Singer, songwriter, harmonica player, guitarist
A merican honky-tonk music has gained a cult figure in roadhouse-rock and blues artist Delbert McClinton. With his unique fusion of earthy roots-based rock, rhythm and blues, and country-flavored honky-tonk, McClinton’s gravelly vocals and sensitive lyrical ballads have gained him the name “King of the White Texas Bluesmen” since he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. From whatever source he draws his rhythms, the vocal intensity of McClinton’s live performances has hit a universal chord with audiences of many musical tastes.
Born in Lubbock, Texas, McClinton moved to Fort Worth when he was 11. There, musical influences were all around him. “I was in my early teens at the beginning of rock and roll, and I grew up in West Texas listening to country music and Nat King Cole,” he told Elizabeth Hilts in the Westchester County Weekly. “So I just sort of incorporated it all. I’ve never felt limited to any one style.”
McClinton made his first public appearance in 1957, at the Big “V” Jamboree in Liberation Village. His first group, the Straitjackets, became the house band for Jack’s Place, a Fort Worth blues club that brought the young singer into the company of blues greats Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Reed, and Big Joe Turner. In 1960, under the name Mac Clinton, he released his first single on the Le Cam label. “Wake Up Baby” was one of several sides McClinton would record with the Strait-jackets before the group disbanded in the early 1960s.
In 1962 McClinton toured with Bruce Channel, playing harmonica on the artist’s hit “Hey! Baby” in venues throughout Europe. In England, he jammed with a then-unknown group called the Beatles, inspiring the harp licks on the group’s smash hit “Love Me Do.” By the early 1960s he was fronting for the Ron-Dels, a group who scored on the national charts in 1965 with McClinton’s “If You Really Want Me to I’ll Go,” a single that was later covered by Waylon Jennings. But after 15 years with that band, McClinton returned to the bar circuit in Texas, and released his first solo LP, Victim of Life’s Circumstances, in 1975.
McClinton’s soulful roadhouse-style rock caught fire with fans, and his debut LP spawned Genuine Cowhide in 1976, followed by 1977’s Love Rustler. Unfortunately, his association with ABC Records would not be long-lived, symptomatic of the bad luck McClinton would have with record companies throughout his early career. After issuing three McClinton discs, ABC went out of business in 1977. A deal with Capricorn, which
For the Record…
Born November 4, 1940, in Lubbock, TX; son of a switchman and a beautician; married and divorced; children: two sons, one daughter.
Formed Mac Clinton and the Straitjackets, c. 1960; released first single, “Wake Up Baby,” on Le Cam label, 1960; toured Europe with Bruce Channel, 1962; formed the Ron-Dels, 1964; signed with Clean Records, 1972; signed with ABC Records, 1975; signed with Capricorn Records, 1978; signed with Muscle Schoals Sound, 1980; formed McClinton & Company, Nashville, TN, c. 1992; signed with Curb Records, 1992.
Awards: Grammy Award (with Bonnie Raitt) for best rock vocal duo, 1992, for “Good Man, Good Woman.”
Addresses: Record company —Curb Records, 47 Music Square E., Nashville, TN 37203. Publicity —Susan Blond, Inc., 250 West 37th St., Suite 622, New York, NY 10107.
picked him up in 1977, proved to be little better. After the release of two successful albums, Second Wind and Keeper of the Flame, and with one song poised to climb the charts, that label, too, succumbed to the recording industry’s intense competition, and declared bankruptcy in 1979.
McClinton switched to the Muscle Schoals Sound (MSS) label in 1980, and recorded the first of two albums, The Jealous Kind, that year. The album’s single “Giving It Up for Your Love” was a Top Ten hit for McClinton, and brought him a whole new circle of admirers.
When his second album for MSS, Plain from the Heart, was on its way to record shops in 1981, the distributor, Capitol Records, dropped the label. McClinton’s efforts on that LP languished due to lack of airplay and proper promotion. In frustration—and motivated also by a tax problem that resulted in a complete takeover of his assets by the Internal Revenue Service—the singer took a seven-year break from the studio to hit the road on a relentless touring schedule that numbered 250 live performance dates a year. Sharing the spotlight with performers as diverse as Jimmy Buffet, the Allman Brothers, and Elvis Costello, McClinton spent most of the decade of the 1980s observing the world from the relative safety of the stage. “During the mid-’80s there, I was pretty much wondering whether or not it would ever happen,” he told Jim Morrison of the Virginian Pilot.
Fellow musicians, who held his songwriting skills in high esteem, supported McClinton by covering his songs. Performers who recorded his tunes include country/folk singer Emmylou Harris—whose cover of his “Two More Bottles of Wine” made Number One on the country charts—country crooner Vince Gill, and John Belushi and Dan Akroyd’s Blues Brothers team. Of his songwriting, McClinton told Hilts: “I never really set out to particularly write about anything. But there are things that command to be written about. You can write about two things…. You either love to hate somebody or you hate to love somebody. That’s just about it.”
