“Ooh, baby!” Delbert McClinton exclaims upon hearing that he’s being interviewed for the American Songwriter “Legends” issue. Then he laughs a little self-consciously. “I don’t ever think in terms like that, it’s just that … it’s awkward to be a ‘legend’ for me, you know what I’m sayin’? It’s awkward for me to talk about myself.”
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If McClinton doesn’t want to talk about himself, though, plenty of other people will, and there’s been no shortage of words about him during a career of over six decades. From opening for some of the greats of the blues world as a teenager in Texas, to duetting with Bonnie Raitt and Tanya Tucker in the 1990s, to touring behind his latest album, Tall, Dark and Handsome, with his band Self-Made Men + Dana, McClinton has seldom been idle. Only a handful of artists can ever hope to match his lengthy discography, and his work first appeared on the national charts in 1962 when he played harmonica on Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby!”.
Since he doesn’t want to talk about himself, the subject is changed to one of his favorite things, songwriting. He’s well-known as the sole writer of the classic leavin’ song “Two More Bottles of Wine,” which has been cut by artists like Emmylou Harris and Martina McBride. “In the last six or seven years,” he says, “me and some of the guys in the band that I’m part of – I don’t like to say it’s my band – we have found great success in writing together. We just decided to try it one day, and now we (McClinton, Bob Britt and Kevin McKendree) have a real strong love for doing this together because it’s been working so well. We just sit down and start writing songs. I’ve already got about seven songs written for a new record, and I’m thinking about an album that’s just acoustic, maybe just guitar and piano or two guitars, because we’ve been writing that way and it just sounds so pure and clean and nobody’s in anybody’s way. And we’re all adults, so we’re writing rock ‘n’ roll for adults.”
McClinton, to many, is a legend by association because of the time he spent with one of the biggest music legends ever, John Lennon. In the spirit of setting the record straight for good, McClinton recounted once and for all what his relationship with Lennon really entailed.
“When I met Bruce Channel, he played me a song he had called ‘Hey! Baby!,’” he says. “I put some harmonica on it, we recorded it in one or two takes. ‘Hey! Baby!’ became a big hit and Bruce went to England to play, and he insisted that I go with him so I got to go. The Beatles were the opening act on a couple of shows we did, and the first night we played with them John came into the dressing room – this was before they were ‘THE Beatles,’ right?, and they hadn’t changed the world yet. And we were all gonna change the world. There was no hero worship. We were a bunch of guys, 22 years old I was, and I was intent on changing the world myself. That was how full my heart was of passion and still is. And John asked me to show him how to play harmonica, and I said I wasn’t really sure, it’s kinda like masturbation, you fool around with it long enough and you’ll figure it out. They were great, they were really great. Pete Best was still the drummer so there were still some changes to be made. We hung out, he took me out and showed me a world I never imagined. There was already beatniks overseas and people in old beanbags having sex … it was bizarre. And that’s what it was. It did happen, and we did shoot the shit. I saw him about three times. You have to put it in perspective to the times, it was almost 60 years ago.”
As for the current crop of blues-influenced musicians these days, McClinton isn’t easily impressed but is still hopeful. “I’ve had about all the guitar masturbation I can take, guys just up there noodlin’,” he says. “The one guy I can stand to listen to forever is a guy you probably haven’t heard of yet, the son of Kevin McKendree who plays keyboards with me, Yates McKendree. He knows all the honest-to-God notes that the greats played, and he plays it properly. He plays the kind of guitar that moves you inside, doesn’t just assault your ears. There’s a difference. There are too many guys who are all over the guitar and are saying nothing.”
Now 79, McClinton is still out spreading his rockin’ country-blues gospel. “I can’t spend as much time on it these days as I used to, but I still play about four shows a month. This is the best time of my life right now. I like to say that my success really started when I turned 70. It’s been a lot of fun, and I somehow keep on being able.”