Delbert McClinton: Still One of the Fortunate Few
As if Delbert McClinton’s voice wasn’t enough, embued with the grit and soul of a hundred Texas honky-tonks, his bank of memories from the past 60 years would comprise a book you’d want to read.
As a matter of fact, you can read that book. Just out is “Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few” by Diana Finlay Hendricks (Texas A&M University Press), a lively biography of McClinton based in part on his own diaries, with details of his adventures growing up in Lubbock and then Fort Worth, Texas, soaking up country swing and jazz, and backing up blues legends such as Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner on the wild and woolly Fort Worth nightclub scene.
Casual fans who know McClinton mostly from his 1991 duet with Bonnie Raitt, “Good Man, Good Woman,” and even some who have been fans since the ’70s might be surprised to know he was once on the bill over the Beatles in England, (when he toured with Bruce Channel playing harmonica on “Hey Baby”), gave John Lennon harmonica tips; played some of Jack Ruby’s nightclubs and saw President John F. Kennedy on the day he was assassinated.
This was all before McClinton made a name for himself while at ground zero for the explosion of Austin music in the 1970s.
McClinton, 77, who performs at The Ark in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, in American popular culture.
Luckily, he was an enthusiastic journal-keeper over the years, starting with that tour of England in 1962 with Channel. Early ’60s pop fans will remember the irresistible harmonica riff that kicks off Channel’s No. 1 1962 hit, “Hey Baby” — and it’s easily found on YouTube, if you don’t.
McClinton’s stacks of spiral notebooks were a big help to Hendricks.
“Delbert had had all these wonderful journals, and he was generous enough to ship a bunch of stuff down to me in Texas,” Hendricks said. “So I was able to dig through and find things he didn’t even remember he had, like a telegram from Wolfman Jack from the first time he played Carnegie Hall, congratulating him.
“In addition to his amazing music career, he has stumbled through the second half of 20th century pop culture and hit on so many things — he witnessed some early space shots while out fishing with his uncle, he saw John Kennedy on Nov. 22, hours before he was assassinated,” she said.
Reading the excited impressions of the relatively sheltered young Texan upon landing in London in 1962, when he careens around the city in awe over the the food, the accents and the people, is fun.
And yes, the Beatles were their opening act.
“That was before they changed the world, so we were all on common ground, all of us were going to change the world,” McClinton said with a laugh, speaking by phone from his tour bus. “We were 22 years old and there were no pressures, as I said in the book. Everything was brand new.”
As a singer, McClinton really is one of the “fortunate few,” one of a dwindling number of American musicians who directly experienced 1940s music and was active professionally throughout the ’50s, taking part in the raucous birth of rock and roll.
“I think about that every day,” he said. “I feel like I should have been an adult in the ’40s. The only radio I listen to is XM’s ’40s Junction. I get most of my inspiration from music of the ’40s and ’50s, that’s where I come from. I love it all. Texas is a great crossroads in culture and history . . . so much (music) came down and swept across the plains, all these musical influences from all over the world.”
McClinton grew up in the pre-rock era hearing jazz and country swing, but it was when he heard the raw R&B song “Honey Hush” by Big Joe Turner coming out of a drive-in restaurant in 1954 that his musical life changed.
That and his experience learning on the job, playing behind blues greats in Texas roadhouses, is one reason McClinton approaches music in a way that’s increasingly rare.
“I like to hear music that goes up on two wheels and almost has a train wreck,” McClinton said, laughing.” He points to the “Tiffany transcriptions,” music-filled radio shows recorded by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1946-47.
“They turned on the machine and just played, and they make mistakes, they laugh, they comment on it and they keep going,” the singer said. “It’s fun and it makes it feel like you’re part of it. If it’s perfect, it gets boring in a hurry.”
When recording (his most recent album was “Pick of the Litter,” released early this year), he also admires feel and authenticity over “perfection.”
“I don’t like the players to be familiar with the song other than hearing it enough to write the musical chart down,” McClinton said. “The more you play it, the more people settle into something. If you can get an early cut on something, you get all the spontaneity. Spontaneity is a very important thing, it keeps (the listeners’) attention.”
He’s not as sanguine about today’s music.
“Every generation has its music,” he said, “but I’m so confused right now about what’s going on. It’s got a legion of followers but it’s the boomp boomp boomp that gets the blood up, so everything in the world sounds like that. I don’t know how much of that is music.”
The biography describes the ups and downs and rough patches of McClinton’s life — after all, few came out of the honky-tonks unscathed.
“I’ve said before, I can’t read books about rock and roll survivors, I know what’s coming,” McClinton said. “It’s a lifestyle and a time where we abused ourselves to the max without really thinking about it. I was looking at a picture of a band I had in the ’60s, every one of them are dead.”
He and his biographer, Hendricks, decided not to dwell on the excesses of that life in the book.
“One of the things we said early on in the project was, neither Delbert nor I wanted it to be ‘And then I made this mistake, and then I made this mistake,’ ” Hendricks said. “There’s a fine line between admitting what you did, and kind of bragging on it. I think we managed to take the glory out of some of the lifestyle choices.”
Despite that lifestyle, and having played so many cigarette and whisky-soaked honky-tonks, McClinton has retained his distinctive voice.
“Just lucky, I guess,” McClinton said. “I don’t know, my voice seems to be a whole different entity than me. It’s gotten so much better since I had heart surgery, I feel like I’m 50 years old again! It’s like a new engine.”
Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com.
8 p.m. Dec. 19
(Doors at 7:30 p.m.)
316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor