Back to the Beginning and Forward into the Future: An Interview with Delbert McClinton

Touring with the Beatles. Topping the charts with hits like "Giving It Up for Your Love". Now, Delbert McClinton looks back on his career and hints at what's to come.

Delbert McClinton was there in the very beginning.

"I have great memories of things," he muses. "I was there at the birth of rock 'n' roll, when all these incredible things were going on. I remember going to a midnight movie, which at that time was the most far out thing you could do in West Texas, because nothing happens after midnight that's good for young people, and the movie I saw was Rock Around the Clock. When that thing started, the place was just packed and everybody suddenly started screaming 'One two three o'clock, four o'clock rock' and it was magic! It was as magic as I could imagine, because it affected us all so deep. There was this music that was ours. And after that, so much happened at once. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, Little Richard, and on and on and on. Nothing like it has happened since."

McClinton has reason to reminisce. After all, he played a small but memorable role in the music's emergence in the late '50s and early '60s. His first bar band, The Straitjackets, backed up blues champions like Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins, venerable musicians from whom many a seminal British band would take its cue. He achieved regional success in his native Fort Worth, and then made an indelible imprint when he added his harmonica to Bruce Channel's hit "Hey! Baby" in 1962. The subsequent success of that single took Channel, with McClinton in tow, to England, where a nascent band named the Beatles supported a couple of their dates and a budding rock 'n' roller named John Lennon insisted McClinton teach him the finer points of playing a harp.

McClinton would pave his own path to success in the years and decades that followed that fateful encounter, first with a band called the Rondells (their 1965 single, "If You Really Want Me to I'll Go" became a regional hit), and later with his group Delbert and Glen, a duo he formed with fellow Texan Glen Clark. After the band split, McClinton went solo, scoring more hits as a songwriter ("Two More Bottles of Wine" for Emmylou Harris and "B Movie Boxcar Blues" for the Blues Brothers, among them) than he managed to accomplish on his own.

Nevertheless, he became a staple of modern blues, recording dozens of albums for different labels, scoring a top ten hit of his own (1980's "Givin' Up for Your Love"), and garnering a Grammy for his 1991 duet with Bonnie Raitt, "Good Man, Good Woman." He won another Grammy in 2006, this time for Best Contemporary Blues Album for The Cost of Living, one of the most critically acclaimed efforts of his career. Another pairing, this time with Tanya Tucker on the song "Tell Me About It", boosted him to the highest tiers of the country charts.

At age 75, McClinton continues to tour on a limited basis, while devoting much of his time to his Sandy Beaches Cruise, an excursion that laid the foundation for what's become a burgeoning industry, that of the ocean-going music festival. That's where PopMatters caught up with him this past January, following a night of freewheeling jam sessions that found him sitting in with his various musical friends.

* * *

Let's go back almost to the beginning. What are your recollections of being on tour with the Beatles back in 1962?

When "Hey! Baby" was number one in England in 1962 and Bruce got booked for a six week tour of the British Isles, the promoter said, well, we have to have a harp player because that's a big part of the song. So I got to go, and the Beatles were the opening act on some of the shows we did. There was always three or four bands kicking off the concerts. The shows would start like at three in the afternoon, but Bruce wouldn't get on until 11 at night. Every day somebody would show up in our dressing room with a harmonica and say show me what you're doing, because at that particular time, you have to put this into perspective, nobody was playing a harmonica except in blues music. It wasn't a popular instrument in rock 'n' roll. I think in a two week period I spent maybe 15 hours with Paul. He took me out in London, and we'd cruise around at night.

Being in London must have been quite a culture shock.

Hell, yeah! I was just this kid from Texas and I hadn't really been out of the state before. So he took me around and it was bizarre. And I loved it. I couldn't get enough. It was fun. We were all 21, 22 years old, and we were all going to change the world. There was no doubt in any of our minds. And of course, they did.

Did you have any idea that they were going to go on to greatness?

Absolutely! When we first saw them, their mode of transportation was a British World War II army ambulance, with a hole in the back where you could take a leak. Anyway, I remember on one particular occasion, this young girl comes up to our dressing room, and we were just worn out completely. I had tried that afternoon at the Cavern, the place the Beatles always played, but there was no hot water, but I needed a shame. And it was just awful, trying to shave with no hot water in this dank little bathroom with no hot water, ice cold water. And this girl comes up and says, you've got to come down and hear this group. They're the hottest group in the north of England. They had just gotten back from Hamburg, and it was the Beatles. We saw them and it was obvious they were amazing. I can't say I had any idea they would be what they would become, but they were excellent, and they did what they did.

