Give It Up for Delbert McClinton
The term Americana hadn’t been coined when Delbert McClinton started making music. His brand of music has always drawn from blues, hillbilly, country, and rock ‘n’ roll, all filtered through a Texas sensibility. McClinton came up in a music scene that gave rise to legends like Doug Sahm, and in his earliest days he backed some of the most important names in the development of American popular music (Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed, just to name three).
McClinton is often described as a musician’s musician, a songwriter’s songwriter. But those are just attempts at fancy ways of saying that he’s consistently earned respect and critical acclaim within the music community, while maintaining a lower profile on the commercial landscape of music.
Not that he hasn’t always wanted widespread success. It’s just that Delbert McClinton decided long ago that he’d do things his way, in his time, with his choice of musical associates. He’s been playing live and making records now for more than 50 years. Though the first album to come out under his name was released in 1972 (a country-soul duo with Glen Clark), McClinton got his first taste of the big time in 1962, playing harmonica on Bruce Channel’s smash hit single “Hey! Baby.”
McClinton continues to tour regularly in 2018. He recently wrapped the 24th of his annual Sandy Beaches music cruises; McClinton was among the earliest musicians to recognize – and capitalize upon – the allure of “floating festivals.” And a new book, Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few, was recently published by Texas A&M Press. Not exactly a memoir, One of the Fortunate Few also isn’t quite an official bio. As author Diana Finlay Hendricks explains, “I talked to Delbert and [his wife] Wendy, and said, ‘I’d like to do this, but I don’t want it to be an authorized biography. I want it to be unauthorized…but with your blessing.’”
McClinton cooperated fully with Hendricks on the book, sitting for numerous interviews and allowing her unfettered access to his archive of handwritten tour diaries. Readers seeking details about the recording sessions for McClinton’s nearly 30 albums won’t find much to satisfy their curiosity in the pages of One of the Fortunate Few. It’s just not that kind of book.
And while the tome does include a fair number of road stories, it’s not a tell-all filled with tales of wanton excess, smashed hotel rooms and groupies, either (though the book subtly puts across the notion that such things are definitely part of McClinton’s back story). At its heart, One of the Fortunate Few is the story of Delbert McClinton’s origins, his life, and his ongoing journey as a musician, songwriter and performer. Simply put, it’s about the man and his music.
One of the Fortunate Few is painstakingly end-noted, in the style of a scholarly work. But Hendricks’ highly readable style is decidedly non-scholarly; the book is a chronicle of McClinton’s life, written by a lifelong fan, and it draws extensively – almost too extensively at times – upon breathlessly praise-filled quotes from the singer-songwriter’s legion of fans, most of whom have earned fame and notoriety of their own.
One of the most intriguing points that Hendricks makes in her book is that Delbert McClinton’s musical sensibility was informed almost wholly by live music, as contrasted with (for example) Bob Dylan, who grew up in Minnesota, mostly listening to records. “It’s a world of difference, obviously,” McClinton agrees. “I was fortunate in that I got to perform with a lot of my heroes, people that – as far as I’m concerned – were the best. And I was quite fortunate, to be in a band that got to work with all those guys and learn from them first-hand.”
McClinton gained that first-hand experience with his band, The Straitjackets, at a time when America was still dealing with government-sanctioned racial segregation. “I realized that the way we were living was fucked up,” McClinton recalls. “A lot of the times, the guys we were backing up couldn’t even go to a restaurant with us.”
He recalls a childhood experience. “I remember being in a department store with my parents, seeing the two water fountains, one for whites and another for black people. And I wondered, even as a little bitty guy, ‘What the hell is that?’” Of course McClinton would live to see things change. “I got to know a bunch of people who had lived their lives under segregation and repression, and I got to listen to their music and learn from them,” he says with humble pride. “So I’m the luckiest guy you know.”
