Delbert McClinton, bluesman on a roll

By JOHN SWENSON  |  Oct. 14, 2003 at 3:01 PM
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Delbert McClinton strutted onstage at B.B. King's Times Square music club and got a king's ovation from the packed-to-the-gills house. The legendary master of Texas roadhouse blues and rock has been turning out the good times for more than 40 years and he can still tear it up with the best of them, as his new album, "Live," demonstrates.

"As long as it's fun I guess it'll work," McClinton said with a wide grin after the show. "I never wanted to do anything else or thought about doing anything else. I have to tour a lot to keep paying the band, but it's worth it. I gotta do it, man, I gotta have the horns."

McClinton was born in 1940 in Lubbock, Texas, home to such legendary music figures as Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

"Comin' from out there you have to find something to do 'cause there ain't nothing there," he said. "It's just flat and it goes on forever. Buddy Holly? Sure I knew him, he was a Lubbock guy. I was young and it was cool to have a Lubbock guy doin' it. Buddy Holly was great, man. He was one of the guys that brought rock 'n' roll to us."

Though he grew up at the beginning of the rock 'n' roll era, McClinton identifies strongly with the blues.

"I consider myself a blues artist, as much as anybody else," he said. "Hell, all the real blues people are gone except for B.B. King and Bobby 'Blue' Bland. I got turned on to blues when I was really, really young. My mother's younger sister, when I was a kid she was I guess what you would call a bobby soxer, and she had all these Louis Jordan records on 78s back then. I listened to those and I loved 'em. They called it race music back then. I never heard any of it on the radio but I really did like it. A lot of my favorite music is blues. Hell, Hank Williams is about as much blues as you can get. It just don't get no more blues than that."

When he was 11, McClinton's parents moved to Fort Worth. That's where McClinton really learned to play blues when he joined up with the Straightjackets, the house band at a club on the outskirts of town.

"I played on shows where we were the only white band on the show," McClinton recalled. "Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Jr. Parker shared a band, I think it was Bobby's band. Wayne Bennet played guitar, we got to stay right by the edge of the stage there and watch. The place where we worked with him was the old Skyliner ball room, one of those old ballrooms where the top rolled back and you could dance under the stars. It had kind of gone to seed and it was just a big old beer joint by that time. But it was still a good place."

"We played a night there called Blue Monday. This was before integration and blacks had the club on Monday night. A lot of people played there -- Bobby Blue Bland, Jr. Parker, Jimmy Reed -- and we were the only white band. Musically, man, that's where I wanted to be. When we backed Jimmy Reed, or Sonny Boy, and Howlin' Wolf, a lot of times we'd play Friday and Saturday night in Fort Worth and then drive up Sunday night to Oklahoma with them and play black joints. We knew all their songs. Wolf was rough, man. I remember the first time we played with him, he just got out there and started singin', he calls to us, 'C'mon band, c'mon' and we're goin' 'What key is he in?' He was a wild man. He always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. Not directly necessarily against anybody, just everybody."

McClinton had his first fling at pop music success in the early 1960s when he played harmonica on "Hey Baby," a soulful hit by Bruce Chanel. The experience gave him a first-hand glimpse at another sea change in popular music, Beatlemania and the boom in British rock, and established one of his claims to fame, teaching a young John Lennon how to play harmonica.

"It takes a long time before you can look back and connect all the dots on that stuff," he said. "It's hard to see it right away. When Bruce Chanel and I were in England in 1962 and the Beatles opened a couple of shows for us I knew something was going on. Not just with them but just the whole scene over there that followed them into changing rock 'n' roll. When we were over there on every corner the newsstands had three or four music magazines -- this was before Rolling Stone. I mean all you could get here was Hit Parader and the most information you could get would be somebody's favorite color."

"And we were over there and people were walking around in the street with guitars on their backs -- I knew something was up. After having some time to reflect on it and look back I realize I got a glimpse of that before it broke out. But if you love and care about music you can look back and see how things come together and who did what."

McClinton kept touring, writing songs and playing with the duo Delbert and Glen, then releasing his first solo album, the critically acclaimed "Victim of Life's Circumstances," in 1975. Though McClinton became widely known for his songwriting and numerous appearances on "Saturday Night Live," every label he recorded for in the 1970s and 1980s went out of business. His nadir came when he was socked with an IRS bill for $280,000.

"At that point I was making $18,000 a year on the road," said McClinton. "They attached everything I owned, any way I had of making money."

A lot of people would have given up, but for McClinton retirement was not an option.

"I had to keep working," he laughed. "This is what I do."

At the end of the 1980s McClinton's fortunes changed when his album "Live From Austin" won a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album; then in 1991 he won the Grammy for a duet with Bonnie Raitt, "Good Man, Good Woman." Radio personality Don Imus pushed McClinton enthusiastically, support that McClinton notes had a visible impact on his career.

"Things started to get better after the Grammy," he noted. "Pretty much after every show I do someone comes up and tells me how big a fan they are and that they found out about me through Imus."

McClinton in on a roll, enjoying his nonstop touring schedule, his annual music cruise and a series of successful albums. He bagged another Grammy in 2001 for "Nothing Personal," and in 2002 "Room to Breathe" received a nomination. "Live" is another terrific set, but McClinton is already looking forward to his next step.

"I've been writing stuff all along," he said. "I'll probably go back in and record a new record in January or February. I've been on a roll for the last six, seven years."

At age 62, McClinton is in no mood to slow down.

"I'll keep doing this," he concluded, "until I can't do it anymore."

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