Legend has it that the harmonica riff in "Love Me Do" sprung form your harmonica riff in "Hey! Baby."

John did mention to me that he was inspired by "Hey! Baby." Of course, it's hard to show anybody anything on a harmonica. But later, he told someone I showed him everything he knew. Just like anything, it gets romanticized.

How does it feel being a witness to history like that?

I didn't know that they would change the world, but that was what was so cool about it. We were all on common ground. No preconceived ideas or anything. We were just a bunch of young guys out to change the world musically and we were convinced we were going to do it. So it was wonderful. You can't stop somebody with that kind of feeling. They would crawl on their hands and knees to get where they need to be to do it.

Switching to the present, what's your take on the state of popular music these days?

It's so important to me to keep good music alive, because a lot of the stuff that's dished out is for little kids, specifically, little girls. It breaks my heart to see people spend so much time on something that's nothing more than a primitive beat, something that's hypnotic, something that's like a drug where all you hear is this (taps his fingers on the table) for 20 hours. I don't understand the principle of how it works. If you're going to play music and do it good, it's got to be a lifelong passion. And if you don't have the honesty and intention to get better at it – if all you have is a click track and some little jive ditty, a few words you can say over and over -- then why bother? I don't understand it. What the hell is that about? Where's the emotional commitment in making something that's not even very good. It's crazy.

It seems it's even harder for the songwriters these days, what with streaming and reduced royalty rates.

Songwriters are getting beat up. As soon as you put a song out on the internet, everybody's got it. Over the past five years, songwriters' income has gone to about a quarter of what it was. The only way to make a living in music is to go out on the road eight days a week and develop a fan base that will follow you into the fire.

Still, you've been successful at it at doing just that.

I feel so very lucky because I've been able to spend my life doing what I wanted to do, and I think, to get better at it. That keeps me standing pretty tall, because I didn't cheat, I didn't lie, I did the best I could and it paid off.

When you scored your big hit, "Givin' Up for Your Love," was that a career changer for you?

Not really. Even at that time, I was pretty old, and we were in the age of videos. I don't care how good the music is, do you want to watch this old guy or this pretty little thing here? The latter is going to win every time, man. The radio exposure certainly made it better, but it didn't turn me into a superstar by any means. I never wanted to be a superstar. That's the biggest bunch of shit in the world. I know too many people whose lives are a mess because they can't even go out in public anymore. Some people don't have any more sense than to think these people have the secret to life, and so they stalk them. You get to the point where you can't be who you are, or you end up spending so much time pretending that is who you are. Then you spend those late nights when nobody's around wondering what the fuck you're doing? What have I done to myself? I'm here, but I don't know where else to go. I think you have to have passion, true passion, to take you through life. If you don't have it, you're going to come to a place where you can't put up with your own jive bullshit anymore, and then you end up doing so many really sad things. I've seen so much of it.

So what's on your bucket list?

I think that the main thing on my bucket list is that I get to keep doing this. Because without this, I got nothing. I can't do anything else. The only jobs I ever had were a means to an end, just so I could pay the bills, so I could keep doing music at nights. I just don't want to stop. I want to stay healthy. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I work only as much as I want to. I work maybe eight nights a month, which means 16 days of travel.

Do you like the travel?

There's no place I'd rather be than home. I've been to the party. I've seen all kinds of mayhem, so the thrill is gone for all that kind of stuff. It's time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. There's just so much more to life than what I've done, because I've spent an awful lot of nights in beer joints.

So do you have another album in the works?

Yes, we just started recording a few weeks ago. I have three really good songs already done, and I have so many more songs, I'll almost have enough to do a double album by the time I finish recording. Or I'll put out two albums at the same time. I'm expecting it will be ready in the fall.

When Willie Nelson was once asked if he would ever retire, he supposedly said, "Why Would I want to?"

Here's another story for you about what Willie had to say on the subject. It was around 1973 when things were just starting to break big for him. One of the members of his band asked him one night after playing in a particularly lousy, greasy dive, "How long are we going to have to play these fucking places?" And Willie answered, "Forever, if we're lucky." [laughs] So that's kind of how I feel. That's where I come alive.

Splash image: press photo from McClinton's Facebook page

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Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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