Delbert McClinton: The Texas Legend Looks Back on Six Decades of Peaks and Valleys In the Music Biz

Delbert McClinton
Todd V. Wolfson

Delbert McClinton

The music of Delbert McClinton – a seamless fusion of country, blues and Texas Roadhouse sound – has long been one of America’s richest artistic treasures. Be that as it may, the incomparable song stylist was surprised by a recent question posed to him by journalist Diana Finlay Hendricks.

“She asked me if anyone had ever written a book about me. I said no,” McClinton told Billboard. “She said she wanted to. That kind of took me by surprise. Nobody had ever wanted to do a book on me. I had to think about it for a minute, but she was very excited into wanting to do it – which won me over.”

That book, Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few, has just been released by Texas A&M University Press. Hendricks interviewed many of his friends and associates for the book and says while everyone was honest and shot straight, nobody was more brutally honest about Delbert McClinton than the singer himself.

“I would have to say that in the hundreds of hours of interviews we have done, Delbert is his own worst critic. I had talked with some of the most cynical music journalists, as well as musicians he had hired and fired multiple times. I talked to business associates and longtime friends, but he was the one who would be the first to say ‘This is where I did things that I wish I could have done differently.’ I have never seen anybody who has so much love and strong relationships with so many people in this industry, and that is so hard to do.”

The book begins with McClinton’s growing up years in the Lone Star state. His musical talents began to shine early, and made him an unlikely fan – his Uncle Earl. “He was mean when he drank, and he always drank,” recalled the song stylist. “One day he heard me singing out in the backyard when we were there visiting in Sweetwater, and he turned into a whole different person. I couldn’t help but take note of that, even though I was just twelve or thirteen years old. I couldn’t help but think this might work.”

Another early believer in McClinton’s promise was Major Bill Smith, a former Army Air Corps bomber pilot who became involved in the music industry in the late 1950s. But McClinton stops short of calling him a pioneer in the business.

“He was kind of a Colonel Tom Parker guy,” recalled the singer. “He was very excited all the time. He was very energetic in his – I hate to call it production - because he had little to do in producing anything. He was a character. I got to know him, and he would call me to get players together for these new artists that he had found. He was always finding somebody new. Seldom would anything happen with any of them to speak of, but a couple of times, some would go on to have major hit records.”

One of those hit records just happened to be “Hey! Baby,” a song that Bruce Channel tool to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in March of 1962. McClinton’s trademark harmonica intro – for which he was paid five dollars – became a part of pop music history. When Channel was booked to do a tour of England, McClinton soon followed across the pond. While there, he would soon make the acquaintance of a rising musical talent named John Lennon, whose Beatles were opening for Channel at the time.

Though McClinton says that the legend that he taught Lennon about playing the harmonica has been exaggerated over the years, Hendricks said that there is definitely something of a Forrest Gump-like quality about McClinton standing in the path of history at different points in his life.

“We came up with that because he walked through a real important time not just in American music history, but American history in general. He’s seen a lot of it firsthand,” she says, adding that the date of Nov. 22, 1963 stands as an excellent example. McClinton picks up the story.

“I had a job – and I use the term loosely - because it was a friend of mine who came out to the clubs a lot. He owned a place called The Stag Shop, which was a men’s clothing store. I went out and worked for him some – for clothes instead of money. He was looking at this sales circular from the newspaper. It was for Radio Shack, and they were advertising the Big Ear, a dish thing that you could put up to your ear and hold to the wall to eavesdrop. He got me to go over there and pick one up. It was a two-lane road that went from downtown Fort Worth to the air force base. There was a police motorcade, and they wanted everybody to pull over to the side of the road. At the moment, we didn’t know why, but it turned out to be the President’s motorcade coming through. The car came by, and he wasn’t more than ten feet away. The people that were stopped alongside of the road, he would wave. We locked eyes and waved. The motorcade went on by. I went to Radio Shack, and I got back to the store.  I said that I had just seen the President, and he told me that he had just been killed. It was less than an hour after I saw him.”

The 1960s would see the singer continue to hone his skills – most vividly in the group The Ron-Dels. However, national success would elude the group, and McClinton’s first marriage began to hit the rocks. Helping the latter along was his meeting Margaret Knight, with whom he would move to California with in the early ‘70s. Southern California was a different pace for the Texans, and the romance didn’t last. Maggie would decide to return home, and on that very afternoon, McClinton would wind up penning the lyrics to “Two More Bottles of Wine,” which Emmylou Harris would take to a No. 1 peak in 1978. When asked about leaving her name in the lyrics, he sheepishly said “We’re still friends. I haven’t seen her in about eight years. She was always proud of being in the song. It made for a good story.”

Though the hit did raise McClinton’s fortunes as a tunesmith, the record business remained a crapshoot. “It has always been very much a hit or miss proposition,” he said of the somewhat erratic nature of the early years of his career. “There were a lot of greedy people during that time period that stole a lot of publishing. I signed a lot of things away because I didn’t know any better, and was told that it was standard procedure. Those are memories that I wish I didn’t have, but it is what it is.”

The 1980s would be no different. The decade started off with his first taste of solo success with “Givin' It Up For Your Love,” which hit No. 8 on the Hot 100. He recalls that moment as one of professional triumph.

“It was so exciting. That was what I was trying to do.” But the momentum of that hit quickly faded away from a chart standpoint. “The record company I was with went out of business – just as I had a record go into the Hot 100. They just closed their doors and fired everybody – something that happened time and again. It happened about four times in all over a period of about 25 years.”

Nevertheless, McClinton pressed on, playing to sold-out shows throughout America. Hendricks says the ‘80s were full of excesses, some of which almost caught up to McClinton and his crew.

“It truly was a decade of highs and lows, and it was also culturally, a time of people doing a lot of things that people weren’t proud of today, and a lot of people didn’t survive. But Delbert did – as well as a lot of the band members, and a lot of that can be attributed to Wendy Goldstein,” Hendricks says. “She came along and said ‘We’re going to straighten some of this up, and we’re going to figure out the business side of the music business.’ Delbert said she took everything, raked it into a pile, and made something of it.” The singer echoes those thoughts, and says simply of Wendy, whom he married in 1997, “She’s my hero.”

In 1991 his musical fortunes were raised by his Grammy-winning performance with Bonnie Raitt on “Good Man, Good Woman,” and the McClinton family moved to Nashville. He would soon be gaining cuts by artists such as Vince Gill and Garth Brooks, and hitting country radio in 1993 as a part of “Tell Me About It,” a collaboration with Tanya Tucker. He calls the move to Music City a natural progression. “By the time I had moved to Nashville, most of the people I knew were already here. Fort Worth was not a hotbed of opportunity, and Nashville was – as a songwriter and an artist. I wanted to be more of a writer.”

In addition to his continued recording and touring, the singer has also turned his yearly Sandy Beaches Cruise into a successful brand. “It’s really turned into a big family,” he says. “We just finished the 24th year, and we have a 70 percent return rate, and many have watched Delaney (his youngest daughter, also age 24) grow up. We just have a family that you enjoy, instead of a bunch of assholes,” he says humorously.

Just like a Chateau or a Cabernet, McClinton – who just turned 78 - gets better with age. What’s the secret? Hendricks says that his life is a lesson in resiliency. “I learned that you can go about as far down as you can go, but if you believe in what you’re doing, you can continue and pull yourself out of it, and everything will be rosy. There were downs but a lot of ups. But that’s the American dream.”