Arts & Culture

Delbert McClinton explains the myth and legends, including John Lennon’s harmonica lesson

Poster from a British show where both The Beatles and Delbert McClinton were performing in the early ‘60s
Poster from a British show where both The Beatles and Delbert McClinton were performing in the early ‘60s Courtesy Delbert McClinton

Delbert McClinton has seen a lot in his nearly 75 years.

Born in Lubbock and raised in Fort Worth, the pioneering blues-country-roots rock singer-guitarist was around for the big bang of the rock ’n’ roll universe’s creation. As a young man, he was in the house band at Jack’s Place on Mansfield Highway, one of the boozy joints in Cowtown at the time where he backed such legends as Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson II.

By the ’80s and ’90s, he was in the Top 10 with the track Givin’ It Up for Your Love and winning a Grammy for his duet with Bonnie Raitt for Good Man, Good Woman.

In between, as the myth goes, he taught John Lennon how to play harmonica, though he downplays that particular bit of pop history.

In other words, McClinton’s a man whose lesser memories would be career high points for anyone else.

“I’ve been around awhile and I can look back and say, ‘Damn, that was a long time ago,’” he says with a laugh from his home in Nashville. “I’ve been doing this for 60 years … If you’re around long enough, you’ve got stories.

“A lot of them you can’t tell. A lot of them are inside stories but, if you’re around long enough, everyone has a story.”

Health scare

His story continues Saturday when he headlines the Bedford Blues and BBQ Festival, one of around 100 dates he expects play this year.

That’s a busy schedule for a man who could easily rest on his laurels — especially coming after the year he had in 2014. One of his children, Austin musician Clay McClinton, was involved in a serious car accident in March and, a month later, Delbert had to undergo triple bypass heart surgery.

“I work enough to satisfy the jones,” he says. “Which is most weekends. Then I’ll take a couple of weeks off and then work a couple of more weeks … It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. Going onstage and getting everybody revved up and getting myself revved up and having a good time. That’s like running away and joining the circus.”

His surgery hasn’t slowed him down. If anything, it has made him more eager to go out and play.

“It’s a world of difference,” he says. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much better I feel onstage than I used to.”

Also, he has a new album coming out this fall, to be released in conjunction with his 75th birthday in November; his last was Blind, Crippled and Crazy in 2013.

He says it might surprise a lot of people although he won’t go into details.

“I did it for me, not for anybody else,” he says. “In my opinion, it’s some of the best stuff I’ve done … There’s one thing that’s going to surprise everybody but I’m not going to tell you what it is. Then it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

Coming home

Though McClinton lives in Tennessee, he gets back to Texas regularly. He has a place in Austin and sometimes visits Fort Worth.

“I don’t have a whole lot in Fort Worth anymore,” he says. “I’ve got my oldest son there with my grandkids. Hell, everybody else I know is dead.”

He says he doesn’t have any hangouts here these days.

“I won’t go in any beer joint unless I’m getting paid,” he laughs. “I’ve been in the beer joints so, you know, now I prefer the quiet times.”

One of his Texas pals he wants to visit is TV and radio host Don Imus, who has a ranch in the Austin area. McClinton received a lot of exposure as a fairly regular guest on the TV show Imus had on the Fox Business Channel from 2009 to early 2015. It was a simulcast of Imus’ radio program.

“Don and I became friends years and years ago, back in the ’80s,” McClinton says. “He came to a show and was a big fan … We became good friends instantly …

“[He told me] that when he had just got out of jail, I think it was somewhere in New Mexico, he turned on the car radio and heard [my song] Victim of Life’s Circumstances. He kind of made that his mantra.”

Crossing over

Imus was just one of many fans McClinton earned in the ’80s, when he was all over the radio. But McClinton says he has no regrets about not being able to come up with more hits to stay in the public eye.

“My career has been me going and playing live music,” he says. “I never had a radio career. I’ve had some high points with a couple of Top 10 records but they didn’t change my life that much … .

“You’ve got to jump through hoops for record companies and I never wanted to be a superstar.”

Now, as far as that story about him teaching Lennon how to play the harmonica, McClinton says history doesn’t really support the legend.

It was the early ’60s and McClinton was playing England as part of the backing band for American singer Bruce Channel, who had a huge hit with Hey Baby, on which McClinton played harmonica. The Beatles were opening for Channel.

McClinton says that Lennon already knew how to play and that he just gave him some tips.

“These things are getting romanticized by everyone,” he says. “They [The Beatles] were just another group of guys. They hadn’t yet changed the world. [But] we were all going to change the world, every one of us. And there was no doubt about it.”

UPDATE: The story has been updated with the correct location of Jack’s Place

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar

Bedford Blues & BBQ Festival

6 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Featuring: Delbert McClinton (Saturday); Buddy Guy (Sunday); Buddy Whittington (Saturday); Tab Benoit (Saturday); Ruthie Foster (Sunday); Manic Mechanics (Friday); Texas Flood (Friday); and more

1951 L. Don Dodson Drive

Bedford

$7 online, $10 at the gate, $15 weekend pass (online only). Cash only at the gate. Lawn chairs, blankets allowed. No pets, coolers or tents.

bedfordbluesfest.com

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