LOS ANGELES, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- If Delbert McClinton isn't already a music legend, he's working on it -- mostly, he says, by being a survivor who "just won't go away."
Hardcore McClinton fans may wonder why superstardom has eluded him but the Lubbock, Texas, native can tell you a hard luck tale about hard knocks in the record business and a series of personal choices that have held him back. Despite the setbacks, many casual listeners still have a vague awareness of McClinton as the guy who taught John Lennon to play the harmonica.
Actually, as McClinton often reminds interviewers, he just showed Lennon a few licks.
Forty years after recording his memorable harp solo on Bruce Channel's Top 40 hit "Hey! Baby," McClinton seems at peace with the path he has traveled and happy with the music he is making.
"The first thing I'll say is that I'm a survivor," said McClinton. "I just won't go away."
His persistence paid off last year with his first Grammy, when "Nothing Personal" won for best blues recording. His new CD, "Room to Breathe," is getting excellent reviews -- and McClinton can't say he is surprised.
"The first sessions, we went in for three days ... and after it we just looked at each other and laughed," said McClinton. "We got nine songs in three days."
It was a different experience from long-ago sessions that were spoiled by excessive substance abuse.
"I don't do drugs anymore, but I used to," said McClinton. "Every time I'd go in the studio we'd be so out of it that we couldn't get anything done."
McClinton credits his wife, Wendy, with turning things around for him.
"I think I started getting it together in 1988, well maybe a little before that, when my second marriage broke up and Wendy came into my life," he said. "She is truly an angel. She picked me up and dusted me off and said you can do this.
"I was always one of those guys ... all you want to do is make music and you'll sign anything. I signed away publishing rights. She took hold of that and got it all going in a straight line."
McClinton's luck with record labels has also changed.
For a while in the '70s and '80s it seemed as though every label he signed with soon went out of business. It happened again three years ago, just as "One of the Fortune Few" on Universal's Rising Tide label was becoming one of McClinton's best-selling albums.
"Four months after the release," he said, "Universal made one phone call to Nashville and said stop everything there is no more Rising Tide."
McClinton long ago learned to accept the ups and downs, but he's paid a heavy price for the downs.
"That's a lot of years in the prime time of an artist for everything to go south on you," he said.
With the success of "Nothing Personal" and his enduring popularity as a touring artist, McClinton did get some major label interest for his new CD, but decided to go it alone.
"It was the same old B.S.," he said, "we'll take it all and you'll get nothing."
Instead, McClinton has devised a business model that does not depend on a deal with a major label.
"I'm not a megastar," he said. "If I can sell 100,000 copies, I can make some money. Any record I make from here on out, I'm going to own it."
New West Records is distributing "Room to Breath." McClinton said New West President Cameron Strang shares his philosophy about the way a label should treat an artist.
"He sees no reason why the artist has to be shut out of the profits," said McClinton. "These big labels, if you're selling mega-millions, then they love you. If you don't sell that many records you are so expendable it's unbelievable.
"This has been the story with artists forever. It's got to change and it is changing. (The era of) big record companies is coming to an end. There's too many avenues for an artist to take more control of his products."
Now in his 60s, McClinton wasn't sure how to answer when asked if he has a sense of his place in American pop music history.
"I don't know, you can't be around this long without having a place," he said. "I don't know what that place is. I don't know how to define it. But I'm very comfortable with it. You start out at anything and you've got all these dreams, and until you have enough time put in to look back, you don't notice that you've left dreams leaning up against walls in cheap hotels, or under beds or on highways. Then you realize that some of those dreams were not meant to be, or some were not very important. But the one dream that I've always had -- I've dragged it over, up, around and through a lot of crap, but it's always sustained me and it's always got he home. Shoot man that's a win that's a big win."
McClinton freely admits his dream was always to be a star.
"From the time I started ... I could see myself as a star," he said. "Of course that's what everybody thinks when they start out. I've had a most unusual career, but that doesn't mean it's been bad or good. It's been a hell of a lot of both.
"The best thing is I've got to do what I want my whole life and get better at it."