Delbert McClinton proudly defies classifications. His music blends his Texas roots with roadhouse rock, juke-joint blues, Memphis soul and country. During his entire recording career, record labels have consistently tried to pigeonhole Delbert's music. But if you ask the critics about Delbert's dynamic vocals and harmonica style, you'll hear descriptions ranging from 'honky-tonk,' 'blue-eyed soul,' and 'Texas stomp' to 'country rock' and 'blues.' Delbert's music rebels against traditional categorization. Ask Delbert what kind of music he plays and he'll say, "Fun music."
Delbert was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1940 and moved to Ft. Worth at the age of 12. His mother was a beautician and his father a switchman for the Rock Island Railroad, the same famous "Rock Island Line" that was the subject of so many songs by Texas bluesmen. But Delbert was growing up as a normal Texas teenager, unaware of the blues, until (as he recalled in Musician magazine) one fateful day. "I was coming back from squirrel hunting and there was this old black barbecue place, and I heard Joe Turner's "Honey Hush." The closer I got, the more excited I got. My heart went to pounding, and I said, 'Who is that, and what is it?' I'll never forget that. There's no way I can explain it. I just went nuts. That stuff still does it to me. Boy, I wish I could hear more music that could do that to me now." Delbert began to immerse himself in the local R&B scene, staying up into the early morning, listening to KNOK, Ft. Worth's R&B station. He formed his first band, The Mellow Fellows, with a bunch of eager, though not very talented, teenagers. They played anywhere, anytime just for the experience.
In the years that followed, Delbert played in a number of bands including The Straightjackets, the house band for an all-black blues club south of Ft. Worth. While in that group, Delbert got to back visiting blues greats like Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Sonny Boy Williamson.
By the late 1950s, Delbert had begun to build a name for himself around Ft. Worth. In 1960 he became the first white artist to have a record played on KNOK. The song, a cover version of Sonny Boy Williamson's “Wake Up Baby” was released on the Le Cam label. Delbert also played harmonica on Bruce Channel's 1962 hit, “Hey, Baby,” which soared to the top of the national pop charts. Channel took Delbert with him on a tour of England where Channel's opening act was a young band called The Beatles. Between shows, Delbert taught an eager John Lennon some harmonica lines (which you'll hear if you listen to “Hey Baby” and “Love Me Do” back to back).
After returning from England, Delbert formed a group called the Ron-Dels which recorded for a number of labels and scored a national hit with Delbert's “If You Really Want Me To I'll Go.” The song was later recorded by Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm. But it was as a performer, not a recording artist, that Delbert found his real fame. He played virtually every roadhouse in Texas, rocking the night away from behind chicken wire screens and earning a loyal following of fans.
In 1972, Delbert moved to Los Angeles and teamed up with an old Texas pal named Glen Clark to form a country-rock band called Delbert and Glen. The group recorded a couple of albums for Clean Records, a low-budget affiliate of Atlantic. The albums didn't sell well, but Delbert's songwriting talent began to turn some heads.
Returning to Ft. Worth in 1974, Delbert landed a solo contract with ABC Records, who released three albums, Victim Of Life's Circumstances, Genuine Cowhide and Love Rustler, between 1975 and 1977. ABC tried to market Delbert's music within the 'progressive country' movement, but the label didn't quite fit. In fact, Delbert's ABC albums blended steel guitar and fiddles with soulful horns and funky rhythms, predating the roots-rock/country sound of the 1980s by a decade. The albums received critical acclaim but never found a market, and Delbert and ABC parted company. In 1986, Alligator Records released, Honky Tonkin' (I Done Me Some), an anthology album featuring the best cuts from Delbert's ABC albums. (The album is now out of print because Alligator couldn't license CD rights from ABC).
Despite the difficulty Delbert had with his own record sales, his songwriting continued to draw attention. In 1978, Emmylou Harris had a number one country hit with Delbert's “Two More Bottles Of Wine,” and in 1980, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd included another McClinton original, “B Movie Boxcar Blues,” on their hit album Briefcase Full Of Blues.
After leaving ABC, Delbert signed a deal with Capricorn Records, the home of the 'southern rock' sound of The Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop and The Charlie Daniels Band. Two more critically acclaimed recordings were made: Second Wind in 1978 and Keeper Of The Flame in 1979. When Capricorn folded at the end of the 1970s Delbert signed with Muscle Shoals Sound (distributed by Capitol) and recorded The Jealous Kind. With the help of a top ten single, “Giving It Up For Your Love,” the album became Delbert's first real hit, making both the country and pop charts. The Jealous Kind was followed by Plain From The Heart, but by that time Muscle Shoals Sound was already closing up shop, and the album wasn't effectively promoted.
After the Muscle Shoals albums, Delbert took a leave of absence from recording, although he continued to deliver powerful live performances, averaging nearly 200 dates a year. In 1986, guitarist Roy Buchanan invited Delbert to be the special guest vocalist on Roy's second Alligator album, Dancing On The Edge. Delbert's contribution to that album received accolades from his fans and the media alike. One of Delbert's two vocal tracks, an update of Bo Diddley's “You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover,” was deemed strong enough to be released by Alligator as one of the label's rare singles.
Live From Austin, Delbert's 1989 Alligator release, was his first live album ever and his first new album - at the time - in nine years. Featuring Delbert's road band plug three additional horns, the album was recorded as the soundtrack for Austin City Limits, the nationally syndicated public television show. Delbert hand picked all of the material on the album from almost ninety minutes of live performance and included five of his own originals. He also flew into Chicago to supervise remixing the tracks along with Alligator president Bruce Iglauer. Live From Austin was nominated for a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Blues Album."
In 1992, McClinton won a Grammy for his duet with Bonnie Raitt for the song “Good Man/Good Woman” from Raitt's album Luck of the Draw. The next year, another duet with Tanya Tucker, “Tell Me About It,” was nominated for a CMA award. A second Top 10 hit, “Everytime I Roll the Dice,” emerged from Delbert's 1992 album Never Been Rocked Enough.
But the 1990s were marked by a long and frustrating association with Curb Records which only ended when McClinton re-emerged with a star-studded comeback, 1997's One Of The Fortunate Few, on the since-defunct Rising Tide label
During that period, McClinton moved to Nashville and, along with writing partner Gary Nicholson, became one of the most sought-after tunesmiths in Music City. In recent years, his songs have been featured on albums by Vince Gill, Wynonna, Lee Roy Parnell, Martina McBride, and others. There's been a lot of what Delbert calls "mailbox money" coming in lately.
His 2001 album, Nothing Personal, released on the New West label, has proven the most popular album of his career. It spent months on the Billboard Blues Chart, won him national TV appearances and brought his career, after 40 years on the road, to a new peak.