In 1988, with the help of manager and close friend Wendy Goldstein, McClinton felt it was time to turn his career around. After a televised performance on the Public Broadcasting Service’s Austin City Limits, he remixed a live album from the television tapes. His instincts proved right; as critic Robert Baird noted in New Country, “This album brims with the kind of sweaty, electric energy that makes McClinton and his crack group one of the best bar bands in the world.” The long-awaited release of Live from Austin in 1989 earned him a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album.
On the heels of this success, McClinton negotiated a recording contract with Curb Records that put him back in the studio. Clearly, McClinton’s long absence from the charts hadn’t fazed his fans, who eagerly awaited release of 1991 ’s “I’m With You.” The enthusiasm of fans in Scandinavia was such that “I’m With You” soared to the Top Ten position in that region.
A few years later, a duet with blues slide-guitarist Bonnie Raitt gave McClinton the exposure that had so eluded him in the past. Together, the two recorded “Good Man, Good Woman”; the single appeared first on Raitt’s Luck of the Draw LP and garnered the couple a Grammy Award for best rock duo. “To win a Grammy validates you to a lot of people,” McClinton was quoted as saying in the Charlotte Observer. “Suddenly you get a lot more attention and a lot more calls.” Whether touring with veteran rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd or appearing with country vocalist Tanya Tucker on her 1993 hit “Tell Me About It,” doors began to open with no sign of closing.
The Grammy Award put impetus behind McClinton’s own recording project. Don Was, who has produced such artists as Raitt, Bob Dylan, and Iggy Pop, shared credit with McClinton and saxophonist Jim Horn on his 1992 LP, Never Been Rocked Enough. The release proved to be more than just a successful album; as Rich Kienzle remarked of McClinton in Country Music, “[Never Been Rocked Enough] works as a reaffirmation both of his strengths and of the justifiable admiration his peers have for him.”
McClinton’s 1975 release, Victim of Life’s Circumstances, has become a classic of eclectic country. And the performer, likewise, has become something of a classic himself. Praised as one of the world’s best harmonica players, McClinton has uncannily sustained an undo amount of what can only be described as plain old bad luck. He has weathered the storm because of his love of his music. “It’s the kind of music that makes you want to forget all your problems and have a good time,” noted McClinton in a press release. “If it wasn’t for a few people, the flame of this particular kind of music might have died. I like to think I’m helping to keep it alive.”
Victim of Life’s Circumstances (includes “Two More Bottles of Wine”), ABC, 1975.
Genuine Cowhide, ABC, 1976, reissued, MCA, 1994.
Love Rustler, ABC, 1977.
Second Wind, Capricorn, 1978, reissued, Mercury.
Keeper of the Flame, Capricorn, 1979, reissued, Mercury.
The Jealous Kind (includes “Givin’ It Up for Your Love”), MCC/Capitol, 1980, reissued, Curb, 1994.
Plain from the Heart, MCA/Capitol, 1981, reissued, Curb, 1994.
The Best of Delbert McClinton, MCA, 1981.
Delbert McClinton Live from Austin, Alligator, 1989.
Best of Delbert McClinton, Curb, 1991.
Never Been Rocked Enough (includes “Good Man, Good Woman” and “Everytime I Roll the Dice”), Curb, 1992.
Delbert McClinton, Curb, 1993.
Honky Tonk ’N Blues (re-releases; includes “Two More Bottles of Wine”), MCA, 1994.
Country Music, September 1992; November/December 1994.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX), July 5, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1992.
New Country, May 1994.
USA Today, February 26, 1992.
Virginia Pilot, October 2, 1992.
Westchester County Weekly (NY), March 17, 1994.
—Pamela L. Shelton
Born: Lubbock, Texas, 4 November 1940
Genre: R&B, Country, Blues, Rock
Best-selling album since 1990: Room to Breathe (2002)
Hit songs since 1990: "Every Time I Roll the Dice," "Good Man, Good Woman"
Highly regarded among a loyal core of fans for his musical eclecticism and soulful performance style, Delbert McClinton is an uncompromising singer, songwriter, and harmonica player who has resisted categorization during a career that spans five decades. On recordings, McClinton seamlessly fuses R&B, rock, country, and blues with his wild, rollicking sensibility. Often displaying flashes of rascally humor, McClinton adds depth to his work by allowing a softer, more vulnerable side to surface, particularly on aching ballads. Although he experienced a limited degree of commercial success during the early 1980s, McClinton did not begin to gain wider recognition until the 1990s, when he moved to Nashville and won accolades for his high-powered blend of rock and country. Despite critical acclaim and belated popular acceptance, McClinton remains a "cult" singer—a performer who releases consistently fine albums, attracting a devoted following while falling short of pop crossover stardom.
