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The man who taught John Lennon harp

Delbert McClinton is singin' the blues -- very successfully

By Ed Payne (CNN)

Delbert McClinton
Delbert McClinton in a familiar pose: blowing on the harmonica.

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- Fresh off one of the most critically acclaimed releases of his lengthy career - the 2001-released Grammy Award-winning blues album "Nothing Personal" -- Delbert McClinton is back with more of his special blend of country, blues, soul, and rock & roll in "Room to Breathe."

Born November 4, 1940, in Lubbock, Texas, McClinton cut his teeth in the Fort Worth music scene, eventually playing harmonica behind such blues legends as Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Bobby "Blue" Bland.

To pop music fans, he's best known for the harmonica riff on Bruce Channel's 1962 No. 1 song "Hey, Baby." That led to a British tour where he met John Lennon and gave him some harmonica tips. Lennon put the lessons to use right away on "Love Me Do."

McClinton-penned tunes have been covered by Emmylou Harris, the Blues Brothers, Vince Gill, Wynonna, Lee Roy Parnell, Martina McBride, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood during his 40-plus year music career.

McClinton has scored his own hits with "Givin' It Up for Your Love," and "Every Time I Roll the Dice." He charted duets with Bonnie Raitt on the Grammy winning "Good Man, Good Woman," and Tanya Tucker on "Tell Me About It."

CNN recently caught up with McClinton to talk with him about his longevity and recent career triumphs.

CNN: What was the pressure like as you set out to record the new CD?

MCCLINTON: We knew going in what we had to beat. We had to come up with something good. We went into this thinking ... "Boy, I hope this works."

I had the songs already arranged in my head. In three days, we recorded nine songs. Most of the songs are live takes with the full band and live vocal. We got the rest down in a couple more days.

The rest is easy if you can get it all down the first time. We substituted an organ solo where a guitar solo was and added some horns. But that was basically it.

CNN: You must have a great Rolodex to get the artists you had join you on the CD, like Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and the others.

MCCLINTON: I've been around this forever, so I know a lot of people.

If you had to plan this it would have never come off, especially the chorus to "Lone Star Blues" (in which friends Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Heather Waters and Jessi Alexander all joined McClinton in a Nashville studio; and Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Benson, Marcia Ball and Kimmie Rhodes all added their voices in an Austin, Texas, recording session). Most of them were just available.

CNN: Why still record after so many years in the business? Why do it time after time?

MCCLINTON: I don't feel like I've done it time after time. I'm finally beginning to learn something. Each [album] is getting better.

As long as it moves me, I'm going to do it as long as I'm able.

CNN: Is it the same story with performing live as you approach your 62nd birthday?

MCCLINTON: It all goes hand in hand. You're just constantly learning things. I've been a performer much longer than I've been a recording artist.

CNN: What are you listening to these days?

MCCLINTON: My latest favorite is Diana Krall. She is just a very unique artist. All those old '40s and '50s torch songs ... done in a modern style.

I'm also listening to Jimmy Reed, "Central Avenue Sounds" (a box set of L.A. jazz) and "The Jazz Singers" box set (Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole).

These are some of the great jump blues songs of the world. I get clarity from it ... take the emotion from it ... put it into what I'm writing.

CNN: Why do you think artists, especially later in their careers, often reach back to a previous generation's music and make an album of "older" music?

MCCLINTON: Every generation thinks their music is the ultimate. [But] there's great stuff from every generation. You can make great music with all of it.

[But] I can't stand the radio. I don't listen to it. As a matter of fact, I just ordered XM (digital satellite radio).

CNN: Are there any new artists that you like? Judging from your earlier comments about radio, my guess is no.

MCCLINTON: I don't get to hear a lot of bands. I don't go out looking for bands, unless someone brings them to my attention. ... There are better things than being young and sexually active, plus they get you into a whole lot less trouble.

CNN: What do you carry with you today from your early years of working with the old classic blues artists?

MCCLINTON: I wanted to know how they felt it and where it came from. I could never understand the story of the black man, but I wanted to see them release that testimony ... and know where it came from. They were my heroes and I was sitting right there with them.

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