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.

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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