“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love Delbert McClinton and those who haven’t heard him yet. Delbert is always working on that second group.”
Delbert McClinton has been in the game for well over 50 years and does not appear to be stopping anytime soon. In fact, 2017 has been something of a milepost for the multi-Grammy Award-winning veteran. Well-versed in jazz, blues, roots, and country with even a glimmer of rockabilly for good measure, Delbert could never be put into a categorical box. He just is. The unmistakable harmonica in Bruce Channel’s 1962 #1 hit, “Hey! Baby”? Yeah, that’s Delbert.
It’s not just his ability to write songs, play guitar, harmonica, and the piano; it’s also his warm, soulful voice that affords him his loyal fanbase. One of the many qualities Delbert possesses is his kindness; he was kind enough to have a conversation with me about various highlights of his long-standing, iconic career. We chatted together about the class of musicians he has worked closely with throughout the years, his latest album, and early to present-day inspirations.
Be sure to catch Delbert at the 2018 Tampa Bay Blues Festival in Vinoy Park on the downtown waterfront of Saint Petersburg, FL; the festival starts on Friday, April 6th and goes until Sunday, April 8th.
Lauren for American Blues Scene:
Your latest album came out earlier this year, Prick of the Litter, correct?
Came out in January, yes.
Can you tell me — was big band the predominant inspiration for this one?
Well, you know, it was. But it wasn’t necessarily intentionally.
This is the product of me writing with some people I had never written with before. Those people are Bob Britt, who plays guitar with me and the band — and Kevin McKendree and I have written together — Kevin has been playing keyboards for me for a long time. Mike Joyce, who plays bass. One day, a couple or three years ago I called Bob and Mike up. I said, ‘Hey, let’s get together Wednesday and see if we can write something. We wrote three really good songs.’
Just like that, huh?
It just started coming out like it was meant to be. And so, we’ve been doing it with regularity. And of course, I have a lot of my influence; I was born in 1940. I was crawling around on the floor listening to all that music, you know? Today, in my car, I had Sirius Radio’s ‘40s Junction on — the music from the 40s.
Yeah, I can relate. I listen to ‘30s country myself.
So, you know, it’s kind of a zen thing for me. Some of these songs started out like — I mean, Bob started playing guitar and I started singing:
‘I like a lot of things that lovers used to do…’
And I can’t play those chords, so I had to have some help doing that. We discovered that we work exceptionally well together in that regard. These guys are family to me.
That’s just interesting to me because your music appears to be a spearhead of versatility. I hear roots rock with undercurrents of jazz and rockabilly.
It’s all there, you know. It’s all there. I’m a product of that time.
It sounds good to me.
I couldn’t be happier that I grew up in the time that I did, musically, because the music from the ‘40s on — it’s like taking off in a rocket.
Yeah, I hear you.
So, it’s a beautiful thing.
I was going to ask you if you ever had Marty Robbins in mind.
No, I haven’t. Because I can’t sing like Marty Robbins. I was around when Marty Robbins happened, and he was an addition to an already wonderful collection of new artists and new sounds.
Oh, he definitely is.
I’ve always loved him.
And there’s also a lot of people that are underrated.
Such as yourself.
Well, yes, I agree. I do. That’s ok. It just means they haven’t evolved enough to enjoy it. That’s the way I look at it.
Yeah. I hear you. Room to Breathe is an album of yours that is kind of a big deal to me because it features some real icons like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell… Could you describe your experience working with those musicians?
Well, those are all longtime friends of mine.
When we recorded “Lone Star Blues,” we just started collecting every Texan and a couple of people who weren’t Texans. And all of a sudden, everybody was in town which never happens. Never happens.
So, we did one in Texas and one in…
In Nashville — and just put it all together. It was what you call a gang thang. You know, kind of like everybody…
Yeah, everybody singin’ the chorus on the jukebox. Everybody gets a lick, you know?
Those were the days.
Well, those are still the days. You gotta make that kind of thing happen, you know?
Did Benmont Tench contribute to any of your songwriting?
