Songwriter and singer Delbert McClinton has a blues musician's perfect biography, complete with humble beginnings in Texas and rock ‘n' roll schooling in tough honky-tonks. Today, McClinton's music, which is far from genre-specific, seems to have swayed, like his life, in every deep note.
In a slow drawl that somehow echoes his childhood in Fort Worth, he says, "The blues are just a part of who I am. I'm a big fan of blues music. And I am known for blues probably because of my harmonica. But really, I am as big a fan and player of rock 'n' roll and jazz. I consider that I could probably do anything I'd like to do. I don't feel restricted."
Musically, he says that his desire to be an entertainer "started before I was even aware of it." His first memory is of a great love of 1940s Texas radio and listening to his teenage aunt's "race records."
"I was listening to Amos Milburn and Charles Brown and Ray Charles," he says. "I didn't know where you could get that music. But I didn't really think about again until I moved to Fort Worth."
McClinton is able to recall a specific day that changed his life. It was back in 1952; he was a fifth grader spending the summer break in Sweetwater, Texas, with his family.
"I was staying with my mother's sister's son, and my Uncle Earl, who was the meanest man in the world," he says. "He drank. But he heard me singing—I think it was ‘Hey Joe'—out back in the yard. My cousin and I had a bed that we played and slept on. My uncle got so excited he ran in the house and told my Aunt Marie. He turned into a whole different person. It was like some reunification."
His Uncle Earl was a milkman and employed the young McClinton to deliver milk to people's door for 50 cents a day. ""My uncle had me singing for all the other milkmen before 6 a.m.," McClinton says. "I was the hottest thing in Sweetwater. And I thought, ‘Boy, now that's fun.'"
In his long career, there have been many memories and myths. He began his first group—"five guitar players that couldn't play, a high-school sax player, and a drummer with a floor tom and high-hat cymbal and no bass"—to feed his calling. "We got on playing the Big D Jamboree (in Dallas). That was a big deal then—like the Grand Ole Opry to folks in our parts. We were awful. Still, I signed my first autograph."
But McClinton says that's not the greatest part of the evening for him. "It was the first time that Jerry Lee Lewis was going to be there. I got to see Jerry Lee Lewis. He was banging on the piano and he kicked the rear right leg of his bench. This leg was sticking up at a 45-degree angle and everyone is watching if he's gonna sit back down. Then when everybody thought he was going to sit back down on it he kicks it all the way across the stage. And I was less than 20 feet from the whole thing."
Since that evening, McClinton says, "I have worked for whatever talent I've got." And that he "worked a long time" to hone his craft.
"I wanted to play the harmonica real, real bad," he says. "I'm the biggest Jimmy Reed fan. And I got to work with him quite a bit—on-the-job training. He was a huge influence for me after my youth, along with Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams."
McClinton has focused those influences into a career of mixing blues, R&B, country, and rock 'n' roll into his own distinctive style, which shows up most recently on his 2009 album Acquired Taste.
Now famous in his own right, there is one fallacy that has endured through the decades. It's the legend of the legend. Rumors say McClinton taught John Lennon to play the harmonica for "Love Me Do."
"I had nothing to do with it," he says. "They had already recorded it by the time I met him. But he wanted to know how I'd played my harmonica on ‘Hey Baby.' He asked me if I'd played a chromatic on the song. I told him no. It's now chiseled in stone that I taught him every fret he drew on. But the story's good, huh?"
This story originally appeared in Metro Spirit.