Delbert McClinton's introduction, at 15, to R&B (starring Joe Turner as the voice of God) started him on a career as one of rock's most durable and eclectic performers. For forty years, McClinton has worked on his own blend of R&B, rock, blues, country and rockabilly. He's written hits for a string of country artists including Vince Gill, Wynona, LeRoy Parnell and Martina McBride. Waylon, Emmylou and Doug Sahm have covered his tunes. But he's never gone for a career in country music. "I hate to think about going any kind of way," McClinton said recently from Nashville. "I'd rather just go where what comes out takes me. I feel more comfortable just not trying to say, 'Well, maybe I need to sound more like that.' "
McClinton got down to the business of sounding like the music he heard in the black joints in Texas in short order. By his early twenties, McClinton and his band, the Straitjackets, were backing Turner and Howlin' Wolf when they came to town. McClinton laughs when asked if Turner gave him any advice. "Naw, he didn't have to give me any advice. He'd just count it where he wanted it and say, 'Make it jump.' And just his singin' is all the advice you need."
Howlin' Wolf wasn't a dispenser of advice either. "Out of all the guys I've worked with, he was the one anybody got least close to," McClinton remembers. "He didn't seem to be looking for new friends, you know?"
Wolf proved his lack of sociability the first night McClinton played with him. Without any preamble, Wolf just stepped off the stage, walked out on the dance floor and started singing. Then when he noticed he was singing a capella, he turned around, scowled and said, 'Come on, band!' The band quickly figured out the key and jumped in, and from then on knew what to expect.
The band only played with Wolf twice. "I remember 'cause the second time we did I was of course thinking about the first time. He was better about talking to the band, but he still wasn't lookin' for any friends," McClinton chuckles. "And I understand that. I'm sure he was a little uptight having to come in and play with a bunch of white boys down in Texas. But at the same time, it was the white boys down in Texas who knew how to play that shit."
McClinton agrees that there must be something in the water or the air in Texas that makes musicians in that area sound so unique. "I don't know. That's my home. I buy into all of that. You can get citizenship, but you gotta be born Texan. All that shit--it used to be funny back in the '70s, when it was all cool, but we've all come a long way since then. I think it's stupid for anybody to hoot about their state," he laughs. "But I'm getting to be old and it's all pretty much the same. You make of it what you will wherever you are."
McClinton's made a pretty good business out of the business of being Delbert. His latest release, Delbert McClinton Live, is a testimony to a career spent in honky-tonks with an arsenal of gritty, down home hits delivered in his sandpapery rasp.
You still can't find Delbert on your radio dial, and though he'd like to see that happen, it's not as important to him as it once was.
"You know, I don't much care anymore," he laughs wearily. "I'm doin' this for me. Me and other people. There are other people that understand it and like it, and that's good. Hey, I got the world by the tail."