Even then, though," McClinton continues, clearly enjoying this favorite remembrance, "that music hadn't quite exploded. In fact, I saw more Elvis imitators then than I ever have here. But in a six-week period of time, I was exposed to so much that it didn't all sink in right away. You know--this band, the Beatles, were great, but nothing really indicated that anything big was gonna happen."
When the British Invasion struck the colonies a year or so later, the import still didn't "register" with McClinton. Yet while Bruce Channel and Delbert McClinton may not have immediately understood the Beatles' musical messages, the Liverpudlians had fully embraced the Yanks. In fact, a quick listen to McClinton's harp work on "Hey, Baby!" and the famous harmonica break on the Fab Four's "Love Me Do" will reveal in which direction the early influences broke.
"It was a time," McClinton concludes happily.
Back stateside, McClinton formed the Rondels, reaching the charts with his "If You Really Want Me to I'll Go," which subsequently was covered by Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm. Later, McClinton and fellow Texan Gene Clark teamed up to produce a pair of long-forgotten albums on Atlantic subsidiary Clean Records. McClinton continued songwriting and performing, turning into a solo act in the early Seventies. A long period of label hopping--though not by his choice, McClinton says--followed.
His celebrated, if not particularly great-selling, 1975 solo debut, Victim of Life's Circumstances, was followed by Genuine Cowhide (1976) and Love Rustler (1977), all on ABC Records. In keeping with his album-a-year trend, McClinton moved to Capricorn Records the next year and released Second Wind and, in 1979, Keeper of the Flame. McClinton finally got a Top 10 hit of his own in 1980. "Giving It Up for Your Love," from his The Jealous Kind on Capitol Records, gained McClinton a modicum of national recognition.
Many of those in the business, however, already knew all about McClinton's work. Emmylou Harris had negotiated the top of the chart with McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine" in 1978, and his "B Movie Boxcar Blues" made it onto longtime admirers Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's The Blues Brothers LP. Other veteran McClinton followers include the Allman Brothers, Jimmy Buffett and Elvis Costello.
After 1981's Plain From the Heart on Capitol, however, things began to fall apart. Virtually the entire Reagan era found McClinton sinking low and sinking fast.
"Man," McClinton sighs, his drawl sad and slow, "life was really bad, really bad. I was turning 40, which didn't thrill me too much, my second marriage was going to hell, and the IRS was all over my case. I had a big, ugly lawsuit going on against the Austin accounting firm that caused the IRS problems, and I was losin' it, mentally and physically."
McClinton quit writing and recording during most of this period.
"I was just touring," he recalls. "I wasn't entertaining no career thoughts or anything like that. I was just going down, down, down." He allows a wry laugh. "You know," he says, "every single label I was on through 81 fell apart when I was with them. Every goddamned one. Man, it's hard to sell many albums that way."
He credits his companion, Wendy Goldstein, for, as he says in his dedication on Never Been Rocked Enough, ". . .holding it all together in the hurricane we live in and for loving me."
"I met her in 1985, when I was just about at my lowest. By 1988 I was writing again, and she'd gotten most of the legal stuff taken care of." McClinton pauses to clear his throat.
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"I'm telling you, I don't honestly think I could have made it without her. I'm a lucky guy."
Never Been Rocked Enough seems a flat-out celebration of McClinton's return to songwriting and recording, as well as containing a Who's Who of celebrity assistance. Don Was (Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop) and Raitt produced four of the disc's 11 tracks, including the Grammy winner. The balance of the album was produced by McClinton and saxman and veteran producer Jim Horn. As the title suggests, Never Been Rocked Enough has a harder edge than previous McClinton discs, but the McClinton-penned "Cease and Desist" successfully introduces a Ray Charles-type jazz flavor to Delbert's already eclectic mix, and Bonnie Raitt's slide work, especially on "Good Man, Good Woman" and the fun and funky "Everytime I Roll the Dice," keeps a down-home feel to the work. Other notables participating on Never Been Rocked Enough include Paul Shaffer and his World's Most Dangerous Band, Melissa Etheridge, Valley legend Francine Reed, Tom Petty, Ivan Neville, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on the Hammond B3 organ and studio studs guitarist Waddy Waddell and drummer Kenny Aronoff.
McClinton knows that, at age 52, he's one fortunate son, wielding a hit record and returning healthy and happy from a long, tough haul. When he performs at Mr. Lucky's on June 22, he plans on taking out his happiness on the crowd. (He calls J. David Sloan's Grand Avenue landmark "exactly the kind of place I'd want to have were I to quit. There ain't nothin' stiff about it or J. David.") Although last year's stop at Mr. Lucky's was jammed to overflowing, and one of the top shows of the year, McClinton warns that the best is yet to come. He laughs.
"Just see if you get rocked enough."
FATAL DISTRACTION WHEN MASS DISASTER... v6-17-92