Like many other people, I first remember hearing of Delbert McClinton when he scored his one and only top-10 pop hit with “Giving It Up For Your Love” in the early ’80s, but he came back on my radar in the late ’80s through a combination of working at a record store (Record Bar at Greenbrier Mall, in Chesapeake, VA) and listening to an incredibly awesome Hampton Roads radio station called FM 92 that wasn’t afraid to play music that wasn’t on the charts. What I didn’t realize until the advent of the ‘net, however, was just how far back McClinton’s career went. I talked to him for The Virginian-Pilot last week – here’s the link – and delved into Delbert’s history as deeply as I could, given the amount of time I had. Here’s the transcript of our conversation for your reading enjoyment…
News Reviews Interviews: So you’re heading back to Norfolk, where you’ve played more than a few times.
Delbert McClinton: Oh, yeah.
NRI: How do you like the Hampton Roads area? You certainly get a great reception whenever you’re here.
DM: Oh, I love playing up there, man, and I always have loved playing up there. It’s a good place to play.
NRI: You’ve long since been declared a full-fledged road warrior…
DM: [Laughs.] Well, I should hope so.
NRI: …but how long do you spend on the road per year nowadays?
DM: Oh, I don’t know. This year, I’ve worked less than ever. I’ve only had, I think, three dates since the first of the year. But it’s about to wrap up, with summer coming on and all these festivals and all. But I’ve been saving more time for myself these days and working less.
NRI: Does it take you a little bit of time to get comfortable doing that, given how much work you’ve been doing?
DM: Well, you know, when we went out this last weekend, it was the first time we’d been out since right after January 1st. We had a date in Charlotte. But I’d been off longer than I’ve ever been off in my life, and I was telling my wife the other day, “God, I hope I can remember these songs!” And I didn’t have any trouble at all. It all came right back.
NRI: Like riding a bike, huh?
DM: Pretty much. [Laughs.] But it was a lot of fun. We had a good time.
NRI: So you were born in Lubbock, and then you moved to Fort Worth when you were pretty young, is that right?
DM: Yeah, I moved to Fort Worth when I was 11 years old.
NRI: How did you first get into music? Was your family musical, or was it something you picked up on by yourself?
DM: No, nobody in the family was musical. It was just always there for me. I never even thought about it, not until I was considerably older, about how incredibly powerful that whole thing was. I never thought about it. I just thought, “This is just the way it is.” And it was. I didn’t have to think about this. I just had to do it.
NRI: When you look back at what you accomplished when you were in the Straightjackets, can you even believe some of the people you were backing at the time? Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins…
DM: Oh, man, I had some of the best on-the-job training you could have. [Laughs.] And I loved every minute of it, you know? I got to know a lot of those guys that are gone now that were the real deal.
NRI: What do you remember about Howlin’ Wolf?
DM: Oh, man, he was… We only played with him two nights, but it was years ago in Ft. Worth, and he came out, came on stage, and…he didn’t even have a rehearsal with the band. He just expected us to know ‘em, and fortunately we did! But he just came out there and started singing, and didn’t even tell anybody what key he was in. I mean, it didn’t take us but a minute to find it, but at that point we knew, “Jesus, this guy’s not gonna cut anybody a break!” [Laughs.] But it was all good, you know?
NRI: You played harmonica on the song “Hey Baby.” Your name obviously wasn’t front and center – that was Bruce Channel – but how did it affect your career that you were part of such a huge single?
DM: Well, you know, it’s been a great conversation piece. [Laughs.] And Bruce is still a good friend of mine. We’re still close. He comes on my cruise every year. But, you know, it’s not bad to have on your resume that you played on one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever, and, like I say, it’s always been good for conversation.
NRI: It also helped lead you down a path that found you helping teach John Lennon a little bit about how to play the harmonica better.
DM: Yeah, that all just came together because of all that.
NRI: Were the Beatles anybody yet at the point when you taught that lesson?
