Delbert McClinton is kind of a pack rat.
The Lubbock-born, Fort Worth-bred musician has been gigging and touring for more than 60 years, from Jacksboro Highway clubs during the 1950s to a show Friday night at Dallas’ Granada Theater. And he has kept a lot of mementos from those days.
“For some reason, I thought it was important,” McClinton says during a phone interview. “For what reason, I don’t know. For example, when I moved out to California the first time, I wore a pair of shoes out there that I really thought were really cool. They were black, tan, buckle on the side ... When I quit wearing those shoes, I looked at ’em and I thought, ‘My God, they’re really ugly. I oughta keep those.’ And I did. And I even shoved a hundred-dollar bill down in the toe of one of ’em.”
Also on this phone interview is Diana Finlay Hendricks, author of the recently published “Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few,” the first biography of McClinton, who turned 77 in November.
You’d expect McClinton’s pack-rat ways to be a gift for any biographer, and according to Hendricks, a veteran Texas music journalist, you’d be right.
“I had boxes and boxes of material that Delbert and [current wife] Wendy so graciously sent down to Texas for me to go through, and for about a year and a half, I didn’t see my dining-room table,” Hendricks says. “All kinds of things. Songs written on the back of a Fort Worth Stock Show parking pass. There were telegrams and notes and backstage passes to Carnegie Hall that he saved. That’s any biographer’s dream, to have someone save so much of their own history.”
Hendricks’ book follows the eclectic singer-songwriter from Lubbock and Fort Worth through days in Los Angeles, Austin and Nashville, as well the pioneering “Sandy Beaches Cruise,” a blues-rock-country excursion that will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. Along the way there are breakups, tragedies, and a who’s who of musicians who have performed with McClinton, including Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, John Belushi and more.
“One of the things that I found most interesting was that all roads lead to Fort Worth,” Hendricks says. “I didn’t realize going into this how many people who are still connected today, and closely connected and still close friends and business associates, started out in that same little corner of the world. I talked to Glen Clark and he said, ‘Well, you need to talk to T Bone Burnett,’ I talked to T Bone Burnett — all of them were Fort Worth kids running around with big dreams. That was really exciting, to see how many people had deep roots in Cowtown.”
The book is a brisk read. Not counting the foreword (by McClinton fan Don Imus), acknowledgments, appendices and notes, it spends 205 pages telling McClinton’s story.
Here are some of the stories Hendricks used — and some she didn’t.
The story behind “Hey! Baby”
This 1962 hit by Fort Worth’s Bruce Channel kicks off with McClinton’s instantly recognizable harmonica line, a hook that was a big reason the song was a hit. Not long after, Channel was an opener for the Beatles, leading to an urban legend that McClinton taught John Lennon how to play harmonica. That myth has long been debunked — McClinton just gave him tips — but the song’s developments have been talked about less.
The record was produced by Major Bill Smith, a longtime character on the Fort Worth music scene who modeled himself after Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
“He wasn’t really a record producer,” McClinton says. “He was a retired major from the Air Force, World War II. He’d gotten bad burns on his hands, and they promoted him to a major when he was discharged. So he was Major Bill. ... He had all this energy, everything was ‘It’s going to be a smash!’ So he was active in recording people at that time in Fort Worth. He was the only guy that was active.”
Smith asked McClinton to gather some musicians for a recording session to back up an artist Smith had found. McClinton got a couple of guys from his band, a couple of other musicians he knew, and went to the studio.
“That’s where I met Bruce the first time,” McClinton says. “And we became good friends immediately and still remain good friends. We cut about four sides that day, and when we went to record ‘Hey, Baby,’ Bruce just started playing it on the guitar, and I start playing the harp part. It was like I already knew it. It was just, ‘That’s the way it should go.’
“We did that in two or three takes, and Major Bill thought the flip side of it was going to be the hit, which was a song called ‘Dream Girl,’” McClinton continues. “We were all saying, ‘ “Hey! Baby’s” the hit!’ And he didn’t decide it was until [producer] Huey Meaux, in Houston, offered him $500 for it. And then he decided that he had something. That’s the way life with Major Bill was.”
The song was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in 1962. Channel and McClinton have performed it together on Sandy Beaches cruises.
Jimmy Reed and the Shure microphone
Reed (1952-1976) was a blues and R&B musician arguably best-known for “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” a BillboardTop 40 hit in 1960. Around that time, McClinton says, there were no P.A. systems for bands in bars.
In an attempt to improve things, McClinton bought a microphone from audio company Shure on layaway. But when he and his band were scheduled to play with Reed, McClinton scraped together the money — “begging, borrowing and stealing a few bucks” — to get the microphone in time for the show.
“He was usually so drunk he couldn’t stand up straight, and he’d sit in a chair,” McClinton says of Reed. “We got up in that second set and he sat down in that chair, hit his guitar once and then about a quart of gin shot out of his mouth and hit that microphone, and in slow motion I watched all those little crystals go everywhere.
“I still got the microphone,” McClinton says. “I don’t think I ever used it again.”
Hendricks adds: “And today, that microphone sits in a place of honor in a glass case in Delbert’s living room in Nashville.”
Jacksboro Highway days — and a notorious murder case
Hendricks: “There were a lot of stories we couldn’t use because we didn’t have room, or maybe we didn’t have the courage.”
McClinton: “Well, I work a million nights in a thousand juke joints in Fort Worth. And I knew all the pimps and [prostitutes] and thieves and gangsters of every stripe. And they were co-workers. . . . Some were friends and some weren’t, but they were all dangerous.
“I can recall more than once walkin’ away from a conversation with people who were gettin’ into some stuff that I didn’t want to know about. I’m talking about anything from theft to murder. And I knew these people, you know, and it all seemed normal at the time.”
Hendricks: “One of the interesting parts of writing the book is, as it was coming to a close and I just about had everything done, I was reading parts of it to Delbert just to make sure I had the timelines right and fact-checking some things. It was in the 111/2th hour when he said, ‘Did I ever mention that we lived at the Cullen Davis mansion until about two weeks before the murders?’ ‘Uh, no, you didn’t bring that up, but maybe I can put that in the book.’ But that’s kind of how it was. When you live through this and you’re on the front row, you don’t always realize how newsworthy that might be.”
McClinton’s musical memory
Not only has McClinton collected mementos from his decades of touring, he says he can recall a lot about the songs he has recorded both by himself and with other people.
“I hear those songs, whether they’re demos or final recordings, and I can remember the exact moment that we did it,” McClinton says. “It’s always been that way for me. I can hear these songs, how I felt, what I was doing, where I was living, who I was living with, and they’re all just loaded with memories, y’know.”
Don Was produced or co-produced a few McClinton albums, including 1992’s “Never Been Rocked Enough,” which featured guest-star turns by Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty and Melissa Etheridge. One of its highlights is a cover of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
This leads Hendricks to prompt McClinton to tell the story behind “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
“I met Don [Was] when I sang on the thing with Bonnie that we won a Grammy for,” McClinton says, referring to 1991’s “Good Woman, Good Man.” “Don handed me a version of ‘Have a Little Faith in Me’ ... and he told me ‘Listen to that, and tell me what you think.’ I went into a secluded booth and I listened to that song several times and I come back out and I said, ‘Don, there’s no way in the world I can do this song like he did it.’ He said, ‘That’s great!’ ”
Hendricks adds: “He wanted it done the way Delbert would do it.”