DELBERT McCLINTON KEEPS IT REAL
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Delbert McClinton’s formative years were spent as a member of The Straitjackets, the house band at a blues/rhythm and blues club on the outskirts of Ft. Worth, Texas. He was schooled by various legendary musicians who rolled through town. His band was good enough to back the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Playing harmonica on Bruce Channel’s 1962 hit single “Hey! Baby” lead to a concert tour of England.
Delbert released the first album under his own name in 1975, entitled Victim Of Life’s Circumstances. He several excellent records after that, including 1980’s The Jealous Kind (featuring the above-mentioned “Giving It Up For Your Love”). In 1989 Delbert received a Grammy nomination in the “Contemporary Blues” category for his album Live From Austin. In 1992 he won his first Grammy for a duet with Bonnie Raitt on the song “Good Man/Good Woman” from her hit album Luck of The Draw. That same year, another top ten hit followed for Delbert with “Every Time I Roll The Dice” from Never Been Rocked Enough.
Over the last decade Delbert’s songs have been featured on albums by Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Wynonna, Lee Roy Parnell, Martina McBride and many more. In 2001 he released his first record for New West, entitled Nothing Personal, and won a Grammy for it. 2002 saw the release of Room To Breathe which received yet another Grammy nomination. His new record is called Cost of Living, and it's one of his best yet.
GRITZ spoke with Delbert -who lives in Nashville these days, enjoying family life, writing and recording as well as keeping up a steady touring schedule- by phone from his songwriting sabbatical in Mexico.
Where were you born, and who were some of the early musical influences that motivated you?
I was born in Lubock, Texas, November 4, 1940. My first musical influences were of course Bob Wills and Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizell, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Charles Brown – I’m sure I’m leavin’ a couple hundred out.
Was playing on Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” your first big break?
Well that’s the first time I played on anything that got any kind of national exposure. So yeah.
Here’s one that you’ve never heard before. How did you…(Delbert starts laughing) How did you come to meet John Lennon, and teach him the harmonica? It’s turned into a real urban legend. (Laughing)
(Laughing) Yeah, by now it’s grown into a greatly romanticized story, which is fine, ya know. I mostly just leave it alone. But the truth of it is, when Bruce Channel got booked to tour the British Isles for six weeks on the success of “Hey Baby,” the promoter said they wanted the harmonica, so I got to go along. The Beatles were the opening act on a couple of the shows we did, and they also came and hung out on the nights when they weren’t playing with us. So truthfully, I was around those guys no more than six or seven hours all together. But I do remember John asking me if I played a chromatic harmonica on the record, and I said no. I showed him what I did. He was already playing harmonica some. Somewhere along the line he mentioned to somebody that his influence on the harmonica was “Hey Baby” and yada yada… now it’s chiseled in stone that I taught him everything he knew. (Laughs) You know what I mean?
(Laughing) Well, these things have a way of growing..
Well, especially anything with The Beatles. Of course people made it out like I taught Lennon to play, which is not true. I gave him some tips, and we hung out and enjoyed each others company and laughed a lot. But no way did I teach him to play. But it’s still a good story. I’ve even heard that it was me that played on “Love Me Do.”
Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. (Delbert laughs)
Tell me a little about when you moved from Texas to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s, and how you hooked up with Glen Clarke.
Glen and I had been playing together in Texas, and he just went out there a couple of months before I did. I went out there and we got a deal at Paramount Studios in Hollywood to do an album on spec. You know, so we went in and did it and when we went in there and worked on it this guy that was starting up a label called Clean Records a part of Atlantic, he came by and heard what we were doing and signed us up. We made two records there and Glen decided to stay in California and I decided to go back to Nashville and see if I could get something going.
What was the name of the label again?
Clean Records the label was a hand holding a bar of soap. (Laughs) I think the first Hall and Oates record was on there. Then is went belly up shortly after our second record.
What was your first big record after you went solo?
Oh, everyday is a break. (Laughs) I have been on the outskirts and edges and on the low part of the fame thing for a lot of years. I don’t know when the first break came, I am still waiting on it. My career has been absolutely wonderful in the sense that I have been able to do and get better at it.
As a songwriter and having your songs covered by everybody from Emmyou Harris to the Blues Brothers, what has been the biggest kick for you?
Well, Vince Gill, before he became Vince Gill, recorded a song called "Victim Of Life Circumstances." He is such a talented guy and he really rocked it hard. That didn’t amount to anything and it was years after that that he became Vince Gill. But you know there have been some people that did my songs and they were awful. Maybe three of my songs have been recorded to my satisfaction or that I thought was well done. I don’t want to start naming names.
I was reading about the Grammy in 1991 for that duet with Bonnie Raitt. How did that come to be?
Well, she has been a longtime friend of mine and it was not like we didn’t know each other. We had talked about doing a record together. Then when she had her Luck of The Draw record that did it for her she called me up one day and said that she had found a great duet song and wanted to know if I wanted to do it. I flew out to LA and we did it and won a Grammy on it.
In the past couple of years I have had the good fortune to meet some friends down in Muscle Shoals and Decatur and Alabama...
I was just down there doing a benefit for a songwriter down there in Muscle Shoals. It was unreal. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Russell Smith and Donnie Fritz, and Billy Swan and I can’t remember who all was there.
Do you know John Wyker?
Of course, I know him. (Laughs) He is the most famous guy that is elusive.
He has recorded on my past two albums and he has that Mighty Field of Vision Internet Radio station. He is a wacky guy. I only spent a short period of time around him when we did "Baby Ruth." I wondered what he was up to today.
He is living on the internet, in Bamalama Land. I mentioned earlier Bonnie and Bekka Bramlett since you have worked with both of them.
They are without a doubt the blackest sounding white women I have ever heard in my life. They are in a class all by themselves.
One thing that has gotten my interest in the past couple of years are these cruises that you do, tell us about that?
Well, I started doing that about 12 years ago. I started doing it two years before mine and I did a cruise that was all blues music. I love blues music but being on a cruise ship for a week with mediocre blues bands, like to drove me out of my mind. Blues is something that has to be special or it is just a weak copy of the past. I just got to thinking that I had to do a better job than this. I talked to a friend of mine and we became partners and leased a ship. This didn’t come cheap. We had to eat it for a couple of years. Then it started p aying back some and it started paying for itself and paying stuff off. At this point it has taken on a life of it’s own and has been sold out for about 4 months.
Don’t you like Paul Thorn?
He is the best. We had a good time with him and the crowd loved him.
I wanted to get your opinion on labels. Not record labels but where they try to label an artist as either country or rock, do you have any thoughts on that? How people want you to be one thing or another.
I have always looked at it like there is music you like and don’t like. Corporate record companies had to put these things into categories. For example when I won that Grammy three years ago, it was for contemporary blues. These people will put you into a category and you could stay there for the rest of your life. I kept them perpetually in a tither because they didn’t know what to do with it.
On your new album, and I love it, rocks out on "Dead Wrong" and then going into a Spanish guitar thing called "Down In Mexico." Can you share your thoughts on the album? It really is great.
Thanks Michael. I think it is good and we compiled so many of these songs and each one is very different from the other one. I like to sing whatever I feel like singing regardless of what anyone calls it or thinks of it. I have always had no problem doing a country or blues song or rocker or whatever. It has always been a natural for me.
What is on the front burner now besides what you are doing for the cruise?
We are working this record now to make something happen. I am down here in Mexico writing a bunch of new songs and me and three songwriter friends are down here drinking some tequila and making some stuff up.
Sounds like a hard life.
Somebody’s got to do it.