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Delbert McClinton sheds financial blues

Delbert McClintonDelbert McClinton's career has been filled with Grammy Awards, hit songs, superstar friends and a life generally spent in the service of music. But despite his success, McClinton is not a wealthy man. An examination of his career shows an all-too-common series of indignities suffered at the hands of record companies, compounded by the bad fortune of having many of his record labels fold in mid-contract.

McClinton was raised in Fort Worth, Texas, and cut his musical teeth playing in honky tonk bars in the '50s, sometimes jamming in back of a screen to protect him from flying beer bottles. His first taste of national success came in 1962, when he played harmonica on Bruce Chanel's classic song, "Hey! Baby." Soon he was touring and recording. His early days included meeting with a pre-fame John Lennon during a 1962 U.K. tour, during which McClinton showed Lennon a thing or two on the harmonica.

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McClinton didn't hit real fame until the mid-'70s, however, playing on "Saturday Night Live" during its heyday, scoring several hit singles and winning a Grammy for a his "Good Man/Good Woman" duet with Bonnie Raitt. He eventually saw his songs covered by a virtual who's who of Nashville royalty, including Wynonna, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks.

But despite continued proof of his relevance as an artist (he won the 2002 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording for his last album, "Nothing Personal"), a combination of bad treatment and bad luck set his career off course, including a 10-year period during which every label he was on folded, and a separate, five-year period during which he refused to record because of a dispute with a different label -- one he hesitates to name because of the bad blood it generated.

But now, coming off the success of "Nothing Personal," McClinton has released a new album, "Room To Breathe," which is receiving reviews equal to those of its predecessor and hit No. 1 on the Billboard blues album chart.

Financially, life has never looked better for McClinton. We spoke with him about the frustrations of the music business.

Bankrate: When you recorded "Nothing Personal," did you anticipate how big a success it would be?

Delbert McClinton: No. I still have a passion, so when you have a passion, you go in to make a record and you have every high hope for it. This record was different from every record I ever did, because I did it on my own dime. I had reached a place where I said the hell with major labels. You're too expendable. You just get thrown away. Plus, every record company I was on from 1971 to 1981 went out of business while I was on the label. And then it happened again in 1997 with "Rising Tide." I just said, all right, I have to do something different. So I went and made this record on my own, without anybody looking over my shoulder, and without a record company charging me $20,000 to $30,000 every month, because that would happen. Say I'm doing a showcase in New York. Five or six people from the record company come up there. They get suites, they get limos, and it all gets charged to me, because they're there on my behalf. If I had a record that sold 150,000 every time I put it out, and I was making the money, no problem. But when you're paying back out of your 2 cents per record, and it's $300,000, you're never going to get it paid back. They write it off, and continue to live high off money they charge back to you. It's the same old story.

Bankrate: So what's your label situation now?

Delbert McClinton: I am my record company. I leased this record to New West Records, which is an independent record company out of Austin. I went with them because they're very artist-friendly. I told them what I want, and they said fine. Which means I started making money from record one. I never had a deal like that. So I'm already way ahead with this arrangement.

Bankrate: Throughout your career, has making a decent living been an issue?

Delbert McClinton: Oh yeah. It has been difficult, but you know what, it was such a great adventure. I never went hungry, but I lived off of popcorn and mayonnaise for a few days. Well, not literally, but ... I couldn't give up, I just couldn't. There's no way in the world I could have stopped, and I hurt a lot of people because of it. I lost two marriages because of my defiance in the face of disaster.

Bankrate: What were the career milestones that made a significant positive difference in your financial status?

Delbert McClinton: I didn't start making any money in this business until about 1993, and that wasn't in the record business, that was personal appearances, concerts. And it's gotten progressively better. But I have to keep working. I can't stop. But at the same time, I can do whatever I want to do, within reason. And I don't need a lot, I don't buy a new car every day. I got an Acura Legend I bought in 1991, and it's still my favorite car. I don't need any extravagance.

Bankrate: What did the success of "Nothing Personal" mean to you financially?

Delbert McClinton: It's a record I made money from. I had an unprecedented record deal for me, which actually allowed for me to make money from record one.

Bankrate: Tell me about the Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches Cruise.

Delbert McClinton: It's a cruise I've been hosting for the last eight years. I did a cruise 10 years ago with some guys from Kansas City with all blues music. The second year I did it, by about halfway through the cruise I had heard all the mediocre blues music I had ever wanted to hear. I love blues music, but it has really has to be good, or it gets really old, really fast. I told my wife, 'I think we could do a better job of this.' And I talked with a friend, and we went into a partnership. We leased a ship, and had to eat it for two years. The third year it didn't make anything, but it didn't cost us anymore. The fourth year it started to pay back a little bit. And it's been paying back ever since, and paying back every year. It's a week in the Caribbean with about 14 bands. The music never stops, there's someone playing all the time.

Bankrate: At this point, is that a large income for you?

Delbert McClinton: No, it's not a large income at all. It's mainly an opportunity for me to get with a lot of friends that I don't see all year and hang out in the Caribbean. If we can continue from where it is now, then the next few years it will be a big money maker. It could get to be something where I wouldn't have to do a hell of a lot more than that to make a nice living. We have like a 70-percent return rate on this thing. It's unbelievable. For the last two years, weeks before we were to leave, we had hundreds of people wanting to get on, and there's no room for them. And this year, it's selling out faster than it ever sold out. It's at least 85 percent.

Bankrate: Do you invest at all?

Delbert McClinton: My wife does that. My wife is the savior of me and my career, and also my hero. I met her in New York, she was a producer for NBC News, and we got together, and for whatever reason it works. She came along and put all my business affairs in order, she cleaned me up, she did everything that I needed doing. She's my soul mate. She's the one. I go out and do the shows, she handles everything else. She quit NBC to come be with me.

Bankrate: How are you planning for your financial future?

Delbert McClinton: My wife's taking care of that. She told me just the other day -- and it's something I never heard in my life -- she told me we have a big wad of money in the bank, and that she needs to figure out a place to put it. And big wad of money for me, I'm talking $90,000, which is not bad. And it's money that we don't need right now. That's a good thing. It's all working. It's been a lot worse.

Larry Getlen is a freelance journalist and comedian in New York.
Enjoy his frivolity at http://www.zhet.blogspot.com.

-- Posted: Nov. 4, 2002




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