Delbert McClinton – Let the good times roll
Channel and McClinton stayed in Europe for about six weeks. While doing the circuit in England, a new group called the Beatles opened for them. John Lennon was intrigued by McClinton’s harmonica talent, and they spent several nights talking about music. This eventually grew into a legend that McClinton is no doubt tired of talking about, although he doesn’t come right out and say so. He is nice and generous with the story, but at the same time it seems he is ready to roll his eyes and simply recite it for the thousandth time.
“That story has become really bastardized,” he says. “We were with the Beatles maybe four or five nights. Maybe two of those they played with us; the other nights they were just there hanging out, traveling with us. John really liked the way I played the harp on ‘Hey Baby’ and he thought it was done on a chromatic harp, and when he mentioned that, I showed him that it wasn’t. That’s it. Later he mentioned to someone that I had given him some tips on playing the harp and it just grew from that. It’s easy to call me ‘That Guy Who Taught Lennon The Harmonica.'”
McClinton experienced his next high point and low point almost simultaneously. About the same time that Waylon Jennings recorded McClinton’s song “If You Really Want Me To, I’ll Go” (for his 1966 album Leavin’ Town), Delbert was doing just that. “My marriage had gone completely down the toilet by that time,” he says. “I really needed a change of scenery, so I went out to California where a couple friends were living.”
Once there, McClinton hooked up with fellow Texas singer-songwriter Glen Clark, and they eventually recorded two albums together — Delbert And Glen (1972) and Subject To Change (1973). The albums were critically acclaimed, but the duo eventually broke up. “We remained friends, but we both wanted to do our own things,” McClinton says.
McClinton spent much of the late ’70s in a haze of drinking while his songs were being recorded by the likes of Crystal Gayle, the Blues Brothers and Emmylou Harris, who took McClinton’s “Two More Bottles Of Wine” all the way to the top of the charts in 1978. At the same time, McClinton was quietly building his own sound.
McClinton had signed with ABC Records and from 1975-77 released three albums — Victim Of Life’s Circumstances, Genuine Cowhide and Love Rustler — that were marketed as “progressive country” by ABC but quietly fizzled. In 1978 he signed with Capricorn Records and thought he had found a home; the label’s roster included the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band and the Charlie Daniels Band. He released two critically acclaimed albums, Second Wind (1978) and Keeper Of The Flame (1979), but Capricorn folded and McClinton found himself orphaned again.
Around this time, McClinton realized he needed to straighten up. He says music is the only thing that saved him. “During that whole bad time, I never was completely lost,” he says, “because I’ve always found a strength in music. I’ve been mistaken quite often. I saw people lost it, lose everything they had, but music saved me. I’m a lucky guy.”
The music that specifically saved him at that time was his first mainstream hit, an album called The Jealous Kind, which he made after signing with Muscle Shoals Sound, which was affiliated with Capitol. The 1980 record included his only top-40 single, “Giving It Up For Your Love” (it reached #8). Another album, Plain From The Heart, followed in 1981, but shortly thereafter, Muscle Shoals Sound disappeared too.
He thanks not only music for saving him, but also two people who remain incredibly important to him: his close friend Don Imus, and his wife, Wendy Goldstein.
McClinton was playing at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City — “a little bit of Texas right in the middle of New York,” McClinton says — when he met Imus, who later became a top-rated and controversial DJ with his own radio and television show. “We were both abusing ourselves to the max,” McClinton says. “We both knew that we had to quit and we got to be friends. We got clean together. We got well together, and that’s a big bond between us.”
McClinton was rescued by Goldstein in the mid-1980s. “She just picked me up and dusted me off. She helped me when I wasn’t doing so good, told me I could get my act together and do better,” he says, lacing his fingers together, as if in homage. “She put me back together, helped me forgive myself and get better. I forgave me. I got better.”
McClinton’s rebirth was also fostered by his and Goldstein’s decision to move to Nashville in 1988. “I moved here because I needed that songwriter’s community,” he says. “I had never done much co-writing before, and Nashville is a really creative place to be. The way I look at it, if you’re going to pick cotton, you have to go to the cotton patch.”
Yet he is still Texan to the core, and most of all, misses the smells of his home state: “I love the way Texas smells. You can smell the trees there in a way you can’t smell them other places. But I still get back there a lot, play a lot of dates there.”
One of the dates he played there, a taping for the PBS show “Austin City Limits, resulted in his 1989 Alligator Records album Live From Austin, which was nominated for a Grammy in the contemporary blues category. Back in Nashville, McClinton teamed up with band member Gary Nicholson as his writing partner, and they quickly became two of the most popular songwriters in the city. Their songs began to be showcased on albums by such major artists as Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Lee Roy Parnell, Garth Brooks, Wynonna and others.