A music maverick from Texas, Delbert McClinton defines Americana. He spans blues, country, rhythm and blues, and rock ’n’ roll. In 2017, McClinton realized a longtime ambition with the release of his jazz standards–inspired album, Prick of the Litter. Last year, too, the harmonica-playing singer-songwriter saw the publication his biography, Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few.
Despite a career in which highs were often muted by lows, McClinton stayed his course. He released hits. He won Grammys. Major artists, including Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride, Vince Gill, the Blues Brothers and Wynonna Judd, cut the songs he wrote.
“Most of my songs are just little short stories defining a moment in time,” McClinton said in advance of his May 5 return to Jazz Fest.
During his childhood in Lubbock and Forth Worth, McClinton played “Red River Valley” and other folk songs on cheap harmonicas. In 1957, everything changed when he heard Jimmy Reed’s harmonica-drenched “Honest I Do” on a car radio. “I lost all control,” McClinton remembered. “I had to do that.”
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, McClinton soaked up all he could from the blues and rhythm and blues stars his band backed up in Fort Worth roadhouses. The acts included Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Parker, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. “I asked questions and made notes,” he said. “I learned the stylish things that I turned into my own.”
In Texas at the time, racial segregation was still the law of land. During a Bobby “Blue” Bland show at the Skyliner Ballroom, McClinton’s band was the only white group in the place. “I was in the middle of all that,” he said. “I watched segregation change from the backstage side of the music scene. Music always defines the country. I can’t think of a time when music wasn’t the thing that brought everybody together.”
During the early ’60s, Fort Worth record producer Major Bill Smith made McClinton his go-to guy for gathering session musicians. Smith always assumed the so-called talent he brought to the studio had star potential. “Some of the people he bought in there, it was ludicrous,” McClinton said. “He was always loud and red-faced. He’d say, ‘It’s gonna be a smash!’”
Smith did produce some hits: Paul & Paula’s “Hey Paula,” J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby.”
The harmonica melodies McClinton played for “Hey! Baby” helped make it a number two hit in the United States and United Kingdom. In 1962, the song landed Channel a British tour. The singer insisted that McClinton come along and play harmonica. Their opening acts included the not-yet-famous Beatles.
“The Beatles opened a couple of shows,” McClinton said. “And John [Lennon] came out to other shows that we played. He took me out one night when we were off in London. We had a quasi-friendship going because he wanted to learn harmonica. But you can’t show anybody anything on a harmonica. You can kind of tell them what you’re doing. I’ve always said, ‘You fool around with it, you’ll figure it out.’”
After the British tour, McClinton worked with the Rondells in Texas and the duo Delbert & Glen in Los Angeles. He worked solo, too. In 1978, Emmylou Harris’ recording of McClinton’s song, “Two More Bottles of Wine,” hit number one on the country charts. Also that year, the Blues Brothers recorded his “‘B’ Movie Boxcar Blues” for their Briefcase Full of Blues album.
In 1980, McClinton finally released a hit of his own. A crossover success, “Givin’ It Up for Your Love” went pop and country. But bad luck with record companies continuously stalled McClinton’s momentum. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, for instance, which released “Givin’ It Up for Your Love,” ceased operations after it issued his second MSS album. “Three record companies folded while I had a song in the Billboard Hot 100,” McClinton said. “That happened from the ’70s to the late ’90s.”
Not giving up, McClinton moved to Nashville. His 1989 album, Live from Austin, received a Grammy nomination. His 1991 duet with old friend Bonnie Raitt, “Good Man, Good Woman,” won a Grammy. A hit country duet with Tanya Tucker, “Tell Me About It,” followed in 1993. Thing were looking better than ever when his guest star–filled 1997 album, One of the Fortunate Few, sold 250,000 copies. But misfortune struck again when Rising Tide, the label that released Fortunate Few, went out of business.
“I went to Rising Tide Records,” McClinton said. “People were crying. That was a pretty traumatic thing. And that’s when I said, ‘Screw ’em. I’m gonna make a record on my own and get a better deal.’ And I did that and I won a Grammy with it [Nothing Personal]. I’m a survivor. I know how to do it. And I never in my life ever thought about quitting doing what I’m doing.”
DELBERT MCCLINTON & SELF-MADE MEN: SATURDAY, MAY 5—BLUES TENT, 5:45 P.M.