Posted November, 2014
I was first turned on to Delbert McClinton almost thirty-four years ago when the Texas born singer came out with his smash hit, “Giving It Up For Your Love.” I mean, who can forget his memorable performance of that song on Saturday Night Live with the lovely and talented Bonnie Bramlett singing backup for him? Absolutely amazing!
Still recording, touring and performing for fans all over America, the man’s music is as fresh and relevant as ever. I recently caught up with Mr. McClinton by phone to talk about his current tour, the music business and his plans for the future.
Answering my question regarding how things are in his world these days, Delbert dropped a bit of a bombshell on me regarding his health.
“Well, I had a triple by-pass in April. It was successful. I didn’t have any heart damage. I knew something was wrong. So I listened to my body and they caught it. I had a ninety-five percent blockage in the main artery. He told me that I was just a breath away from being dead. So, that happened and that’s great. I’m back and totally recovered and ready for another fifty years.”
Naturally, this all begged the question as to whether or not this experienced changed McClinton’s perspective on life, relationships, career, content of songs or anything else.
“Yeah, it’s a life-changing event regardless of how it goes down. Like I said, I was very lucky. I was already in the process of recovery before I really even knew what I had. I mean, it happened so quick! Heart surgery these days, they make it seem like it’s no more difficult than changing a tire on a little girl’s bicycle. I went in there. They operated one day. I was walking around on the third day. On the fifth day, I was out of there with big ol’ heart shaped pillow to hug and, boy, I was glad to have it! It becomes your best and only friend for a short time – especially right after surgery because, if you cough, you need to have a pillow to hold you together. Ha! Ha!
“But, you know, that didn’t go on for long. It was just a matter of just a couple of weeks. And, yes, it did change my perspective on an awful lot of things. First of all, you realize that it doesn’t always happen to someone else. That’s a pretty big game-changer when you have to face the fact that you almost died from it. It gets your attention. But, at the same time, I feel – I don’t feel twenty years younger but I feel a whole lot better! My voice is better than it’s been since I was a teenager. I don’t know. I could go on and on about the aftermath of having heart surgery but the bottom line is I’m sure glad I didn’t die! Ha! Ha!
“I mean, I don’t mind dying. We’re all gonna die. But I wasn’t ready to die. Of course, few people are but I was certainly aware of the fact that, hey! I’m in trouble! So, it changes the whole way you think. I feel more at ease now because I know I’ve had something done that I corrected a major mess. Other than that, I’m relatively healthy. Life is good and I’m moving on.”
Putting a pleasant, humorous bow on the subject, Delbert said, “That’s the main thing that’s happened to me. That’s this year’s big deal. Ha! Ha!”
Another reason why I wanted to interview McClinton was I had learned that, as part of yet another busy touring season, he was going to be playing in my area - at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. I asked if he had performed there before.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve played at the Bijou before – several times! I love old theaters and that’s a good one!”
I asked what if McClinton’s performances have changed due to his surgery and what can fans expect from shows during this tour.
“It has changed but as far as trying to describe that, I don’t know how I would do that. I can’t not be different because something major occurred! I can breathe deeper than I’ve been able to breath in years. I don’t know, man, I don’t know. It’s all still pretty supernatural to me, in a way. In the last three years, my saxophone player had a heart attack while we were on the road and died after got him to the hospital. Then, my trumpet player had a heart attack on a day off while we were out. We took him to the hospital in Richmond, Virginia, and, after several hours, the doctor came walking out and said, ‘Everything’s fine.’ I saw him before he went in there and he looked awful! To see somebody walking after you’ve seen somebody that you just knew wasn’t going to make it . . . and he did! He’s back and healthy.
“You know, you gotta live every minute like it’s the last. It can be over at any second - like blowin’ out a candle. That’s how easy it is. So, with that in mind, I’m having a lot of fun because I nearly wasn’t here! Ha! Ha! I don’t want to ride on that because I’m not the only one in the world who’s ever had heart surgery but you asked me what’s going on and that has occupied my every thought for the last several months. I’m just a very fortunate guy. I’ve got a lot more music in me. I’m making preparations now for another record. I’ve almost got enough songs to do a double album. We’re in the process of putting that together.”
Is keeping the road fresh and non-monotonous a challenge for Delbert?
“Well, it doesn’t necessarily wear me down. I love to go out and make music. I hate the hotels. I hate the goin’ there. If I never walked into another hotel room in my life, it would be too soon. They’re all the same and it comes with the lunch, you know? If you’re gonna do this, that’s where you’re gonna stay.
“I don’t work as much as I used to. I usually work two to three days a week. That’s hard working but it takes up four days a week – with the comin’ and the goin’. So, I’m at home ‘bout as much as I’m on the road and I like that. I don’t spring back as quick as I used to. I’m real good for two or three nights but if I’ve got to do five or six nights a week – I won’t say I couldn’t do it but I sure as hell don’t wanna do it because it’s a young man’s game out here doing this. I’m so fortunate that I have a career that allows me to not have to work all the time. I’m sittin’ pretty, man!”
