Recorded in Nashville last September, this week’s episode of Walking the Floor captures a 50-minute conversation between podcast host Chris Shiflett and blues belter Delbert McClinton. Both musicians were in town for AmericanaFest, with Shiflett playing a string of solo shows during the weeklong event and McClinton receiving the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s appropriate, then, that their conversation focuses on a lifetime of musical memories, from McClinton’s childhood in Texas to the career that’s taken him around the world.
His unique approach to American roots music was shaped by the songs he heard on Texas radio in the 1940s and early Fifties.
“I heard everybody from the Forties when I was a kid,” he remembers. “It’s still my favorite music. Nat King Cole, anything Johnny Mercer did, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra…” That said, one artist looms above the rest in his list of influences. “Hank Williams is God,” McClinton says definitively. “He’s never been surpassed.”
McClinton’s first band wasn’t very good, but that didn’t stop them from booking gigs.
“I knew a guy who had a snare drum, a high hat, and a rack tom,” he remembers. “We both wanted to make music. I knew another guy who played terrible saxophone, but he was the only guy I knew [who played] and he was willing. The very first night Jerry Lee Lewis ever played the Sportatorium in Dallas, 1957, with “Great Balls of Fire,” me and my band that couldn’t play at all were the opening act. We had four guitar players! Nobody could play!”
He began touring internationally in the early Sixties, building a diverse career long before MTV permanently reshaped the game.
“When MTV came along, this is what I saw over a period of time: being a good lyricist or singer took a quick backseat to dancing,” he laments. “It became about spectacle. And boy, are we in a world of spectacle.”
It was during of those international tours where he met a young John Lennon.
McClinton flew to London in 1962 to perform with Bruce Channel, whose hit “Hey! Baby!” made heavy use of McClinton’s harmonica playing. “I’d been playing harp for awhile and didn’t realize until I got over there that people thought it was quite unique,” he remembers. “Every night, somebody from one of the other bands [on tour with Channel] would come to the dressing room with a harmonica and say, ‘How do you do that?’ Of course, you can’t show anybody that. Playing harp is kind of like masturbation: you fool around with it, you figure it out. That’s where you woodshed, baby!”
When the band played a New Brighton club called the Castle later that year, McClinton found himself impressed with the opening act. “That’s when I saw the Beatles first,” he remembers. “They opened the Bruce Channel show! This was ’62; Pete Best was drumming… That night, John came in and we shot the breeze. We got along pretty good. I was off one night in London, and he came by and picked me up — he and a couple of his friends — and they took me out and introduced me to the devil. Just use your imagination and you got it. The whole scene over there was pretty wild. You think about Berlin in the 20s, which was the most decadent place in the world, and those guys spent a lot of time in Berlin.”
Eventually he headed to California, where he reunited with old friend Glen Clark to form the short-lived duo Delbert & Glen.
McClinton had met Clark in Texas, back when a young Clark would occasionally crash McClinton’s band rehearsals. Clark moved out to Los Angeles years later, after growing into an accomplished musician himself. McClinton briefly stayed behind in Texas, although the lure of the west proved difficult to shake. “I was playing this beer joint one night, and this woman comes in that I’d known for years and hadn’t seen for years,” he remembers. “And she looked great! And she’d just gotten a divorce and a ’66 Chrysler Imperial and a pocket full of money. And I had said, ‘Hey, you wanna go to California?’ And so we went to California. That’s where ‘Two More Bottles of Wine’ came from.”