Elvis Presley Challenge No. 49 – Delbert McClinton

DelbertPaul Simon told us that he visited Graceland but he was coy about what he had on his feet.   I wore cowboy boots.  Not the black boots that Elvis favoured.  Mine were tan with ornate etchings.   I bought them in Amarillo.  I walked into a shop to buy a belt.  The salesman was all Southern charm and I left with a pair of boots.  I resisted the Stetson.  The cowboy boots were fine.  They made the denims hang well and they closed the gap between me and six feet.   Of course, everybody else wore boots.  All the men were two inches taller.    I drove all around the States wearing those boots, never once thinking that they may not be suitable for driving.   Tan cowboy boots, a pair of denims and a white T shirt is not Elvis but it is what I wore at Graceland and the Sun and American Sound Studios.  Elvis hardly wore denims.  He did not like clothes that made him anonymous.

Amarillo is pronounced aa-mah-rii-yo in Spanish.  ‘Lone Star’ is a fine movie about race relations in Texas.   Imagine left Lone Star posterwing polemic and Little Willie John and Freddie Fender on the soundtrack.  ‘Lone Star’ is not set in Amarillio.   The action takes place on the border between the States and Mexico.    ‘Lone Star’ is sympathetic to the minorities.  It implies that a responsible Texan would make the effort to be fluent in Spanish.

I have no idea whether Delbert McClinton speaks Spanish.  He may even be right wing and vote Republican although his fans would be surprised if he did.  To his British fans, McClinton is an all American working class hero.   He has good hair and he is photogenic.  He looks cool.  Usually, he wears cowboy boots, denims and a T shirt.  Occasionally, presumably if he is going somewhere important or has his lady to impress, he will wear a plain shirt with collar and cuffs.  When I saw him on stage in the Town and Country Club in London he was in T shirt mode.   He also drank a couple of cans of the appalling American Budweiser.  He is a man who appreciates his roots and to him those roots are more important than a continual quest to root out the exotic.  McClinton is a rhythm and blues singer.   His music reflects the world which seduced him.    He lacks Delbert McClintonthe curiosity of some dedicated musicians but this is only because he understands romance.  As the great German writer Hermann Broch wrote in his essential ‘Sleepwalker Trilogy’, the romantic needs limits and boundaries.   The curious like Simon dashing off to South Africa to add fresh rhythms to his records will make discoveries.   But the romantics, those attached to their roots, are also important.  The music of McClinton is like his clothes.  It is ideological.  The musicians on his records are black and white but they are usually from the Southern states.   He is not without invention but what he adds to his music only exists to enrich the genre, something he refines through his own American experience.

Without the waywardness of Elvis he avoids the sentimental.  He began backing blues singers like Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.  McClinton can deliver a poignant ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ but he is unable to be tender.  His voice has a rough barroom edge that suits the music he plays, tough rhythm and blues and soul ballads which have just enough country influence to keep everyone in the bar happy.  The songs are realistic.  In his rockers, he either

Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf

celebrates or looks at life with wry amusement.  When he slows down he remembers why relationships are important.  He rarely sings about love.  Elvis is the introvert who is determined to understand his feelings and his bruised heart.  McClinton sings about life.  His songs deal with dependency, triumphs, celebration, mistakes and regret.  Inevitably, he has his weak moments.  His albums can sometimes run out of steam and the welcome realism is occasionally spoilt by a sense of overdeveloped male entitlement.  This is demonstrated in the appalling ‘Sending Me Angels’ where McClinton acknowledges the women sent to comfort his flawed masculinity.  But if that is a mistake and his specific identity limits what he can achieve on his albums, he is always listenable.   His output ranges from the irresistible, ‘Shot From The Saddle’ has a compelling groove’, to the merely toe tapping listenable, the music on his ‘Plain From The Heart’ album.    It is a form of consistency.   Within it, though, there have been many moments to make him proud.  ‘Two Bottles Of Wine’ which is about failure and the solace of alcohol is a song that compares with the very best.  Recently, he recorded ‘Down In Mexico’.  This addictive tale of a Vegas robbery mixes splendidly film noir and ‘El Paso’ by Marty Robbins.

Lennon playing the harmonicaDelbert McClinton is based in Fort Worth but he is from Lubbock, Texas, like Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Joe Ely.   He is popular in his home state but he never quite made the really big time.  He had one top 40 hit, ‘Giving It Up For Your Love’, and a top ten hit, ‘Tell Me About It’, but that required him to duet with Tanya Tucker.   His life may not have been what he dreamed.  It has not consisted of back to back hits, mansions and limousines.  He may even feel resentful about how the more successful have sometimes taken advantage.  He taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica and Elvis half stole his arrangement of the Johnny Ace hit, ‘Pledging My Love’.

He still sounds positive.  There is no trace in his live performances of the disillusionment that is obvious in the later shows of Elvis.  I always missed McClinton when I was in Texas.  I had to wait for him to visit England.  He was worth the wait.  His fabulous show included a nine piece band as I knew it would.   Okay, I read these things but the cowboy boots made the small band obligatory.

Despite the reading, I doubt if I will ever know whether Delbert learnt to speak Spanish.   (I sometimes call him by his first name because I have all his albums.)   I hope he did.   He should watch a film called ‘El Sueno Derrotado’.  It is a documentary and it mixes archive material and interviews with old timers who remember the Spanish Civil War, the El Sueno DerrotadoFrench Resistance, the Second World War and the concentration camps.   The film captures the horror as it intends but it does more.  It reminds us that there is no exultation in success and achievement.  It exists only in endurance.  McClinton may not have had the hits but he managed to always earn a living as a musician.  He has loyal fans and the respect of critics.  He has done it by staying loyal to what is best about the people of his homeland, their sense of community and their music.  He has preserved not only his talent but the romance.  Delbert McClinton is entitled to his exultation because he earned it and because he has prevailed.  Elvis was talented but he was also exotica.  This was why he triumphed but later perished.   It is what they call success.


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And now for some Delbert:





  1. A really thought provoking piece about success and failure. I, too, have seen Delbert live and enjoyed his raw and engaging interpretation of the Blues.

  2. Well the shadow of Elvis covered many great artistes, I it’s okay for a Texan to learn Spanish, but the onus lies more on the Spanish speaking immigrant to learn English.

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