I’ve always thought of him as the benchmark for rock and roll keys.
Benmont sets the benchmark for a lot of things.
Oh, I agree.
He is a very wise man and a wonderful guy.
Oh, I know.
I’ve written together with him on I don’t know how many songs. He came up with a line in “Living it Down.” He came up with the line, ‘I got the short end of the chicken.’
And he wrote one of the blues songs on Room to Breathe, right?
Yeah, we co-wrote “You Were Never Mine.”
Yeah, that’s the one I’m thinking of. So, he plays on those recordings as well?
He’s a perfectionist. He’s got high standards.
He’s a genius.
I love him. Yeah, he is a genius. I’m the biggest Heartbreakers fan.
You’re emotional about that, I’m sure.
I’m really sad about Tom.
Well, what can you say about that? Although, I’d rather go that way than to suffer.
He went down swingin’.
He sure did!
Like Tom Petty.
Exactly. You know, it’s terrible. But you can’t dwell on that because life is for the living.
I agree. Let’s just celebrate him.
Yeah, well, how can you not celebrate him? One of the songs he sang on with me, “Why Me,” we play it at my show every night. And when I heard he died the other day, all those memories came back of being in L.A. He would come in and sing the harmony on that.
You’ve quite the cornucopia.
I love a little bit of every kind of music, I think.
Me too. Rolling Stone has referred to you as a harmonica wizard and an Americana godfather. How do you find yourself identifying with that? How would you describe your role within that genre?
There is no role for me in that genre. You know, Americana — they’re trying to do something, but for the most part, to me, Americana seems more like folk music than — I don’t know. Obviously, they don’t see me as part of it either.
I asked you about Marty Robbins, but is there a folk artist that sticks out as a primary vocal influence for you? You definitely have your own style.
I don’t try to sound like anybody. I don’t do that because I’ve never even thought about it.
But I heard a voice the other night — there was a band that came through town that I had been wanting to hear for a couple of years called the California Honeydrops. Are you familiar with them?
Well, the lead singer in that band is the most important thing that I’ve heard in 35-40 years. I was just hypnotized by his ability to sing anything.
Well, that’s a lot coming from you.
Well, it’s true. He’s really good; they’re really good. Fantastic band.
So, California Honeydrops. I can remember that.
Yeah, you need to. Because they’re not like anything else going anywhere. A lot of people have never heard of them because they don’t understand, but what they do — there’s no shuckin’ and jivin’ — it’s for real. And they do it really, really, really good. They’ve been out the last couple of years opening shows for Bonnie Raitt. So, they’re serious. And I’m their #1 supporter.
Are you familiar with NRBQ?
You must be a baby. How old are you? Excuse me. I don’t want to know how old you are.
That’s ok! I’m 29.
Well, you’re a baby. You’re a little girl. And I don’t mean that condescendingly. As you grow, you go back and listen to something you might have heard before that didn’t really mean that much; and this time you say, ‘My god, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life!’
Right! Weird, because I was thinking about that the other day. I was listening to Bruce Springsteen. When I was a kid, I have to admit I wasn’t really into him. It just — I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the appeal. But now, it’s like — how did I not get that?
He’s a genius. I just didn’t know any better.
That’s what I mean about being 29. There’s so much you haven’t been exposed to. If you don’t know about NRBQ, you don’t know about Ray Brown. I’m talking about people who are musical geniuses.
That have influenced you.
That have influenced everybody or everybody at that time, and anybody who has ever — I’m sorry. We’re probably way off the tracks.
No, no. Don’t be sorry. This is how my interviews go. I like it.
Well, get on the computer or Spotify and listen to Ray Brown the bass player.
Ok. I have heard of him.
And it’s jazz. It’s jazz from the — oh, I don’t know — ‘60s?
I do like a little jazz.
Well, this is the best guy in the world.
I make my boyfriend go to live jazz with me. He gets bored stiff.
Well, listen to “Blues’d Out.”
That’s a good place to start, and that album with Ray Brown — I want you to do it because I think you’d be really impressed.
