Bluesman Delbert McClinton's 'Cost of Living'

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Alex Chadwick talks with singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton about his new album, Cost of Living, and what it's like to have a hit on the blues and country charts on the eve of your 65th birthday.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In 1961, a one-hit wonder named Bruce Channel went to a studio in Ft. Worth, Texas, to record that one hit.

(Soundbite of "Hey! Baby")

CHADWICK: A young Ft. Worth native supplied the distinctive harmonica part, and in 1962, "Hey! Baby" became the number one song in America and in Britain.

(Soundbite of "Hey! Baby")

Mr. BRUCE CHANNEL: (Singing) Hey, hey, baby, I want to know...

CHADWICK: That harmonica player, Delbert McClinton, went on to record dozens of albums and to write hits for artists like Emmylou Harris. But "Hey! Baby" was about as big as it ever got for Delbert, until now, that is. Delbert McClinton has a new album called "Cost of Living," and it's running up the country charts with a bullet.

(Soundbite of "I Had A Real Good Time")

Mr. DELBERT McCLINTON: (Singing) Well, I love this life, but it's doing me in. Just in case I don't ever see you again, I had a real good time. I love the wine...

CHADWICK: After a lifetime of making music and sometimes working side jobs like pushing boxes in a west LA veterinary supply warehouse, Delbert McClinton is just a few weeks away from his 65th birthday.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. McCLINTON: All right. Thank you. We're going to do a couple songs for you off our brand-new CD, "Cost of Living" on New West Records.

CHADWICK: We caught up with him at a little showcase bar in Los Angeles, The Mint. He was performing and promoting his new album for industry insiders.

(Soundbite of "I Had A Real Good Time")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) Well, I love this life, but it's doing me in. Just in case...

CHADWICK: Delbert was backed by a horn section, a Hammond B3 organ and a smokin' guitar player, and he belted out blues and country tunes for an hour. And then we went out back behind the club for a conversation in the alley, where we talked about writing songs like "I Had A Real Good Time." The title for it was suggested by one of his writing partners, Gary Nicholson.

Mr. McCLINTON: It just so happened that I already had the first verse. So I turned around and said, `I love this life, but it's doin' me in. Just in case I don't ever see you again, I had a real good time.' And everybody just said, `Yeah, man!' And so 15 minutes later, we had the song written. We got stuck for a few minutes on the bridge, but I came up with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: What a heroic American you are.

Mr. McCLINTON: I'm telling you, baby.

(Soundbite of "I Had A Real Good Time")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) I love the women and song and the carryin' on. I had a real good time. All right. Oh, yeah!

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

CHADWICK: I hear a show like you did tonight. How do you do that? I mean, how do you have any voice left the next day to even talk, never mind do another show?

Mr. McCLINTON: That's just the way we do it, man, you know. I can't sing soft. I gotta got at it real hard, you know, which is OK, you know. Just--you know, we have a good time.

CHADWICK: I'm over 50 myself, and I...

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, you're just a pup. Johnny Cash did a song with some heavy metal band or something, you know. And they were interviewing him, and he said, `I felt so good, I felt like I was 50 again.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCLINTON: Now I know the feeling, you know.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) Yeah, and another thing, she wasn't just good-looking; her imagination just wouldn't quit. She'd make you do things you never thought about and things you wouldn't want to admit. There must be somebody else out there that feels about her like I do, and I consider myself one of the fortunate few. It felt so good to hurt so bad...

CHADWICK: These days Delbert lives in Nashville, but he spends a lot of time in Mexico, where he bought a little house and where he often hangs out, working up new tunes with several other songwriter friends.

Mr. McCLINTON: The best thing I ever did in my life. It's in San Miguel de Allende, which is a 400-year-old Spanish colonial city. The loudest voice you hear in town is the guy in the jardin, which is the center of town, selling newspapers. He's the loudest guy you ever hear...


Mr. McCLINTON: ...and I like that, you know. It's quiet, yet you can find anything you're looking for.

CHADWICK: But I imagine, going down with three or four pals to write up songs in Mexico, it would take a lot of self-discipline.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, no, we're all grown men and we've been to the party. You know what I'm saying?


Mr. McCLINTON: So we know how to behave.

(Soundbite of "Midnight Communion")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) It's midnight communion down on Second Avenue. They take the wine till closing time, a fellowship of fools. Confessions heard, forgiveness given from 12:00 till 2. It's midnight communion down on Second Avenue.

CHADWICK: "Midnight Communion"--I like the lyric.

Mr. McCLINTON: Thank you very much. Well, it's a song that, as we began talking about it, you know, it became an anthem for the guy on the street who usually ends up at the end of the night in a bar. And the second verse is, `There's one old fallen angel who's lost the will to fly, but her broken wings still have the strength to hold you when you cry.'

CHADWICK: I mean, you know...

Mr. McCLINTON: It's brilliant.

CHADWICK: It's just wonderful. It's just a great lyric. You hear that thing and this great tune driving behind it, and I think, `Oh, man, this is what I want to listen to.'

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, I'm so glad. Thanks, man. The day that we wrote it, we were laughing about how funny it was. So when we went in to record, that was on the list.

(Soundbite of "Midnight Communion")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) Confession's heard, forgiveness given from 12:00 till 2. It's midnight communion down on Second Avenue. It's midnight communion down on Second Avenue.

CHADWICK: Earlier, when Delbert mentioned that he'd been to the party so he knew how to behave, the fact is there have been some nights in his past life when he stayed at the party way too long, and he's paid for that knowledge with many long days afterwards, writing scraps of lyrics, filing them, mostly remembering. So they just spill out when the moment comes, and there's a song.

Delbert, thank you.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, thank you, man. It was good to talk to you.

CHADWICK: Congratulations on the new album.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, thank you very much.

CHADWICK: Where'd that album open up--What is it?--on the blues chart, was it?

Mr. McCLINTON: Number one.


Mr. McCLINTON: Yeah, and it's number one on Americano this week, number 14 in country albums and 150-something on the Billboard top 200.

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible) 150.

Mr. McCLINTON: I just so happened to know this, you know.

CHADWICK: We're gonna stop at number one, brother.

Mr. McCLINTON: OK, baby. Yes.

CHADWICK: Singer, songwriter and harmonica ace Delbert McClinton. His new album is called "Cost of Living." Here's another cut from that. It's called "Hammerhead Stew."

(Soundbite of "Hammerhead Stew")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) If you were over in Egypt, way down deep on a dig, and if some mummy tried to get chummy, I'd be there to unravel his wig. If you were bungee jumping and you came out of your shoes, I'd run right up and I'd catch you, baby. Ain't nothing I wouldn't do. If you were scuba diving and a shark came out of the blue, I'd take my penknife and I'd end that shark's life, fix you up some hammerhead stew.

Come on, let me be your hero, somebody who can play it cool.

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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