When asked about the origin of the blues, American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax quoted the anonymous song lyric, “The blues came from Texas, loping like a mule.” And Texas certainly birthed its own particular hybrid of the blues—distinct from that of the Mississippi Delta—that drew upon big band music of the swing era, classic country and western, and Tejano music.
For 76-year-old Fort Worth-born singer and harmonica virtuoso Delbert McClinton, the stylistically-varied music he has made for over six decades is the sum total of all of these influences and more.
“It’s American music,” explains McClinton. “It’s music I learned from, and the music I created from what I learned.”
Houston audiences can hear exactly what he’s talking about when McClinton and his working band of five years, the Self-Made Men, take the stage this Friday, December 15, at the Heights Theater. “You’re gonna hear something of everything we can do in two hours,” McClinton says proudly.
McClinton was just 17 when he began playing harmonica and rhythm guitar in supper clubs and highway joints along Jacksboro Highway.
“Supper clubs were kind of their shot at high class in Fort Worth,” says McClinton of those early gigs. “You add the word ‘supper,’ and it cuts out all of the hardcore drinkers. And the highway joints, that’s where you met all the colorful people and had to dodge flying objects.”
Occasionally, the Mansfield police would descend upon one of the wilder clubs called Jack’s Place, which served booze to its underage clientele and featured McClinton and his crew as the house band. Not surprisingly, the owner had a deal with the local police force.
“The sign out in front of Jack’s Place was a neon-kicking jackass,” says McClinton. “The deal was, if the jackass wasn’t kicking, there was gonna be a raid that night. If the mule’s kicking, then let’s party.”
In a time of segregation, when the music a radio station played was determined by skin color, the young McClinton kept his ear glued to KONK out of Dallas, which played songs by artists he would soon find himself performing with onstage.
“We were young white guys who wanted to play the blues,” says McClinton of his first band who, being the best in town, were called upon to back up such Chicago-based blues legends as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf. “We knew their music because we’d already been playing it,” McClinton says of those gigs. “We just couldn’t get enough. We soaked up everything we could.”
McClinton was also teaching himself to play early country music standards by Carl Smith, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, as well as songs by Nat King Cole. “All of that pre-rock 'n' roll stuff was a big influence on me,” says McClinton, whose 1960 recording of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Wake Up Baby” was the first record by a white artist to be played on KONK, and who has since become one of the Lone Star State's most celebrated and soulful singers. (Lyle Lovett famously said, "If we all could sing like we wanted to, we'd all sing like Delbert.")
Now a three-time Grammy award-winning artist and member of the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the subject an expansive, just-published biography, One of the Fortunate Few, McClinton has no patience for self-imposed "limitations" when it comes to making music. His 19th and latest studio album, Prick of the Litter, features a dizzying range of musical genres, from rockabilly-infused jump blues (“Don’t Do It,” with the fiery Lou Ann Barton on guest vocals), to jazzy numbers (“San Miguel,” “Like Lovin’ Used to Be”) that sound as if they were composed just after World War II. "That's what we intended to do," McClinton says of the album's stylistic breadth. "There's no limitations in music. The only limitation is what you yourself put on it."
“I don’t want to be stuck in a particular time or place or genre,” he says. “I like to keep ‘em guessing. I like to keep myself guessing! If something appeals to me, I can find a way to do it."
Delbert McClinton plus special guest Kree Harrison will perform Friday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. Sold out. The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th St. More info at theheightstheater.com.