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Nothing to prove

Having spent a lifetime playing music with the greats, at 60 Delbert McClinton keeps playing "Delbert music."

Delbert McClinton has received a career's worth of acclaim for the gutsy glory of his vocal attack on R&B, honky tonk and roadhouse music. The applause dates back four decades to his work backing Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Joe Turner and other blues greats at a Fort Worth, Texas, nightclub.

He jumped onto the pop charts with 1981's Giving It Up for Your Love and subsequently landed air time with Every Time I Roll the Dice and several duets _ Good Man Good Woman with Bonnie Raitt, Never Been Rocked Enough with Melissa Etheridge and Tell Me About It with Tanya Tucker.

Critical kudos and a loyal following aside, some may best remember the Texas-born troubadour for his 15-minute meeting with a member of a certain British boy band in 1962. McClinton, whose distinctive harmonica playing was heard on Bruce Channel's hit Hey Baby, that year backed Channel on a gig in England. His opening act: the Beatles.

John Lennon, who admired McClinton's work on the single, picked his brain and used what he learned from McClinton on Love Me Do a few months later. McClinton never again crossed paths with the Fab Four.

"It's a great story, and it's true," McClinton, 60, says from his home in Nashville, where he has lived since the late '80s. "It's just romanticized, as things become. When you put it into perspective, how the hell did we know those guys were about to change the world? I was 22. We were all about to change the world, as far as I was concerned. But when I die, that's probably what they'll put on my headstone _ the guy who taught John Lennon to play the harmonica."

But McClinton's career as a performer, and as a songwriter covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings, stands on its own.

Genuine Rhythm and the Blues, a 1976-79 compilation released earlier this year, testifies to the vitality of recordings released near the start of his solo career. Have Mercy, Before You Accuse Me, Spoonful and Lipstick, Powder and Paint are among the standouts of the set.

McClinton connected with a national audience in 1981, when his The Jealous Kind album launched the single Giving It Up for Your Love into the Top 10, a feat he has not yet repeated.

"That happened to me when I was 40 years old," he says. "I was going through the 40-year-old thing. My second marriage was going down the tubes. I was past being in my 20s and having the attitude you have in your 20s. I was dealing with life more than anything at that point. I was busier trying to make a living."

McClinton has slowed down his once-hectic recording pace. His last CD, 1997's One of the Fortunate Few, benefited from guest shots by B.B. King, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, John Prine, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell and Mavis Staples. Critics liked it, but commercial radio failed to respond.

"I don't even think about radio much anymore," he says. "Radio, to me, is non-existent musically. It doesn't depend as much on the music as whether or not you fit the idea of what they think an artist ought to be. In a lot of cases, I really don't fit that. I'm considerably older than most people who are doing this. I'm not as pretty as a lot of them, and I don't have the hair that some of them have."

Nothing Personal, McClinton's next CD, is due in March on the independent New West label. The singer paid for the recording himself, allowing the luxury of 10 months in the studio, rather than the usual hurried pace.

Where is he taking listeners this time? "It's Delbert music," he says. "It goes everywhere from rock 'n' roll to country to jazz to Mexican and blues. It kind of covers a lot of ground."

As for lyrics? "There's only one thing to write about, isn't there? It's love or hate, hating to love somebody or loving to hate somebody."

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