Early Critical Success
A product of the fertile Texas music scene, McClinton grew up in Fort Worth, where he began performing in nightclubs during his teens. By the late 1950s he was playing harmonica behind blues performers such as Jimmy Reed and Bobby "Blue" Bland. In 1960 he recorded a blues single, "Wake Up Baby," and later played the distinctive harmonica part on Bruce Channel's number one pop hit, "Hey! Baby" (1962). A popular story among fans is that McClinton taught harmonica to a young John Lennon—just beginning his career with future rock legends the Beatles—during an English tour with Channel in support of the single. During the 1960s and early 1970s, McClinton performed with the group the Rondells and then as part of the duo Delbert & Glen, achieving little commercial success. Attracting increased attention as a songwriter, McClinton landed a recording contract in 1975 with the ABC label, where he released acclaimed albums such as Victim of Life's Circumstances (1975) and Genuine Cowhide (1976), two works that explore his love of classic R&B and rock from the 1950s. In 1980 he scored his only major pop hit, the horn-driven, R&B-influenced, "Givin' It Up for Your Love." After suffering a second divorce and losing his home to the Internal Revenue Service, McClinton retreated from recording for most of the 1980s.
New Popularity in the 1990s
In 1989 McClinton issued a fiery comeback album, Live from Austin, the success of which led to a move to Nashville and a recording contract with the country label Curb. At Curb he recorded fine albums such as I'm with You (1990), a simmering collection highlighted by the pulsating ballad, "I Want to Love You" and the rocking "The Real Thing." "I Want to Love You" captures the tenderness that lies beneath McClinton's grizzled surface: "I want to love you . . . let you see the frightened child inside of me, how frail a man can be." McClinton's follow-up, Never Been Rocked Enough (1992), features the gritty "Every Time I Roll the Dice," his first hit in more than a decade. His hoarse, shouting vocals offset by a muscular guitar part, McClinton sounds on the single like a rougher version of 1970s and 1980s rock singer Bob Seger. The album also contains "Good Man, Good Woman," a funky duet with rock star Bonnie Raitt that won a Grammy Award when included as part of Raitt's album, Luck of the Draw (1991). By the mid-1990s, McClinton's relations with Curb had become strained, although he continued to release fine performances such as "Tell Me About It" (1996), a spunky duet with deep-voiced country performer Tanya Tucker.
Now married to music executive Wendy Goldstein and having extricated himself from his Curb contract, McClinton signed with the small Rising Tide label to release One of the Fortunate Few (1997), an album critics cite as one of his finest. Containing performances that cut across a wide swath of R&B styles, the album sports a roster of high-profile guest artists such as blues legend B.B. King and R&B/gospel singer Mavis Staples. Although he did not write it, the album's opener, "Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)," captures McClinton's intensity through pounding piano and hard percussion. With a shuffling beat that recalls the style of blues legend Jimmy Reed, "Better Off with the Blues" benefits from McClinton's harmonica playing and skilled vocal phrasing. "Monkey Around" provides an ideal vehicle for his roguish sense of humor: "You made a man into a monkey / Now the monkey's gonna monkey around." Featuring liner notes by noted writer Nick Tosches, the album emerges as one of McClinton's most intelligent, well-rounded efforts.
In 2001 McClinton released Nothing Personal, his first album for the small Austin, Texas-based New West label. Capturing an honest, intimate feel similar to the 1990s work of country star Willie Nelson, the album is largely notable for McClinton's weathered but still powerful voice—with its oak-mellowed quality, it sounds steeped in life and experience. "When Rita Leaves" is a poignant ballad set against a simple arrangement with guitar, percussion, and restrained strings, while "Birmingham Tonight" imparts a rustic sound through use of a delicate, lonesome-sounding piano. "Livin' It Down," meanwhile, is a hard rocker in McClinton's classic style, bolstered by his trademark woebegone, humorous lyrics: "I reached out for a lifeline and she threw me a noose." Alternately passionate and languid, Nothing Personal won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2001. Room to Breathe, another acclaimed set, followed in 2002.
A durable performer with a leathery, individualistic spirit, Delbert McClinton incorporates a diverse range of music styles into his raucous but sensitive sound. Coming close to stardom at several points during a career that began in the late 1950s, McClinton gained wider acceptance during the 1990s while maintaining his steady cult following.
Victim of Life's Circumstances (ABC, 1975); Genuine Cowhide (ABC, 1976); Second Wind (Capricorn, 1978); The Jealous Kind (Capitol, 1980); Live from Austin (Alligator, 1989); I'm with You (Curb, 1990); Never Been Rocked Enough (Curb, 1992); One of the Fortunate Few (Rising Tide, 1997); Nothing Personal (New West, 2001); Room to Breathe (New West, 2002).