Delbert McClinton: Undefeated
A music veteran perseveres into his 70’s by combining great music and a strong constitution.
By Steve Houk
One of the true bonafide survivors of the insanity that often is the music business, Delbert McClinton is still out there at 75, playing his familiar yet unique blend of rock and blues that’s been keeping him going for over 50 years.
When I called McClinton recently to chat about his current tour, his upcoming record and his formidable life in music, I asked McClinton what he was doing, and what he attributes his longevity to.
“Sitting here having breakfast with my grandkids,” McClinton said in his amicable Texas drawl. “We kinda did a reinvention on this new record. Wrote some really good songs and I think it’s a great record. And yeah, I attribute (my longevity) to the fact that I still love doing this. I’ve had this with me my whole life, and it’s always sustained me. I just can’t seem to get enough.”
Life is pretty darn good these days for the durable McClinton, who continues to play and record his music for a legion of loyal fans, while at the same time being able to look back at a career he made work for himself, eventually on his own terms, despite the nefarious dealings of record companies and the unpredictable nature of the business itself. McClinton plays the Birchmere Saturday May 21st.
Before he became a front man in 1972, McClinton began his playing days in a Fort Worth band called The Straitjackets, backing up a who’s who of American blues players on harmonica, many of whom were his early influences and musical heroes.
“Back in the day, many many years ago starting out, I was a big Muddy Waters/Jimmy Reed/Sonny Boy Williamson fan,” McClinton said. “So I picked up the harmonica and that’s the way that went. That’s where I got my on the job training, was from [backing up] Sonny Boy, Buster Brown, Jimmy Reed, Howlin Wolf. Back in the early 60’s, those guys were on the radio, they traveled all across the country, so they’d come to town. And to put it in perspective, back in those days everybody in the world wasn’t in a band, there weren’t that many bands around. I think back in the time in Fort Worth there mighta been three bands, and my band was the best one!”
McClinton refreshingly and openly speaks his mind, and he is not shy when talking of the injustice he feels many black blues players, including those he played with and idolized, faced from their white record company counterparts.
“They’ll never get their just due man, that’s a horrible time in history, and an awful lot of greedy white men stole all the money from those wonderfully talented black men. That’s the way it’s gonna go down in history because that’s what happened. They’d do it today if they can. Not just from black people, anybody. It’s a sleazy world, this music business, it’s sleazy as anything. The backside of it is people that will steal everything ya got.”
It took McClinton until he was 50 to break free of the insidious music business trap by making his own records, and he holds nothing back when speaking of his disdain for the industry.
“I don’t trust any of ’em and I don’t believe any of ’em, course it took me a long time, I was 40 somethin’ years old before I decided to change my way of doin’ things. By the time I was 50, I was making my own records and owning them. And that’s also been the best music of my career, since I was 50, in my opinion. You gotta keep the eye on it man, or somebody’ll steal it from ya, that’s terrible, but that’s the way world goes around.”
McClinton’s long career has seen him not only do solid solo work for decades, but also team up with stalwarts like Bonnie Raitt (they traded vocals on “Good Man Good Woman” off Raitt’s 1991 multi-platinum Luck Of The Draw) and Tanya Tucker (their 1992 duet “Tell Me About It” went to #4 on the country charts), but it’s his oft-told story about showing a young rock and roll upstart how to play harmonica in the early 60’s that may be his most storied “collaboration.”
“When “Hey Baby” came out in ’62, I think it was ’62” — McClinton played harmonica on the song — “it was a super number one hit, nobody saw that coming, but that’s what happened. When Bruce (Channel) got booked to do a tour of the British Isles, the promoter said, well, we gotta have the harmonica player too, so I got to go. We were over there in England, and every night somebody would show up in the dressing room with a harmonica and say, hey, show me how you do that. It was a novelty. So The Beatles were the opening act on a couple of the dates we did, and John Lennon wanted to make sure I (showed him). He was already fooling around with the harmonica, you can’t really show anybody anything on the harmonica, it’s kinda like masturbation, you kinda fool around with it and figure it out. I didn’t really teach him. I just showed him what I did. Ya know, when to suck and when to blow. Later, he mentioned it to somebody and they put it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that he was influenced by me. It’s been romanticized as all of that stuff is. But it’s a good story.”
McClinton is a man who has worked hard to get where he is, breaking free of the chains that binded him, and today, is still making great music into his seventies. And he has made his career a success against pretty heavy odds.
“When I was with Capricorn, I had a record go into the top 100, and the same week, Capricorn closed their doors and declared bankruptcy. Every record company besides one in my whole career has gone out of business while I was on the label. Every one of ’em. You either live through something like that or it defeats you. And I can’t be defeated.”
Delbert McClinton performs Saturday May 21st at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt Vernon Ave, Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here.