When I asked McClinton what has changed, positively and negatively, about touring, he replied, “The road never changes. It just never changes. Every time I go back out, it’s just like I left it. Fortunately, again, I have a band – we’re all really good, close friends. Nobody’s a jerk. We don’t have to baby sit anybody. Nobody’s an abuser. We’re all adults and we enjoy making music. That’s the premier thing that we do.
“I spent a lot of years – a lot of ‘em – being that guy, myself. But that was a long time ago. I’ve got no time for fools or jerks. There’s no room for that. When you’re closed up in a tube with a bunch of guys, one sour apple can screw up the vibes all the way through the place and nobody needs that kind of behavior. But there are an awful lot of jerks out there. It’s a skull orchard out there and they’re just dumb as a rock, a lot of ‘em and you just have to deal with that, you know? I’m certainly not sayin’ everybody but there are those the shade never comes down and says, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t do. Maybe you shouldn’t say that.’ So, you’re on a pivot, ready to get out of the way all the time with some people.
“An example of the kind of people I’m talking about: We played in Vegas once and the shortcut back to my room was straight through the casino. I kinda closed my eyes and turned invisible and headed off through the casino. Some woman at a slot machine saw me. ‘THERE’s DELBERT!’ Running over there and grabbed me and was hollering at everybody, ‘Look! I got Delbert!’ You know? That’s just really squirrely. Ha! Ha!”
Our conversation shifted over to the state of the music business and record companies in general. McClinton’s comments echoed what I’ve heard from other great artists.
“I don’t even think that there are such things as record companies any more. The thing that’s so incredibly difficult about it - and I don’t know how in the world they’ll ever stop it because you can’t. A good friend of mine is a writer and that’s pretty much all he does is be a songwriter. He’s written a lot of hits for people. Two years ago, his income went to one quarter of what it usually was because, once you record a song now, the minute you let it out, everybody’s got it. Anybody who wants it has got it. You can’t make any money. The only way to make any money is go perform.
“As far as making records, so many bands today give their records away just to create a fan base. Fortunately for me, I’ve got a fan base – a fantastic fan base. They’d take a bullet for me. That’s pretty special. I would hate to be a young guy trying to start out in this world today because, in the first place, I know anybody who starts out in this has the biggest dreams in the world. So many of them have confidence that will just scorch everybody else. But that’s not enough, unfortunately. You’ve gotta have more than that. The want-to is ninety-nine percent of it. The being-able-to is the other ninety-nine percent of it. It’s a hard way to make a living.
“Back when I started doing this, everybody in the world wasn’t in the business. But, today, it’s unbelievable, man. Everybody’s in it and, as hard as I try – well, maybe that’s not the right words because I don’t try that hard. I don’t listen to an awful lot of the new music. I’ve got a young daughter and she brings music around for me to listen to. But she grew up with me and I’d been feeding her Hank Williams and Ray Charles so I think she’s going to be okay. She’s got a good head on her as far as music goes.”
As our chat shifted gears, during the transition Delbert quoted Bob Dylan: “A lot of things get in the way when you try to do something right.” Both of us being Dylan fans, we chatted about the legend for a few minutes.
“It pisses me off every time I hear him say something because I go, ‘Damn! I wish I’d said that!’ He is the guy and always will be. He’s a phenomena that will keep people forever wondering, ‘What the hell?’ His word-smithing is just phenomenal!”
Still on a roll, talking about other great songsmiths, Delbert segued into talking about another artist.
“A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a Johnny Mercer CD that Clint Eastwood did called ‘The Dream’s On Me.’ I grew up listening to Johnny Mercer. He wrote ‘Moon River,” ‘Jeepers Creepers’ and ‘G.I. Jive.’ He was the voice of the Forties! He’s another tunesmith that puts words together that’s just unbelievable!”
McClinton then drew a comparison to today’s talent.
“I was reading an article here a while back. I try to stay away from things like this but Kanye West was running his mouth again. I think, ‘My god! How can anybody be so self-centered and stupid?’ He seems to think he’s God. He said that. I read that he said he’s a god. I’ve already had most of my life and I know where that heads to. It heads to a lot of really confused, uninformed, ultimately pitiful people. Not always but that’s the route, when you go to thinking that you’re the only one, that’s when they start heading for that brick wall. That ol’ brick wall is abrupt. I hit it three or four times and it’s a hard one to get past. First of all, you’ve got to admit that you’re wrong. For a lot of people, that’s a difficult thing to do.”
I’ve counted 28 studio albums that Delbert has recorded n(ot counting compilation albums). I’ve listened to his latest CD, “Blind, Crippled and Crazy” and absolutely love the amazing, “Just When I Need You The Most.” I said as much to McClinton, to which he responded, “I agree. I agree. And that record did absolutely nothing (sales wise)! It got a lot of great reviews. I think it was a great record. It was a lot of fun. Glen and I always have so much fun singing together. When we went back to do this, it was like we’d never stopped. We do it so naturally, it’s just like fallin’ off a log. We don’t even have to try to sing together. We don’t really sing harmonies together. We just sing different parts together. Because of it, it makes everything go up on two wheels every once in a while which I think is exhilarating.”
