Why Delbert McClinton Is an Americana Godfather

Texas-born singer has mixed country, blues and jazz over the decades, including on new album 'Prick of the Litter'

Delbert McClinton discusses his new album 'Prick of the Litter' and how his musical contributions helped shape Americana. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

History should not only be kind to Delbert McClinton, it ought to go out of its way to celebrate him. The Texas-born singer, songwriter and harmonica wizard has been rocking records and roadhouses for more than 50 years, with unparalleled musical versatility. Yet McClinton never quite gets enough credit as a pioneer of what we now label Americana, long before that genre even had an actual name.

From the early 1960s, McClinton has shown his slip-sliding proficiency in R&B, country, big band jazz and roots rock. You hear those influences on his latest album, Prick of the Litter, released January 27th, where bluesy workouts like "Skip Chaser" deftly balance with the jazzy "San Miguel" and "Like Lovin' Used to Be." The Memphis-inspired "Don't Do It," described by McClinton as a "shuffle blues" number, stands as the featured track.

"It was just great fun doing those songs," McClinton begins in his clear Texas brogue, not as raspy as one might expect from a lifelong (and at one time hard-living) bluesman. "Jazz and big band have always been a great influence for me and I wanted to do an album that had those styles in there." In particular, the tunes of composer Johnny Mercer and the elegant, silky stylings of Nat King Cole served as McClinton's inspiration for much of Prick of the Litter. "Crooners and big bands were so important for me in my childhood," he recalls. "Those were the guys I could listen to endlessly. That music impressed me then and I still love it."

Rock and blues, though, established him as a collaborator who did more than just show up to the session. His distinctive harmonica propelled Bruce Channel's "Hey! Baby" to Number One in 1962 and led to McClinton securing an overseas gig with Channel. On the bill were several British acts, including a then-unknown foursome called the Beatles. Much has been reported about McClinton's musical encounters with John Lennon, most of them highly exaggerated, or "romanticized," as McClinton politely pronounces.

"Every night, somebody would come and ask me to show them something on harmonica," he recalls. "The Beatles showed so much interest in it. But they weren't anybody then." Lennon simply asked for a few pointers and McClinton obliged. But over the years, history took the rewritten route. Some accounts even cited (inaccurately) that McClinton played the harmonica on the Beatles' "Love Me Do." McClinton sets it straight: "There wasn't much to it. John wanted some tips. I didn't teach him to play the harmonica, as some have said. But I guess people want a good story so the whole thing got romanticized." As such, he never exactly became the fifth Beatle. But McClinton has been a welcome guest on other superstar projects, both on vocals and harmonica.

McClinton could be termed the Vince Gill of his era, joining Bonnie Raitt on the 1991 Grammy-winning duet "Good Man, Good Woman" and reaching Top Five on the country charts with Tanya Tucker on "Tell Me About It" in 1993. He has also contributed to albums by Iris DeMent and blues legend James Cotton, exemplifying his sterling range and adaptability.

"Those collaborations are only great if the chemistry is great," McClinton explains. "I'm not a fan of putting people together just because they're good artists. That doesn't mean they're going to gel. With Tanya and Bonnie, I identified with both of their styles. And I love to hear Iris sing, so I knew we could work well. I have been fortunate to get to do those collaborations. If the singers don't mesh, though, it's all bullshit."

McClinton tends to downplay any role as an Americana godfather, though he enjoys the genre and has performed at the Americana Honors & Awards show in the past.

"I agree that I have always mixed country with rock and blues," McClinton says. "But is that Americana? I still don't really know what it is. It seems like Americana was also built on folk music, which I never really did. So it's hard to say. If people want to think of me that way [as a pioneer], that's great. I've never really been labeled any one thing."

What he does know is that, at 76, life couldn't be much juicier. "I'm having more fun with it than I ever have," McClinton says earnestly. "This band [Self-Made Men] is the best I've ever worked with. There is nothing off limits, nobody looking over my shoulder." 

With a robust and triumphant laugh, McClinton adds, "I can do any damn thing I want to."