Did Delbert McClinton Really Teach John Lennon How to Play the Harmonica?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the music urban legends featured so far.

MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica.

Reader Travis wrote in to ask:

One I hear a lot around here (in Texas) is that musician Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica. True or not.

While it’s not true, Travis, it’s amazing how much truth there IS to the story.

Delbert McClinton has had a remarkable career in the music industry, playing on hits in the 1960s and later having hit singles in the 1990s!

McClinton got his first big break in the business, though, when he played harmonica on a song by a fellow Texan, Bruce Channel.

The song was called “Hey Baby,” and it was a smash hit in the Spring of 1962.

McClinton’s harmonica performance on the song was remarkable, and really gave the song its unique flavor (it’s a really great song that you really ought to get if you’ve never heard it before).

In any event, the song was so popular that Channel and McClinton went on tour in England in the Summer of 1962, and on that tour, their supporting band was a young quartet known as the Beatles!

Here is John Lennon, McClinton and Channel…

So, remarkably enough, McClinton actually DID know Lennon before he was famous, and Lennon DID ask for McClinton’s advice on playing the harmonica.

However, Lennon was already an experienced harmonica player by this time (his favorite harmonica was one he had stolen from a store in Hamburg in 1960). This was not to say he was a GOOD harmonica player, but he definitely was an experienced harmonica player.

So, no, McClinton did not teach Lennon how to play the harmonica.

What’s interesting, though, is that while that part is false, for years people presumed that, at the very least, McClinton’s advice played a role in the recording of the Beatles’ first hit single, “Love Me Do,” which, like “Hey Baby,” is driven by the harmonica.

However, the first use of harmonica on “Love Me Do” happened in the initial recording session of “Love Me Do,” which was a week or two before Lennon and McClinton ever met.

This does not, of course, mean that McClinton’s harmonica play did not inspire Lennon’s performance on “Love Me Do,” as it almost certainly DID (Lennon had basically said as much in interviews), as by the time they recorded “Love Me Do,” “Hey Baby” had not only been a hit for a few months, but the Beatles actually had the song prepared to record as a cover for a possible album recording. So Lennon was very familiar with McClinton’s style, it’s just that some tellings of the story say that while McClinton did not teach him how to play the harmonica, he did personally teach Lennon some tricks which Lennon used on “Love Me Do,” which seems not particularly likely (but not impossible, as the Beatles DID re-record “Love Me Do” later in 1962, without drummer Pete Best).

I suppose he could have had some more direct influence on “Please Please Me,” which was recorded later in the year and which also had harmonica on it, but not to the same extent as “Love Me Do.”

Anyhow, Delbert McClinton still has a pretty awesome place in music industry – he gave John Lennon tips before Lennon became a famous star! That’s pretty darn cool. Not to mention “Hey Baby” was one of the songs on the famous “Lennon Jukebox,” the jukebox of about 40 singles that Lennon brought with him on the Beatles 1964 tour.

The legend is..


Thanks to Travis for the suggestion!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

5 Responses to “Did Delbert McClinton Really Teach John Lennon How to Play the Harmonica?”

  1. Well, THAT certainly answered the question of whether the lyrics to “Every Breath You Take” were taken from an actual stalker’s letters. (Or perhaps it’s just another copy/paste template issue…) 🙂

  2. Ha! Thanks, Steve, fixed!

  3. No, but Bowie taught Jagger to play the skin-flute.

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