Along with backing blues legends who came through Fort Worth, Texas, McClinton and his band often got the opportunity to go on the road with the traveling stars. Their roadhouse blues would influence McClinton’s own nascent songwriting. He also absorbed the influence of other musical styles of the region, including Tejano, conjunto and Zydeco along with more widespread styles like soul and rhythm and blues. But he says that the music of the 1940s made the most lasting impression upon him. As a result of all those influences, McClinton’s style can’t easily be described as fitting neatly into one genre.
Author Hendricks characterizes McClinton’s life as embodying the American Dream. “Because,” she says, “truly the American dream is working really hard for something you believe in. And that’s exactly what Delbert has done with his entire 61-year career.”
One episode in McClinton’s storied career has been mythologized. And he says that in fact it has been blown completely out of proportion. In summer 1962 he was touring England with Bruce Channel’s band, riding high on the success of “Hey! Baby.” The opening band on the British tour was a Liverpool foursome who had signed mere days earlier with Parlophone Records. At this point, The Beatles featured guitarists John Lennon and George Harrison, Paul McCartney on bass guitar, and drummer Pete Best. As legend would have it, McClinton gave Lennon harmonica lessons.
As he tells Hendricks in the pages of One of the Fortunate Few, that legend overstates the reality of the situation. “I didn’t teach him,” he says in the book. “I showed him what I did. When to suck and when to blow. Nothing really more than that.”
Channel’s band and the Beatles were tour mates, and even though McClinton sensed great potential in the Liverpudlian quartet, he was anything but starstruck. “There was no shortage of people telling us how wonderful The Beatles were; they were already a really big deal in England and especially in Germany,” he says. “They were fantastic, but there was so much music we heard over there that was fantastic.” McClinton says that at that point, he and The Beatles “were on common ground. There wasn’t any reason to be worshiping someone we just met.”
Their paths diverged after that, of course. McClinton returned to the United States, where he formed a band called The Ron-Dels. That group would make it onto the charts (#93) once, in 1965, with “If You Really Want Me to I’ll Go.” The youthful-voiced McClinton sings lead on the straightforward, folk-rocking tune. By the 1970s he had followed the well-trodden singer-songwriter path to the Topanga Canyon region of southern California. After making two albums as Delbert & Glen, McClinton returned to Texas and began a solo career.
By the late 1970s, McClinton was finding some success in the form of others covering his songs: Emmylou Harris scored with his “Two More Bottles of Wine,” a #1 hit on the country charts in 1978. The Blues Brothers covered his “B Movie Boxcar Blues” on their first album. But it wasn’t until 1980 that McClinton had a nationwide hit of his own, “Givin’ It Up for Your Love.”
McClinton’s solo career has been littered with a series of unlucky breaks: no less than three of the labels for which he has recorded went belly-up shortly after releasing his albums. And he was “warehoused” for several years by Curb Records; the label run by notoriously unhip Mike Curb refused to release new music by McClinton, but wouldn’t let him off the label until his contract ran out.
Eventually McClinton wrested back control of his career, and went on to greater success. “Good Man, Good Woman,” his duet with Bonnie Raitt earned him his first Grammy award in 1991. Another duet – this time with Tanya Tucker – “Tell Me About It,” made the Top 10 on the country chart. He has appeared on the prestigious music showcase Austin City Limits no less than seven times. McClinton’s 2005 album Cost of Living won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Today, along with his annual Sandy Beaches cruise, McClinton still tours frequently. He’s currently on the road in support of his latest release, Prick of the Litter.
“I never thought about working for a living,” McClinton says. “Although I did.” One of the Fortunate Few recounts some of his unhappy – but amusing in retrospect – experiences as a working stiff. “Those jobs were nothing but a means to an end. I learned that you got to cover your own ass,” he says, “because nobody’s going to cover it for you.
“But music has been in my life since I was a little bitty guy,” McClinton explains. “I was always going around listening to the songs of the day. And I knew every word to all of ’em. It’s just who and what I am, I guess. It was always music for me. Always. And it still is.”
Photo by Todd Wolfson.