Gary James' Interview With
Delbert McClinton

He played harmonica on Bruce Channel's "Hey! Baby". The Blues Brother recorded his song "B Movie Boxcar Blues". In 1980, he had a Top 40 hit with "Givin' It Up For Your Love". He showed John Lennon a thing or two about playing the harmonica. He won a Grammy for his duet with Bonnie Raitt, "Good Man, Good Woman" in 1991. He was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2011. We are speaking about Mr. Delbert McClinton.

Q - Mr. McClinton, you are the real deal! You have backed Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Lightin' Hopkins. Others may say they play the Blues, but you really know it.

A - Well, I don't know how much I know, but I'd lived through it.

Q - You do have the feel for that type of music.

A - I suppose. It was so different back then. It was nothing like it's like today at all. All of those artists were around, all of those great artists that made all of that music we were all crazy about. During the late '50s and early '60s it was all on the radio. It's not anymore.

Q - I'm not sure that material was being played in the area where I grew up.

A - Well, in Texas it was. There was a Black radio station. Of course this was back in segregation. There was a radio station in Dallas called KNOK radio. When me and my friends discovered it, it was like finding a way into Heaven, because it was the only station around where you could hear one great Black artist after another. Just one after another. That's where I learned what I learned, from those guys and from that opportunity and from that radio station.

Q - I take it Pop music never appealed to you.

A - Of course it did, but I'm talking about a centralized place where you could hear that music. KNOK radio was that place, and it went all day long. When I was growing up, I heard Charles Brown. I loved Charles Brown and a lot of the artist at that time who were better known. It was just a spot where we learned an awful lot about something we wanted to know about.

Q - Since you are from Lubbock Texas, would you have crossed paths with Buddy Holly or Waylon Jennings at any time?

A - No, they were both a little older than me and I moved away from there when I was 11 years old. But my older brother went to school with Buddy Holly.

Q - He did?!

A - Yeah, but by the time they hit, they were all out of school and scattered all over the place. So it wasn't important in that effect that he never mentioned Buddy Holly.

Q - But, he was in his class?

A - Yeah.

Q - He probably never saw him perform at a school dance.

A - No. Not at all.

Q - You toured the UK and taught John Lennon how to play Blues harmonica? That's what they say.

A - Oh, I know what they say. They will tell you all kinds of things. But, that kind of thing gets romanticized a great deal, naturally. The truth of it was that I of course played harmonica on "Hey! Baby" by Bruce Channel. When the song was a big hit in the UK, they booked him and said, "We've gotta have the harmonica player." So, I got to go along. The Beatles were the opening act on a couple of shows that we did and they came out to a couple of other shows we did. I might have spent altogether six or seven hours mainly with John because on a couple of nights off. He came by and picked me up in London and took me to some places in London that just blew my mind!

Q - How so?

A - As far as rock 'n roll wise, what was going on there as compared to what was going on over here. At the time we went over there, there was no Rolling Stone. The only information you could get on artists was from the popular song books which gave you the words and tell you what some artist's favorite color was. That's about as far as it went. But in London in '62, people were walking down the street with gig bags, guitars over their back. On every little corner there were kiosks with five or six music newspapers that you could just devour. That was all happening before it was happening over here.

Q - In 1962, The Beatles weren't wearing their trademark Beatle haircuts, were they?

A - They didn't have it that long, no. In fact, it was rather short at that time. But, within a year or so they all grew their hair out.

Q - What kind of music were they playing? "Covers"?

A - They were playing a lot of "covers", but they were playing some of their own songs. You gotta keep in mind that they hadn't changed the world yet. So we were all over there. It was my first time ever to go anywhere outside of Texas or New Mexico or Oklahoma. So, you can imagine the thrill I had getting to go anywhere, especially to England. We were all on common grounds, so to speak. All of us had plans to change the world. Everybody was a little bit awestruck with the others as far as me and Bruce and the English guys because you know back at that time there was few precedents in rock 'n roll. You kind of just did it all flying by the seat of your pants. So, it was fantastic and very interesting. We all had at that time our own individual plans of changing the world musically.

Q - Did you look at The Beatles and say to yourself, "I see these guys going over in the US" or "I see this whole British music scene going over in the US"?

A - It was great. That's what I'm saying. Rock 'n roll was really digging in a whole lot harder there at that time. Although it had come from here (the US) they picked up on it and they were going at it big time. It was much more a public face than it was over here (the US). I can remember in 1962 I was working in a bar band and that meant absolutely no trust at all. I was young and had just gotten married and if you had to go down and get your electricity or gas turned on and you put down "musician" as an occupation, well they wanted you to pay two months upfront to start with because you're not trustworthy. That's what the face of rock 'n roll was at that time. It was not a legitimate thing in the eyes of city government so to speak.

Q - What then did you put down as your occupation?

