Multi-Grammy Award winner Delbert McClinton is “One of the Fortunate Few,” who has managed to live his dreams for more than six decades. The stars have aligned for Delbert. Those stars may have leaned toward the blues, but Delbert has managed to keep them on the bright side.
He was born four years after Buddy Holly in the musically fertile grounds of Lubbock, Texas. He cut his teeth on Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys at Lubbock’s legendary Cotton Club. When he was 12, Delbert’s family moved to Fort Worth so his father could work on the Rock Island Railroad.
As a teenager, Delbert had a backstage and front row seat to learn from the masters as his teenage band grew into the house band at Fort Worth’s Jack's Place on the Jacksboro Highway, backing blues legends like Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Gatemouth Brown.
His reputation grew, and when he was 22, he traveled with Bruce Channel to England to tour in support of Channel’s hit “Hey Baby,” on which he played harmonica. Delbert and John Lennon spent time over a period of several days. The two 22-year old young musician/singers had a lot in common.
Delbert explains, “The Beatles were opening for us on the tour. They would open the show, then I would play three songs or so, and then Bruce (Channel) would come out and we would do the headliner set. John wanted me to give him some tips on harmonica. The story’s been romanticized. I didn’t really teach him. I showed him what I did. When to suck and when to blow. Nothing really more than that. Although it was a moment in time.”
Delbert returned to Texas and continued playing with legendary blues musicians, hitting the road when he could. During the 1960s, he married and had a son, Monty, before the marriage crashed. He continued playing in and around Fort Worth until he took up with a female friend who had just gotten divorced. She talked him into heading to Los Angeles.
So McClinton moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s to record with his songwriter partner, Glen Clark. The duo, under the name Delbert & Glen, released two albums with Atlantic Records. The relationship with the divorcee didn’t last long, but the day she left, he sat on the mattress in a dank rent house, and wrote a song about sweeping out a warehouse in West Los Angeles that became the first megahit for Emmylou Harris, “Two More Bottles of Wine.” And thus, began his series of “it’s all right” themes.
McClinton went home to Texas, met his second wife, and had his second son, Clay. They moved to Nashville, and he signed with ABC Records. In 1975, he released his first solo project, Victim of Life’s Circumstances. For the rest of the decade, McClinton released a string of successful albums and songs, including 1980’s Top 10 hit, “Givin’ It Up For Your Love.”
Changes in tax laws and liberal tax advisors caused Delbert and his friend, Willie Nelson to wind up in the same tax shelter boat in the early 1980s, a time that has often been called Delbert’s “Lost Years.”
“No. I wasn’t lost. I know where I was,” Delbert says, “ I was working for the IRS. They decided that I owed them several hundred thousand dollars. So I was playing for $700 a night and traveling with a loyal band, with the mattress I was born on under a camper shell in the back of the pickup Sometimes the feds would show up at the gig and want all of our money. But we managed to get to the next gig.”
Along the way, he met his forever wife, Wendy Goldstein, a news producer for NBC, who agreed to a date after he played Saturday Night Live. A whirlwind romance followed. (She admits that the network held a position for her for 18 months, just in case she changed her mind.) Nearly 30 years later, she is still on board. And thanks to Wendy, Delbert got straight with the IRS, and has celebrated the greatest successes of his career, including his third child, a daughter, Delaney.
McClinton earned his first Grammy nomination in 1989 for Live from Austin and his first win in 1991 for his duet with Bonnie Raitt on “Good Man, Good Woman.” The following year, McClinton collaborated on projects with Melissa Etheridge, Tom Petty, and Tanya Tucker, with whom he partnered on the popular, “Tell Me About It.”
McClinton earned two more Grammys and topped the Billboard Blues chart with a series of albums in the 2000s, including Nothing Personal, Cost of Living and Acquired Taste. He teamed up with Clark again for his most recent release, Blind, Crippled and Crazy.
Delbert is driven by the lessons of his mentors, and shares what he has learned with those who follow the path.
Delbert McClinton has big plans up his sleeve. This is a big year for the multi-Grammy award winner and legendary musician. In November, Delbert turns 75. Live shows have been his focus and bread-and-butter throughout his career.
He will be kicking off the yearlong Diamond Jubilee tour with more rocking energy than ever before. And it’s time. Last year was a turning point.
2014 was a rough year. In March, his son, Austin musician Clay McClinton, was in a car accident and suffered a head injury. Delbert and Wendy got the call in Nashville in the early morning hours from oldest son Monty, and flew to Austin to stay by Clay’s side in the hospital for several weeks.
Delbert said, “That’s when I met me. That’s when I met who I was. And life has changed a great deal since then.”
As Clay began to show signs of improvement, Delbert headed out to Florida for a show. He recalls, “We got to the venue. I thought I was having heartburn. It got worse. I knew something was not right. They called EMS. They checked me out and told me that I was okay now, but should probably go to the hospital and find out if I had a heart attack. I didn’t go with them, but had the promoter take me to the hospital, and found out that yeah, I had a little “nudge,” they called it. They did a heart cath the next day and found that I had 95% blockage in the main artery. A Widow Maker, they call it.”
Today, Clay has almost completely recovered from his head injury and is also playing shows again. “He’s grateful,” Delbert says. “His wife, Brandy, said, ‘Clay has really taken advantage of his second chance.’”
The same can be said for Delbert. He has also made an incredible recovery. Delbert returned to the stage two months after his April, 2014 heart surgery. “I didn’t know if I could sing. I didn’t know if I could be me,” he said, “but I found that I had so much more energy and more stamina. From 95% blockage to open road. It made a big difference.”
And now Delbert has taken to that open road, full speed ahead. He is playing in legendary, historic, and top venues from New York to California. He is planning his 22nd Annual Sandy Beaches Caribbean Cruise in January of 2016. He’s working on a new album, and plans to have it ready to go in time for the Diamond Jubilee Celebration. He has one of the hottest bands he has ever toured with. And he is writing like never before.
The music for the new album is new and fresh, and maintains that Delbert McClinton signature. He easily describes what some struggle to define: “Call it blues or country rock or American roots or whatever, but one of the most important things about my songs continues to be that there is always a way out. Nothing I write spirals into the abyss. It’s all ‘I’ll be all right.’ The music is mostly so positive, in that ‘I’ll be okay’… ‘and maybe if’… ‘I’m hoping that’ frame of mind…. I always want to have an uplifting draft in the breeze of the song.”
So what keeps the energy in more than 60 years of music? His incredible musical versatility has been a blessing and a curse. He has managed to stay ahead of the curve – rather than just riding the wave of musical popularity. He has paddled out and caught the wave as it is forming as an innovator in American music.