A half-century later, Tommy McLain finds God — and the spotlight

Tommy McLain performs at Jazz Fest
McLain caught lightning in a bottle with his ethereal 1966 version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams." Photo by Drew Stubbs

“Nice outfit!

The greeting, cheered by the initial volunteer to lay eyes on Tommy McLain, is the first of many thematic salutations he would hear throughout this blaring Friday afternoon, the final weekend of the 2022 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Later, from a Lagniappe stagehand, tending to him two hours prior to showtime: “Those are beautiful boots! Gorgeous.” From a vocal fest goer, welcoming him and longtime friend and collaborator C.C. Adcock from the crowd: “Liking those boots, Tommy!”

McLain, at 82 among swamp pop’s remaining elder statesmen, responds warmly each time, with a double thumbs-up or a gently drawled “Thank you very much.” Those boots, like the rest of his glam ensemble (black button-up with glittering embossed roses, silver-and-gold reflective jacket, black tophat), are a showstopper indeed: twin cowhide calf-highs with sharply cut black overlays adorning a blinding white base. Despite Adcock’s fraternal ribbing on his octogenarian out-of-touchness, Tommy casually mentions that he ordered them online.

“Man, I wish I had a hundred dollars every time I’ve been backstage,” McLain says to no one in particular. The subtext — 60-plus years of being overworked and undervalued by a fickle industry — lingers in the air like a smoke ring. He’s seated in a wheelchair, more out of comfort than necessity, and in addition to the compliments on his outfit, it seems everyone in the small dressing room is taking turns offering him something: coffee (cream and Splenda), finger sandwiches (egg salad, thank you very much) or just a few words of admiration and gratitude.

Tommy McClain and others backstage at Jazz Fest
“Man, I wish I had a hundred dollars every time I’ve been backstage,” McLain says of a career chewed up by the fickle music industry.

Swamp pop is an aching corner of the musical universe, and McLain’s recent few trips around the sun have thrown at him enough troubles for two career revivals. As if the once-a-decade hurricane and once-in-a-lifetime pandemic weren’t plenty to overcome, he endured six weeks in the hospital two years ago after a heart attack resulted in triple bypass open-heart surgery. And, oh yeah, his house was burned down by a serial arsonist. (“I wasn’t in it,” he counters wryly, the ultimate silver liner.)

You won’t hear McLain bemoan these or any other struggles. He caught lightning in a bottle with his ethereal 1966 version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams,” and he spent much of the next decade emptying the bottle into his mouth. He survived that, too, quitting drinking and drugs and finding life-saving solace as a Catholic evangelist. Now the lightning appears to be striking twice. McLain has a new album, I Ran Down Every Dream (Yep Roc), in the can and slated for an August release, and today he’s performing twice in support of it — an intimate gig with Adcock on the Lagniappe Stage, followed by a cameo on the Gentilly Stage, alongside his co-writer and backup singer on Dream’s title track, a headlining bloke named Elvis Costello.

About an hour before their 4:30 p.m. time slot, Adcock and his entourage make their grand entrance. There’s Glen Palmer, rock-star tailor for the likes of Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart and Tom Petty, looking the part in a yellow vest and a slouchy, oversized Gatsby cap. (“Tommy, what you doin’ in a goddamn wheelchair? Is this man razzle-dazzlin’ or what?”). There’s Steven Lowy, a California-based attorney with deep ties to the recording industry, who sidles up to McLain to swap war stories and shuffle Rolodexes as soon as Adcock is finished making introductions. (“This is Steve, he does some lawyering for me, you owe him some money.”)

And over there is Don Glista, senior director of business/legal and creative affairs at Universal Music Publishing Group, who happens to be starring in the quintessential Tommy McLain story Adcock is telling right now. “Me and Tommy were in London, and I said, ‘Let’s go up to the office and try to charm the pants off ’em, see if we can get you a deal,” Adcock says. “The key to that deal is we’re gonna go up there and only give ’em four songs. It’s for Caroline Elleray, head of A&R at Universal; she signed Radiohead and Coldplay.” 

Here Adcock starts laughing. “Tommy said to her, ‘I know Cole Porter. I don’t know Coldplay.’

