Still Giving It Up

Delbert McClinton has something better than a record deal: a sound all his own.

Delbert McClinton has delivered close to forty years of all-American rhythm and blues and roots rock, and he's penned more than his share of moneymaking songs. But when it comes to his relationship with labels, he's snakebitten. "Every record company I've ever been with since 1973 has folded except one," he says. "My new record, it's the best record I've ever done, but four months into it, the record company there folded, too. That's been the story of my life."

Don't mistake this observation for bitterness. Rising Tide, the company that issued One of the Fortunate Few, McClinton's latest disc, has indeed closed its doors, but he's not losing sleep over its demise. After all, his winning road record provides him with quite a safety net. "I've got a fan base that is just the best bunch of people in the world," he notes. "I keep coming to their town and they keep coming out. It's a great big love affair between me and several thousand people. It's just a good thing, you know?" He adds, "To tell you the truth, I don't want to sign with another major label, because for somebody like me, I wouldn't be in the active pecking order. I don't fit in, and that's okay. I don't want to be a part of what's going on there anyway."

At times during his decades in the public eye, McClinton has been smack in the middle of the music-biz action, but he's just as often been on the periphery--admired by fellow musicians as a consistent purveyor of roadhouse redemption, but not always remembered by the masses. He cut his first single, "Wake Up Baby," in 1960 for the Le Cam label and played on "Hey Baby," a major hit for Bruce Channel, in 1962. The latter tune took him all the way to England, and when a fledgling combo called the Beatles signed on as Channel's opening act, McClinton made his first mark in rock history by teaching John Lennon some tricks on the harmonica. He subsequently co-headlined a pair of discs with Texan Glen Clark before emerging as a solo artist. He released a number of well-received platters on the ABC and Capricorn imprints during the Seventies and struck a royalties gusher when the Blues Brothers covered one of his compositions, "B Movie Boxcar Blues," on their huge-selling 1979 debut platter. With the release of The Jealous Kind, a 1980 full-length, McClinton scored a hit of his own when "Giving It Up for Your Love" reached the pop Top Ten. The smash brings together two of his biggest virtues: a unique deep-South sound and a gritty, bourbon-blessed voice.

Paradoxically, "Giving It Up" didn't change McClinton's life for the better. Plain From the Heart, which arrived a year later, didn't come close to matching the popularity of its predecessor and led to a stretch that was marked by substance abuse, divorce and troubles with the Internal Revenue Service. McClinton's fortunes didn't improve until 1985, when he met his current wife, Wendy Goldstein. He credits her with saving both his career and his life: "She picked me up and dusted me off, and life's been going great ever since."

In 1989 McClinton returned to record stores with Live From Austin, a disc issued by Alligator Records that was nominated for a Grammy as best contemporary blues album. He won the prize two years later for "Good Man, Good Woman," a duet with Bonnie Raitt that led to a slew of songs teaming McClinton with big-name talent. Long-players such as 1992's Never Been Rocked Enough, 1993's Delbert McClinton and 1994's Honky Tonkin' Blues have featured such high-profile guests as Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, John Prine and Lyle Lovett, and the 1993 single "Tell Me About It," which paired McClinton with Tanya Tucker, received a Grammy nomination of its own.

One of the Fortunate Few is another star-studded affair: Country heavyweights Vince Gill, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless and Lee Roy Parnell all make contributions, as do Mavis Staples and B.B. King. (McClinton calls King "the most wonderful person I've ever met, I think--gracious, immensely talented and humble to a fault. I think he's the closest thing to royalty that we have in this country.") The result is a solid collection of the blues-based music he's perfected over the years. From the Stonesy raunch and roll of the disc's opener, "Old Weakness," to the honky-tonk closer, "Best of Me," McClinton howls with satisfying abandon.

The new album doesn't pander to the mainstream, largely because McClinton, who had a hand in penning most of the material on Fortunate, has no interest in doing so. "One thing I've never done is try to write for radio," he says. "I wouldn't know how to do that. I just write and play what I feel and try to get it where I like it. And if I really like it, that's all that really matters." He prefers this approach because of what he sees as the low quality of most Nineties songwriting. In his opinion, "it's insulting. A lot of times I hear this stuff on the radio and think, 'How stupid do you think I am?' So I don't really look for other people's songs much anymore. There are a few writers that I seek songs from, but I gave up on bringing home three and four grocery sacks full of demo tapes to listen to, because that drives you crazy. I decided I'd rather dig in and write them myself than to go through it, because it's insane."

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