A - I put down "musician". I mean, I was proud of it. But they always gave me a funny look, which during that day and time, it was legitimate to an extent because you don't make any money in a bar band. But my ambition was so far beyond that. But, you have to go through it before you can be part of it. Going through it at that time meant very little respect from that quarter of the population because a lot of times you couldn't pay your bills. It was just so completely different, which is natural. The artists that we backed up were working eight nights a week just to make a living, and getting paid very little and getting very little respect and not being able to stay in the same hotel as White people. It was something that I was very close to because I thought all the time, a lot of those guys were my heroes. I didn't think about that so much. I grew up in a time when Blacks and Whites were separated. That's just the way it was. But these people were people that had all the information I wanted. So, I spent a lot of time when I got the opportunity to sit (down) and get Jimmy Reed or Buster Brown; Buster Brown was a fantastic harmonica player. The notes he couldn't play on the harp, he could holler. It was magic. These people were big superstars. They were people playing the Blues and living it. Actually living it.

Q - Since you worked with Bruce Channel, you must have known his manager / record producer, Bill La Carn Smith.

A - Oh, my God! (Laughs).

Q - When I interviewed him, he went by the name Major Bill Smith. He told me he talks to Elvis and Elvis faked his death.

A - Did you see that book he put out?

Q - I didn't see it.

A - He had lost his mind by then. He was card-carrying crazy.

Q - Did he talk to you about Elvis?

A - Yeah. He always fancied himself a bargain-basement Col. Parker. The way he became a manager was he was in the Air Force. Somehow or another, I forget how it happened, he burned his hand real bad. When they mustered him out of the Air Force, they mustered him out as a Major. So, from the day I met him, all I knew was Major Bill. He was a character. He was a real character. Everything he recorded he thought was a smash hit. That was his words, "It's a smash!" I'll tell you what it was like playing harmonica on " Hey! Baby". I made five bucks.

Q - Five bucks?

A - Five bucks.

Q - That was a big hit too.

A - Yeah.

Q - Did Major Bill make anything?

A - Yeah. He made all of it just about. Back in that time, that's when people were still saying "You need to sign this publishing deal. It's standard procedure." Well, it was standard procedure because nobody knew any better, so you sign your publishing away. But Bill wasn't really a mean, bad guy. He wanted to be a big record producer so bad that he worked about as hard as anybody I ever saw, but he really didn't ever get much done. I mean he had some big hits. Besides "Hey! Baby" he had Paul and Paula's "Hey Paula" and "Last Kiss", J. Frank Wilson, which were all massive hits. So, he made a lot of money.

Q - What caused him to go crazy?

A - Well he was always a little bit wacky because he was real blustery. He'd come into a room and talk all this trash, but after you'd be around him a while you'd realize he's mostly just full of shit. He did work at it. The night I met Bruce Channel is the night we recorded "Hey! Baby". We recorded about three songs and when we finished, I can't remember what the flipside was of "Hey! Baby", but that was the one that Bill thought was going to be the smash. We all told him that night, "You're crazy. The smash is Hey! Baby." He was always checking around some of his nemesis guys. He talked to Huey Meaux. He was the Bill Smith of Houston. Huey Meaux put out a lot of Black artists. Huey Meaux instantly offered him $500 for half of "Hey! Baby". And at that point Bill realized; I mean he wouldn't listen to us, but what ever Huey Meaux said, well, Bill liked to know what he was thinking because in my opinion he kind of figured he knew better than he did. So, Bill changed the single release to "Hey! Baby". He didn't give Huey Meaux any of it, but he found out what he wanted to know from Huey Meaux and Huey was crazy about "Hey! Baby", so he said "Well, that's what I'm gonna do." And that was the hit.

Q - Do you believe major Bill had any contact with Elvis?

A - Not at all. That was all in his mind. It just was. He didn't have any connection to talk to Elvis or any reason for Elvis to call him. When he wrote that book, I bought it in a 7-Eleven store. That's the only place he could sell it. You couldn't even follow one page and have it make any sense. I already knew he was getting older and a little bit wacky; At that point I had nothing to do with him for some time. You know, I don't want to talk bad about the guy because there is no point in that.

Q - You have been on something like a dozen record labels. Who did the best job promoting your career?

A - (Laughs). The current record company I work for right now. Every record company except one went out of business with me on the label from 1972 until 1991 or 1992. Every one of them. ABC, Capricorn, MSS Capital, Rising Tide, Dunhill. 20 years of record companies going out. When Capricorn folded, I had a record in the Top 100, way down deep, but in the Top 100 on Billboard. Same thing with Rising Tide. I had "Roll The Dice" out and it was going good. It got up to number seven on the Billboard charts. All of a sudden one day I got a call and the parent company of Rising Tide just shut the company down. Just like that. In one day it was all over. They even had a couple of the producers that were in the studio in Nashville working that day on recording artists. They called over and just said, "Stop everything. It's all over." Universal was the parent company of Rising Tide.

Q - There is no business like show business.

A - (Laughs). You got that right.

Q - You had this big hit in 1980, "Givin' It Up For Your Love"...

A - That label also went out of business. I had two (records) that did well, "Roll The Dice" and "Givin' It Up". Both companies went out of business with me and a record out. So, it's just wacky man. It is what it is and it's all good. I learned a lot. I learned a hell of a lot. I learned that by the time I put out "Nothin' Personal"... It's just another crazy story in the world of rock 'n' roll. God knows there's millions of them.