DM: Well, they were. They were described to me by this girl that had been following Bruce all around England. By the time we worked with the Beatles, she was there, and we’d been on the road… It’s funny over there, because we didn’t know what to expect, you know, and we were on the road, we had an English band backing us up, but over there, it’s not like it is over here. If you drive 50 miles, you spend the night. So that was unusual. But we were kind of used to coming back, you know? We went out this one trip, and nobody told us we weren’t coming back for a week, and I think Bruce and I both took one shirt with us. And we spent a whole week just in those clothes. And it was…pretty grubby. [Laughs.]
NRI: So by the end of it, was it your smell or your music that made the greatest impression?
DM: Well, I don’t think the smell really bothered anybody, because we were too excited to even worry about it. But it was great fun. They were great bands. And this girl came over and got us and said, “You’ve got to come hear this band, they just came back from Hamburg and they’re the hottest thing in the north of England.” And they were great! But there was a lot of great from music over there. You know, you’ve got to put it all in perspective. This was still the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, there were few rules, and you just kind of did everything by the seat of your pants. And that was okay. It was fun! It’s just the way it was. But we had a lot of fun, and I met those guys and met a lot of other people. And then history kind of comes along and makes it, as always more romantic than it was. [Laughs.] But, you know, things get to be that way with time.
NRI: You moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s. How long had you known Glen Clark before you and he released that first album together?
DM: Oh, I watched Glen grow up. He used to come to rehearsals with the Straightjackets when he was six, seven, eight years old. He and I are making a new record together.
NRI: Oh, great! I hadn’t heard that.
DM: Yeah, we’re just working on it in our spare time. We’ve both got different things to do, so we’ve got about 11 tracks cut, and we need to cut a couple more, but we’ve got some songs and we’re having a good time.
NRI: Is that coming out through New West, or are you self-releasing it?
DM: Probably New West. Unless they say they won’t put it out. [Laughs.]
NRI: How is the state of the music industry for you as an artist? You seem to have a devout enough fanbase to sell a steady amount of albums.
DM: I do. I do pretty good. [Laughs.] I can sell 250,000 records…well, anywhere from 175 to 250 thousand records. And that’s pretty good if you can do that consistently. So the music business for me is… I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, ‘cause I don’t have to work. I work ‘cause I enjoy it, y’know? So I don’t bang my head against the wall eight days a week anymore. I go out enough to satisfy the jones, and…there’s other things I want to do at this time in my life, and I don’t want to spend it all in beer joints. Although I do love ‘em. [Laughs.]
NRI: To get back to you and Glen Clark, what caused the two of you to go your separate ways?
DM: Well, it was…we had that opportunity at that point in time, and it just came a time when we wanted to do different things. And there was never any kind of falling out. We’re still the best of friends and always have been. But he wanted to stay out in L.A. after that second record, and I wanted to go to Nashville and see what I could do with it there. So that’s what we did, and, of course, his career ended up with a real good spot as a musical director for the According to Jim show. He retired from that about a year and a half ago, or whenever it folded. He’d had enough of that, and I can understand that. He made some money, so he doesn’t have to do it. So we’ve been hanging out and getting together and writing songs and getting ready to do another record just for fun.
NRI: How did “B-Movie Boxcar Blues” end up being covered by the Blues Brothers? Did they contact you?
DM: Well, no, I had met John (Belushi) and Danny (Aykroyd) in New York at the Lone Star Café, and we’d become friends, and when they were getting ready to go in and make a record, they called me and said, “Send us everything you’ve got, so we can pick from it and see what we can find to put on the record.” They liked B-movies, so…there it is. [Laughs.]
NRI: Casual fans probably know you best for “Givin’ It Up for Your Love,” but you’ve always had such a dedicated fanbase that, while some might qualify you as a one-hit wonder, you’ve never had to worry about that being an albatross.
DM: Yeah, they’re pretty dedicated, and that’s saved my bacon more than once. [Laughs.] But I’ve been out there, y’know, working eight nights a week for 50 years, and I do have a fanbase that’d take a bullet for me. That in itself is pretty amazing. And they still come, and I still like to go play. It’s a good place to be.
