Delbert McClinton Talks New Book, R&B Singer Who Changed His Life

Diana Finlay Hendricks' new 'Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few' traces the journey of rock and blues maverick

Delbert McClinton, shown here in 1979, is the focus of a new book about the singer-harmonica player's life and career. Credit: Kirk West/Archive Photos

Like a true-life version of Forrest Gump, Delbert McClinton witnessed, and even influenced, some of the most pivotal moments in modern music history. The Texas-born singer/harmonica master was around at the birth of rock & roll, saw firsthand the raw beginnings of the British Invasion, and helped establish Austin as a freewheeling music mecca in the 1970s, all before turning 40.

McClinton, now 77, recalls those signature times and other critical points in his life in a new biography, Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few, written by Texas music journalist Diana Finlay Hendricks and set for release on December 6th. The title is partly taken from one of McClinton's albums, but it aptly describes his extraordinary success in multiple genres of music – mainly rock, country and blues.

The story unfolds in chronological manner, starting with McClinton's birth in Lubbock, Texas, and the family's move to Fort Worth, the geographical equivalent of the "big city" in the early 1950s. In Fort Worth, McClinton was exposed to the sounds of Hank Williams and picked up his first guitar. But, as he relates in the book, a pulsating tune by R&B giant Big Joe Turner rocked his teenage world into a veritable frenzy.

"I was coming back from a camping trip," McClinton says, "and we were in this big field and I heard 'Honey Hush' by Big Joe Turner. I can't tell you exactly why, but his music just moved me. It changed my life completely." The speakers from a nearby drive-in restaurant were blasting the song loud enough for McClinton and his buddies to hear. "Big Joe Turner had it going," McClinton writes. "He was a honker and a shouter." A number of historians and archivists agree that Turner certainly stands as one of the architects of rock & roll. Turner had a hit with the now-classic "Shake, Rattle and Roll," a further influence on the young McClinton.

He became proficient on harmonica, and the seemingly innocuous instrument proved McClinton's early ticket to success. His unforgettable harp lead on Bruce Channel's 1962 pop single "Hey! Baby" propelled the song to Number One and led to a spot on an overseas tour with Channel. "Because Bruce wanted that harmonica on the tour, that started a whole new life for me," McClinton recounts in the book. The then-unknown band the Beatles served as one of the opening acts for Channel, and McClinton became friends with John Lennon, even giving him a few harmonica pointers.

His musical journeys also included dues-paying days in rough-and-tumble Texas roadhouses, as a member of bands with names like the Straitjackets. He led the house bands for bluesmen Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and others in desegregated clubs that served as primers in musical education. McClinton recalls his on-the-road life with exquisite detail, the result of some serious focus on recording meaningful events in writing. "I have kept notes throughout my career," McClinton explains. "In the Sixties, I always had these spiral notebooks right by my side. I was always looking for a short pen that you could put in your pocket, but I never could find one. They didn't come out with those until later. I don't know why I remember that, but it seems like I always had to find a pen or a pencil to write with."

The entire paper universe was his journal, according to author Hendricks, who has covered the Texas music scene for more than 20 years. "He gave me boxes of journals and song lyrics that were written on parking passes," she notes with some amazement. "He just kept everything. I was really lucky there. They helped paint a broader picture of Delbert as an artist and a musical influence."

Recollections from such artists as Joe Ely, Bonnie Raitt and Lee Roy Parnell add considerable weight to the text. Raitt, who recorded the "Good Man, Good Woman" duet with McClinton, raves, "He's one of the most soulful, powerful singers I've ever heard, writes great songs and plays killer harp."

Hendricks offers that her favorite portion of the book is Chapter 13, when Delbert meets his future and current wife Wendy. "You could almost call it 'Finding Delbert,' because that is what happened," Hendricks says. "She really did find him and help him straighten out his career." In the book, McClinton shares that, "She took a look at everything I had done, what I should have done, and what I wanted to do. Then she raked it all up into a pile and turned it into something." McClinton wrote the song "I Want to Love You" for her.

McClinton will use the term "befuddled" when asked about seeing his life in print. Ever humble, he's not sure what to make of all this attention. "I'm at a total loss for words," he says. "It's all kind of strange to me."

For Hendricks, the chance to tell the full McClinton saga was pure gold. "The way this got started was that I was asked to write a new bio for his website," she begins. "When doing the research, I realized that there wasn't a book about him. A lot of information about him had been piecemeal. What I discovered is that he's kind of like quicksilver," she adds. "Who he was in the Eighties is nothing like he was in the Sixties. There were a lot of rough roads out there and he learned his lessons the hard way. But I think people will see that he's had an amazing life."