I will because you told me to!
It’s great music to just have in the background while you live.
Ok. Yeah, I’m all about the background music.
And there’s no loud guitars; there’s nobody trying to sing.
Yeah, I think some people don’t like jazz because it’s all over the place. But that’s kind of why I like it.
Not all of it. There’s all kinds of jazz. This is swing jazz, and you just can’t beat it. It’s just so real. It’s such a gift when you hear it. It’s like, ‘My god!’
It is. I love the jazz drums.
Well, you’ll love the bass if you listen to him.
Ok. I love the bass, too. Every band needs a good rhythm section.
Without a good rhythm section, there is no band.
Exactly. Forgive me, because this story has been aggrandized to hell and back, but do you think perhaps “Love Me Do” would have never featured a harmonica were it not for your pointers to John Lennon?
Ah, that’s bullshit. How are you ever going to figure something like that out?
I was just curious if you ever think about it.
Well, no. And let me tell you why: When that happened in 1962, we were the same age, John and I. And rock and roll wasn’t traveling all over the world every day. It was still pretty isolated all over the world. Everything that we did — there were no precedents for it.
You know, hey, we get to go to England and play. We were all on the show and, as far as we were concerned, every one of us was going to change the world. Why else would we be doing that, you know? And so, it was common ground.
And you were playing a gig in England with Bruce…
Channel, yes. I played harmonica on “Hey! Baby,” which was a worldwide #1 hit at the time. And the harmonica made — instantly, you heard the harmonica, and you knew what was coming. It identified the song. When Bruce went over there, he told the promoters, ‘Listen, I can’t do it without the harmonica, so Delbert’s gotta come with me.’ So, I got to go. And The Beatles were the opening act on a couple of the shows we did.
Every night, somebody from one of the other bands on the show — there were always at least two or three, sometimes five acts, that would start in the afternoon and go until midnight — but somebody from one or another band would come in our dressing room and ask me to show them how to do that. You can’t show anybody anything on the harmonica.
Well, that’s what I was wondering. I was wondering how that went.
Well, he did come in and ask. And we hit it off. We were all going to change the world, you know? No doubt about it. So, it was a fiery exchange of information trading and admiration. And then somewhere he said he was influenced by the harmonica on “Hey! Baby.”
And now it’s chiseled in stone that I taught him everything I knew. Those things get romanticized. The reality of it is very cool; it was not something realized until some years later that I was at a point and a time with The Beatles and yadda, yadda, yadda. And people get excited about those things.
Well, it is a good story, regardless.
It is a good story.
Because the Beatles weren’t a household name at that point, right?
Well, they weren’t — they were in England and Germany. They were the biggest thing going in England and Germany. They got their ideas for that hair deal from seeing German bands doing that. Anyway, it’s a good story.
It is what it is. And it’s great.
What’s in the works for you right now? I hear you’re playing the Tampa Bay Blues Festival. That’s 5 minutes from me, by the way, at Vinoy Park in St. Pete.
Really? Well, we’re leaving here at midnight to come that way.
Yeah, I live in downtown St. Pete.
Well, come see me! Come say hi.
Oh, I will.
My road manager is Molly…
Yeah, I’ve been e-mailing with her.
Well, tell her that I asked you to come say hi.
Ok, awesome! Are you working on anything in the studio?
We’re going into the studio at the end of this month, me and the same guys I’ve been telling you about. We’ve got about nine new songs that we’re going to go in and record.
Ok. Are you going to play any at the festival?
Not any of those, no. All they got now is us sitting around in a circle with a couple of guitars, which — they’re great that way. I want to put out a — whatever they’re called these days — an mp3 or whatever — of just songwriting deals, you know? Something fun to listen to.
Yeah! I’ll be looking forward to that. Well, Delbert, I thank you for your time!
Well, I thank you for your caring.
I really appreciate it. And I can’t wait to meet you and see you!
Oh, you’re going to love me. I’m just really charming.
Oh, don’t I know it!