NRI: You’ve done quite a few collaborations over the years.
DM: I have.
NRI: And they’ve paid off nicely. You pulled a Grammy from working with Bonnie Raitt, and you scored a top-5 single through your song with Tanya Tucker.
DM: Yeah, you might say I’ve been lucky with the women. [Laughs.] So it’s good, y’know? I’ve had…and I am still having…an amazing career. In fact, it’s been better since the ‘90s than ever.
NRI: Do you have a favorite album that’s maybe underrated in your eyes, that people may not necessarily be aware of that you’d recommend?
DM: Well, you know, I hate to call any of them my favorite because it depends on my mood which one is my favorite. But the last record we did, Acquired Taste, I did a bunch of songs that were kind of out of the bag for me. But there’s things I’d written and wanted to do, and I wanted to take it another direction. I think that went really well, and I’m really proud of that record, but it wasn’t a big record for me.
NRI: How did “Weatherman” come to be in the movie Groundhog Day?
DM: Well, the woman who was managing me at the time, Harriet Sternberg out in L.A., she put that together. Real quick. [Laughs.] And I had to jump on a plane and go out there. They were still writing the song in the studio when I got there, and we spent about 10 hours, because we’d get part of it done and they’d want to change a lyric somewhere and do something. So it was on-the-job for everybody. Nobody came in with it done. We came into the studio and made it up right there.
NRI: It’s certainly gotten a lot of mileage over the years, with the film having been deemed one of the highlights of Bill Murray’s career and a full-on comedy classic.
DM: Oh, it has, and it is. I feel real fortunate to have had a little piece of that.
NRI: When you’re on tour nowadays, given how much material you’ve got to choose from in your back catalog, how do you go about picking your set list?
DM: Oh, I usually pick my first four songs, then by that point I get a feel for what should come next, and I’ve got hand cues and stuff I can tell the band what’s coming up. And, y’know, we go out there knowing what the first four songs are, and by that time I’ve got two or three more lined up, and it just goes.
NRI: If nothing else, that must keep it interesting for you every single night.
DM: Well, it does. You know, we’ve got a lot of stuff to draw from, and, like I said, one song will kind of bring up another sometime, and they just kind of start naming themselves in the set.
NRI: Lastly, you brought it up in passing earlier, but I was just curious about your annual cruise, Rockin’ the Boat, and how that came about in the first place.
DM: Oh, boy, you got me however in the world that happened. [Laughs.] No, y’know, I did a cruise with some other people two years in a row, and it was all blues music. And I love blues music, but mediocre blues music gets real old real fast, as I’m sure you know. And I got to talking to this friend of mine, and we decided that we could do a better job, so we leased a ship and…y’know, that’s a pretty big step! And we had to eat it a couple of years, but we made it work, and now it’s got a life of its own. And we’re doing one more, and that’s it.
NRI: Oh, really? Going out on top…?
DM: Yeah, going out on top, but it’s just time, y’know? We’ve been doing it so long that I’ve got two people in the organization here that want to retire. [Laughs.] And my wife Wendy, she just works her butt off all year long on this thing, and…it’s such a major risk to have a half a million dollar fee on that boat hanging over your head, y’know? So we’re both ready to stop doing that. We’ve got some ideas on some other things we’re gonna look into, but as far as doing the cruise, that next year’s gonna be it.
NRI: And as far as a new album, is the record with Glen going to be the next one we see from you, most likely?
DM: Well, I’m doing it at the same time I’m putting together another solo album. So we’ve got a lot to do, and that’s good. And we’re having fun doing it. As for when it’ll be done, probably sometime this year. Because it’d just be absurd for us to go another year and not have it done, since we started it about eight months ago. But, y’know, like I said, we’ve just been doing it as we can.
NRI: Understood. Well, Delbert, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk for a bit.
DM: Well, thank you so much for including me in this. You get by the show, you come say “hello,” y’hear?