Delbert McClinton – Let the good times roll
Picture this. The heart of the Texas panhandle, late 1940s. We are driving up a dirt road. The heat is suffocating, moving in dusty waves through the car windows to settle against our mouths. But the humidity is slowly lifting, leaving the world to smell like damp, cooked greens. We pass a clump of dark green trees where heat bugs scream. The scent of the soil is so rich that it is mouth-watering; it smells good enough to eat.
Finally, we come to the Cotton Club, a lone building with long, open windows, sitting in the middle of a dirt lot. Cars are parked haphazardly, as if they have fallen out of the sky. When our engine is turned off, the sound is very close and sudden: the beat of music coming from inside the honky-tonk.
And then, the high, distinctive twang of Bob Wills. Perhaps he is singing “San Antonio Rose”. There are children playing hide ‘n’ seek and marbles and chase in the parking lot. Their parents are inside, dancing to Wills’ music. Having a big time. The children are occupied, though. They play and some of them listen to the music, even if it is only in their subconscious. Now look. One of these children is Delbert McClinton.
Fifty-some years later, McClinton, 62, is just plain cool. He has an air of strong confidence about him, but no hint of arrogance. Amazingly, his face does not bear witness to his years of partying. He lives in a white brick house just outside Nashville and is dressed in a silk shirt, khaki shorts and sandals, looking more like a businessman relaxing near the beach than an elder statesman of the blues relaxing at home. Today, he is remembering the way his parents loved to dance.
“They didn’t leave me out there all night or anything, but kids weren’t allowed in there,” he says. “And they just loved to dance and have a good time. It wasn’t so much a bar as it was a place to go and have fun.”
McClinton’s parents obviously instilled a love for fun in their son. His latest album, Room To Breathe (released September 24 on New West Records), is nothing if not an ode to having a good time. It is, in fact, among the most joyous blues albums ever recorded.
“We were having fun when we made the record,” McClinton says, settling back into the plush couch that the length of a room which is more windows than walls. Outside we can see the fertile green yard that surrounds the house, much different from the dirt that surrounded the Cotton Club. “And when you’re having a good time, I believe that comes through in the music. People can feel that.”
McClinton has had a lot of fun in his life, but he’s had some bad times as well. His music has fed on both, he says. “I used to think that I had to be depressed to write a good song, but I finally realized that that was just crazy.”
Not many years after playing in the parking lot of the Cotton Club while Bob Wills sang and his parents danced, McClinton was married at 18 and playing in similar clubs “eight nights a week,” he says. The marriage was all wrong. “I wanted it to work, but it didn’t. I was a lost soul. I cheated and I lied, did what I wanted to do, and I’ve grieved over that,” he says. “That’s the stuff that comes back to haunt you when you’re lying awake at night. But I didn’t know any better back then, and I didn’t know how to get out of it.”
During this time, McClinton was playing in clubs along the Jacksboro Highway near Fort Worth. He also played at the legendary Skyliner Ballroom, where he backed such acts as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Howlin’ Wolf. He had grown up listening to an eclectic mix of music — as a child and teenager, he had loved not only Wills but also Sarah Vaughan, Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. “When I was just becoming a teenager, there was the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis, Sun Records, all that. Then, in 1958, I heard the blues,” he says. The song was “Honey Hush” by Joe Turner. “And I thought, ‘Wait a minute. This is the best stuff I’ve ever heard in my life.'”
McClinton latched onto the blues, staying up late at night so he could listen to KNOK, Fort Worth’s famous blues radio station. He also soaked up all he could while playing in the roadhouses. He says he learned how to play the harmonica from listening to Jimmy Reed and Buster Brown. McClinton usually backed black groups and even though it was during segregation, no one ever ribbed him about it. “I didn’t have friends who would say things like that,” he says, almost angry at the thought of prejudice. “I didn’t hang out with people like that.”
In 1960, McClinton cut a record for a tiny label, and his cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Wake Up Baby” became the first record by a white artist to be played on KNOK. He got to know all the musicians and session players in the area, so when Major Bill Smith — a larger-than-life figure in the Fort Worth music scene during the early 1960s — was looking for someone to play the harmonica during a session he was hosting for Bruce Channel, McClinton came on board and they recorded five songs. One of those songs, “Hey Baby”, became a worldwide hit (and is now considered a classic, reemerging in the late ’80s as an integral part of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack). The harmonica was such a driving force on the single that the higher-ups at the record company asked McClinton to tour with Channel.
“I thought I was ready for the road,” McClinton says wistfully, “but it was a bad time for me to leave. I was 22 years old, we had a baby.” But it was too good an offer to turn down, and it led to an overseas tour.