Texas Roots / R&B / Blues Rocker Delbert McClinton is one of a select few who’s equally at home performing in a “chicken wire” honky-tonk as he is in a funky dance hall or juke joint.
And, on any given night, a typical Delbert McClinton set list includes selections perfectly suited for both of the stated occasions. Additionally, the Lubbock born, Fort Worth Texas raised McClinton has been doing exactly that in a career that’s spanned six decades.
Displaying talent primarily as a singer, songwriter, and harp player; it appeared to be a forgone conclusion early on that McClinton was destined to follow this path.
His mother and father were music fans, and encouraged young Delbert to sing Country (mom) and Blues / Soul / R&B (dad). This notion coincided with Delbert’s devotion to his twin musical heroes: Hank Williams and Jimmy Reed. Said Delbert: “Jimmy Reed was a real big influence in my life; still is. And so were Ray Charles and Hank Williams”. In further explanation of his admiration for Hank Williams and Jimmy Reed, McClinton commented: “Hank and Jimmy were so incredibly real – in their personas as in their music….Hank was playing the white man’s Blues and Jimmy the Black man’s Blues”
Delbert was bit by the Blues bug at a relatively early age.
He recalls being 9 or 10 years old when he started listening to his aunt’s 78’s that were comprised mainly of “Race Records”. It wasn’t long before Delbert discovered that he could hear the same music on various radio stations. (Those stations included XERF – “The X” – a million-watt station that broadcasted from the Mexican Side of the Rio Grande, WLAC out of Nashville, and local Black station KNOK). And, although he listened to the Pop radio of the day as well, he noted that, once under the spell of Jimmy Reed and Sonny Boy Williamson, Patti Page was a distant memory.
It was a natural progression for a teen aged McClinton to start his own band to not only flex his musical muscle but also celebrate his varied musical loves.
He did this through the leadership of primarily two bands: The Ron-Dels (a Blues and Rock & Roll band), and The Straightjackets, a unit devoted to playing the Blues. And, in keeping with his “driver” personality, he led both collectives with a whole lot of attitude.
The Straightjackets proved to be the more prominent and promising of the two bands. Like The Ron-Dels, they recorded a handful of singles that garnered local airplay, but The Straightjackets would also serve as the backing band of choice for touring Blues artists like Reed and Sonny Boy Williamson, (Rice Miller). Delbert recalls:
Parts of Texas and Oklahoma comprised the extent of “world” travel at this juncture in Delbert’s life.
That, is until he teamed up with Texas Southern Swamp Rocker Bruce Channel. After McClinton’s harp became the hook for Channel’s 1959 international hit “Hey! Baby”, Delbert did some dates with Channel that led to a tour of England in 1962. There he earned a degree of notoriety by giving some tips on the harp to a 21 year old John Lennon. Lennon supposedly used what he learned from McClinton later, on the Beatles song “Love Me Do”.
To hear Delbert tell it, the story is somewhat embellished.
He didn’t teach John Lennon to play harp as reported on a number of occasions. While John did mention to him that he was influenced by “Hey! Baby”; and McClinton did provide some direction, Delbert said:
Delbert settled in Austin before following fellow Fort Worth Texan Glen Clark to L.A. in the early 70’s.
There, billed as Delbert & Glen, they recorded 2 eclectic albums, (in 1972 and 1973 respectively), that veered towards Country. However, although containing several first-rate songs – including the original version of Delbert’s “’B’ Movie Boxcar Blues” – sales and associated good fortune evaded the duo which led to them splitting up.
Never one to sit still, Delbert made his debut as a solo artist in 1975 with the release of Victim Of Life’s Circumstances. The entry featured Delbert covering acoustic guitar as well vocals and harp on 11 McClinton originals, including the much covered “Two More Bottles Of Wine”; (e.g. Emmylou Harris had a #1 hit in 1978). The session was produced by Elvis session guitarist Chip Young at his log cabin studio in Murfreesboro Tennessee. And, although selling somewhat respectably, the album failed to get traction outside of the Texas market.
The album proved to be the first glimpse of what Delbert would do over the course of a 25 plus album career.
That is, write and perform story filled songs, unburdened by categorization, that both resonate with his audience and lead them to the dance floor.
Back in Austin, with his road-tested band now adding hard edged R&B to his repertoire, McClinton became one of the city’s top live acts seemingly overnight. In doing so, he regularly packed venues including the renowned Antone’s, (home base of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Angela Strehli, Lou Anne Barton, et al). His popularity also led to opening a number of shows for Willie Nelson.
McClinton was a regular on the Texas Roadhouse circuit but his bourgeoning success wasn’t restricted to the state of Texas.
He soon started expanding his horizons including playing New York City where he established a considerable following at The Lone Star Café. So much so that his shows drew a long line of celebrities including Mick Jagger and Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi. In fact, Belushi sat in with the band several times. (Undoubtedly, this led Delbert guesting on the massively popular TV show as well as Belushi covering “’B’ Movie” on The Blues Brothers’ initial release Briefcase Full Of Blues).
From there Delbert has gone on to carve out a solid, satisfying career.
Over the course of which he’s earned the respect of his peers, and those in the music industry. And, as always, he has conducted business on his own terms, never straying far from his musical ideals.
“His own terms” includes continuing to write and perform in the same inimitable long established style, ignoring the trends of the day.
This approach couldn’t be more evident than on Delbert’s latest release 2022’s Outdated Emotion.
The album finds Delbert covering some of his favourite songs by Jimmy Reed, Little Richard, and Hank Williams among the 11 covers interspersed with 5 McClinton originals. The title Outdated Emotion refers to Delbert’s frustration that songs initiated by the likes of Reed and Willliams don’t make much of an impression on today’s music listeners.
He cites that, outside the Southern U.S., such songs are viewed as out of fashion with the music buying public.
He reasons that it’s due in part to accessibility and familiarity saying;
Further, he notes a certain charm found in the innocence and subtleties of those songs can’t be found in a lot of today’s musical offerings.
That being as it may, McClinton is happy and proud of his accomplishments over the course of a long and varied career.
He hasn’t made “superstar” money but his recording and touring have allowed the 83 year old McClinton to live quite comfortably.
And, along the way, Delbert has received acknowledgement of his talent and contributions. His songs have been recorded by artists such as Etta James, George Strait, Vince Gill, Wynonna, Lee Roy Parnell, and Martina McBride. In addition, McClinton has earned four Grammy Awards, (among 8 nominations): Rock Performance By A Duo with Bonnie Raitt for “Good Man, Good Woman” (1992), Contemporary Blies Album for Nothing Personal (2002), Contemporary Blues Album for Cost Of Living (2006), and Traditional Blues Album for Tall, Dark, & Handsome (2020).
Still more; he had a 1980 top 40 single, (# 8 Pop and # 35 Country), for “Givin’ It Up For Your Love” as well as a 1992 Top 5 Country hit with a Tanya Tucker duet, “Tell Me About it”. Lastly, in 2019 McClinton received the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
McClinton continues to write and record, but for all intents and purposes he gave up touring during Covid. His only steady live performance gig is his Sandy Beaches Cruise, (of the Caribbean), that has taken place every January since 1994. Of Sandy Beaches Delbert says: “I guess you could say that I’m the headline act but I don’t think of it as anybody bein’ a headliner; it’s just a bunch of people, friends of mine, handpicked by me to come do this”. (By the way, the 2024 Cruise line-up includes The Mavericks, Marcia Ball, Paul Thorn, Jimmy Hall, and Carolyn Wonderland)