You’ll recall that, earlier in the interview, Mr. McClinton mentioned that he planned on going into the studio in the near future. I circled back to that comment and asked him if he had any idea how he was going to go with it.
“It’s going to go every which way. I’ve been writing with some different people. Al Anderson and I have written two or three songs together that are of a Dixieland style which is really, really cool. We’ve got three good songs, at least. My bass player and guitar player have been working together and we’ve got four great songs that are different for me. I don’t play anything real well. I play the pull and jerk method on the guitar – just enough to do my songs. But when I sat down to write with these guys, they are professional musicians. They know more than three chords. So we sat down together and started pushing stuff around and it enabled me to sing and play like I don’t ordinarily get to. When I write songs, I usually don’t write them with more than about three chords. Ha! Ha!
“So, stretching out in this way has allowed me to explore whole different areas of vocal style because, now, I’ve got somebody to write with that can bring that to the table, you know? So, we’ve been having a lot of fun doing that. And I’ve just written a lot of songs over the last several years. The other day I was lookin’ and I think I have sixteen new songs. If I had about twenty, I’d put out a double album. We’re working on that and it might just happen.
“But, in answer to your original question, it’s going to be varying, different styles, from blues to jazz to a kind of New Orleans/Dixieland kind of thing. So, so far, that’s a bunch of the feel that’ll be on this record.”
When I told Delbert that I love the blues and how he sings them and that I can’t wait to hear the new album where he’ll sing some more, he replied with the humor that he peppered our chat with by saying, “Well, you’re gonna have to.”
What hasn’t Delbert done that he would like to do, career-wise?
“Make a s*** load of money.”
There’s that humor, again.
“Nah, I’m just kiddin’. I’ve got no reason to complain. I’ve done very well. It took a long time to get there. I didn’t make any money in this business until I was fifty-one years old. So, the last ten or twelve years, for me, have been premier time as far as me being a stable commodity and that’s a great place to be, man. I work as much as I want to. You can’t beat that! Ha! Ha! It’s as good as it gets!”
In answer to my question about who he would like to work with but hasn’t yet, Delbert replied, “I would’ve liked to have sung with Tina Turner. I think it would’ve been great fun to do something with her. But I don’t know, any more, you know? I really don’t. I have, all of my life, been singularly obsessed with what I’m trying to do that I miss so much music in my life. I would not recognize a Grateful Dead song. I know everybody else in the world lived and breathed by the Grateful Dead. I don’t know anything they ever did. I mean, if you played me something, I would recognize it. But, as far as knowing who they were and what they did? No idea. And there are so many people that just went right past me for whatever reason.
“The only reason I bring that up is that I think it’s unusual that I was so preoccupied with I’m not even sure what. I was preoccupied with what I was trying to do that everything else went by like a sign on the highway. I can’t talk to anybody about music, about who played that lick, about who did this except in a small area of music. I spent my whole life living in this area with soft edges.”
Is there anyone relatively “new” that’s catching McClinton’s attention in the music world?
“The last person that I remember hearing that really pulled me out of wherever I was and got my attention was Maroon 5. Fantastic! Fantastic band! Adam Levine, he’s an impressive guy. You can’t not recognize that those guys are doing well and bringing something new.
“Here’s the other and this will probably blow your mind. It blew my mind. Lady Gaga is amazing! You need to check her out because she is real talent. There’s just no denying that, if you give her a chance – I mean, good god! She’s a power house, man! She and Tony Bennett did an album together and it came in at number one! Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. They are number one! He is amazing, of course. Since I’ve become a fan of hers – I’ve not heard the record yet but I have no doubt that it’s great.”
I had read that Delbert McClinton hosted the “Sandy Beaches Cruise” each year and asked him to tell me about it.
“This January will be the twenty-first year we’ve done it. It’s one week in the Caribbean with singers, songwriters, pony tricks and fire eaters and such and the music never stops. It goes from ten-thirty or eleven in the morning to five-thirty in the morning. People can sign up at 1-800-Delbert or Delbert.com.”
As to what is on McClinton’s career radar for the next year or so, he says, “Ha! Ha! Well, for the next year, I’ve got a record to make, which is always exciting. As far as whatever else, if I could just keep doing what I’m doing right now until I don’t want to do it any more, I’ll be a big winner.”
When Delbert steps off the tour bus for the final time and has gone to that great gig in the sky, how do he want to be remembered and what does he hope his legacy will be?
“Oh, man! That’s just fantasy, isn’t it? Well, when I hang it up, I hope it’s because I’ve dropped dead on stage because that would be the best way in the world to go out. Of course, you can’t pick that. I don’t know how to answer that question because it could be a real sappy answer if I’m not careful and I don’t want to have a sappy answer. When I’m done, I’m done. The last thing in the world I’d want to do is to have to answer questions like that anymore.”