Q - After "Givin' It Up" you got out of the music business?

A - Right about that time I had a tax accountant that got me in a tax-shelter that got disallowed right at the end of the time period. At that time I was making about $750 a night for me and my band and that had to cover travel, gasoline, hotels and salaries. So, I didn't make any money. I didn't stop because if I stopped I had to get a job and I don't want a job. I don't want to work for somebody else. I want to do what I want to do. I've done this my whole life because of the love for it. I certainly couldn't make any money, not until about 1993. It was just a whole new world every day.

Q - In December 2011, you appeared on the Fox Business Network Channel. What was that all about?

A - Well, I've done that several times. Don Imes has a show on Fox Business Network. He's a longtime friend of mine. When he got syndicated, in an interview on TV he said, "There's three things I want to do now that I'm syndicated; I want to make my brother a millionaire, I want to make Delbert McClinton a household name" and I forgot what the third was. (Laughs). But he's still got a major show on TV right now today, every morning. He's the only real shot I get at TV. He'll let me come on the show anytime I want to. That's about the only TV I get. Every time I go play, I meet people who say, "We heard about you on the Imes show." So, it's done a great deal of good. A lot of good things have happened to me, but they usually come in the back door somehow.

Q - Well, at least they come.

A - Oh, I'm not complaining. Looking back and counting up all the ways things have come about have always come through the back door. No big fanfare. It just comes through and somehow works.

Q - How many bar bands would love to have a hit on the radio.

A - Yeah, well that's everybody's dream in this music. Well, it's most people's dreams. I can remember back in Texas I'd get a gig and put a band together. In the later years in Fort Worth, before I moved away, there were a lot of times I'd get a gig and put together a band with whoever I could find. I knew everybody in town and we could play together. So, this was kind of at the end of anything I could do living in Fort Worth. I'll never forget this, one guy, a bass player, him and his brother, a guitar player, I called them to see if they wanted to play that night. All they wanted to know was "How much beer can we buy with what we make?" The point I was making was everybody didn't want to be in a band and have a hit record. A lot of them just wanted to play and drink and chase women. But I wanted more than that.

Q - And you got it!

A - Well, I did.

Q - Did you write "Givin' It Up For Your Love"?

A - No. A good friend of mine who is dead now, Jerry Lynn Williams wrote that song. He was an amazing writer and singer. First time I heard this song years ago I was over at another friend's house and he said, "Have you heard Jerry's new record?" Jerry lives in Dallas. I lived in Fort Worth. We were all aware of each other. I said, "No". The album was called "Gone". On the cover was a picture of a hand with one finger missing. This friend of mine played me Jerry's new record and I was a big fan of his. But the one song that just jumped out at me was "Givin' It Up For Your Love". I zeroed in on it. Shortly thereafter I got this deal with Muscle Shoals Sound Capital. It was all with Muscle Shoals guys. Barry Beckett was producing the record. First day in the studio I said, "Here is our hit." He played it and agreed. And it was.

Q - Were you in Texas on November 22, 1963?

A - You mean when the killing happened?

Q - Yeah.

A - Oh, yeah.

Q - Were you in Dallas or Fort Worth?

A - I was in Fort Worth. Before they (President and Mrs. Kennedy) went to Dallas, they stopped in Fort Worth. I was working at a men's clothing store and playing gigs at night. I had to leave the store to go pick something up in another part of town and it so happened that the route I was taking was the route that the President was taking to Carlisle Air Force Base to go to Dallas. They had police coming in front of him and made everybody pull off to the side of the road so the President's bunch could go through. They drove by and I was about six feet from him. Sitting in back of a Lincoln convertible. By the time I got back from this errand I was running, I walked back into the clothing store and this guy said, "Did you hear what happened?" That's when I found out. The other part of that is in the months after that, the FBI came to see me. I'd gone to get a pizza and I came back. My wife and son were out and I noticed this government green, unmarked, no chrome car sitting in front of my house. My first thought was that looks like police. I had no problem. I had no problem with the police. But, I recognized that as looking like a government car. I walked in my house and there's these two FBI agents standing there. They had found my phone number in Jack Ruby's phonebook, personal little phonebook. They were just checking everybody out.

Q - Why would your number have been in his book?

A - I played some of his clubs in Dallas.

Q - Which ones?

A - I don't remember which one. He had three or four clubs. That's so far back. In fact, I didn't play his clubs a lot, but I've played them some.

Q - So you met Jack Ruby?

A - Oh, yeah.

Q - What kind of guy was he?

A - He was a club owner. They are all the same. He had a strip club. You can imagine what he was like. As a matter of fact, when they were talking to me about that, they had to remind me who he was. They asked me if I knew Jack Ruby. Of course when they said they found my name in his book, then it registered. Oh yeah, well that's the guy's clubs I played in Dallas. I didn't really know him. I spent my life trying not to know any of those club owners very well, because I didn't need to know them well. They had nothing I needed really. Just give me the money and leave me alone.

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