“We play our four songs,” he continues, “it goes really well, and she’s crying. I’m like, ‘Oh, we got a deal.’ All of a sudden he goes, ‘I got one more.’ ‘Tommy, what’re you doin’?’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it, Charles, you don’t know this one.’ He starts making up this song on the spot called ‘London.’ It’s about half a song! He just charmed ’em about the stuff he’d done that day, going to the office. They loved it, and that ended up being the last song on the record.”

If Tommy McLain isn’t the last of a dying breed, then he’s somewhere in that number. His lyrical anecdotes almost always detour in one of two interconnected ways: a found-money scrap of song rescued from the recesses of his brain, or an impromptu eulogy to a friend not fortunate enough to make it this far (Warren Storm, Rob Bernard, and Bobbys Charles and Rydell).

“I think Bobby Rydell just died,” he says, breaking the news to the room. “I was with him and Chubby Checker, Lovin’ Spoonful, Tommy James & the Shondells. We all had the ice-cream hairdo, curl in the front. We were cool back then. We thought.” Informed that Rydell was three weeks shy of his 80th birthday, McLain chuckles. “I done beat him.” Told that it was pneumonia, his eyes narrow. “Damn. I just had that.”

It was at a 2010 New Orleans House of Blues remembrance for Bobby Charles that McLain first crossed paths with Elvis Costello. “He and I got to talkin’, two Catholic boys,” he says. “Been friends ever since.” (“I tell ya, I learned so much from this man,” Costello will say a little later on the Gentilly mainstage, before the two launch into a scatting duet of Charles’ “Before I Grow Too Old,” a song they first performed together at the House of Blues; McLain also sang it at English chanteuse Lily Allen’s wedding in 2011, accompanied by Adcock’s Lil’ Band o’ Gold.)

Tommy McLain performs with Elvis Costello
McLain makes an on-stage cameo with one of his new record's collaborators — a headlining bloke named Elvis Costello.

In June, McLain and Adcock are shoving off for a series of Northeast dates with another Dream collaborator, Nick Lowe, whose wife, Peta Waddington, photographed the majestic profile that graces the album cover. “That’s my buddy,” McLain says of Lowe. “What a kind person. Him and Elvis, kind as can be. He’s got one (called) ‘Lately I’ve Let Things Slide.’ He’s talkin’ about me when he wrote that.”

His voice isn’t the slippery androgynous wonder it was back in 1966, but the vertiginous, otherworldly alto has settled into a raspy, lived-in tenor, and he nails every mark today. His earliest memory of the gift in his throat is from age 9, when his older sisters would invite boys over for concert house parties, moving all the furniture into a corner and propping young Tommy up on a box to do his thing. “I was a baby star. They’d bring in the fiddle player, the guitar player. Everybody knew me,” he beams. “I’d sing [Eddie Miller’s] ‘Release Me’ and I’d run off.”

At that memory, as if on cue, the song unspools, modified slightly but miraculously intact after 73 years in deep storage: “Please release me, let me go / I don't love you anymore / To live together, it’s a sin / Release me and let me love again.” Upon finishing, he shakes his head. “Long time ago, brother. I remember it just like that. I don’t know how I remember music.”

McLain was playing bass with the Boogie Kings in 1966 when Floyd Soileau, swamp pop progenitor and founder of Jin Records, enlisted him to rerecord “Sweet Dreams.” They cut it together in the back of the Stanley Projection Company. “God dropped one on me, brother,” he says. “Ain’t never been able to come back and pick that up.” Afterward, Soileau asked if Tommy had anything original. “I didn’t know what he was talkin’ about, man.” He asked Floyd for a pen and a piece of paper. “Took me about 30 minutes, I wrote ‘I Need You So.’”

His current writing process is the same as it always was. A melody sleepwalks into his head, or a piece of conversation sends him straight to the piano. This morning, he woke up humming “Anything Goes.”

“Where did that come from?” he wonders. “I dream about songs. I don’t write nothin’ down. You might say somethin’ to me, I go to the piano. I like what you said, make a song out of it. I’m always hearing people say things. I say, ‘Man, you just wrote a tune.’”

With C.C. Adcock by his side on the Lagniappe Stage, McLain alternates standards like “No Tomorrows Now” with a few of his newest compositions, including a carnivalesque number called “The Greatest Show on Hurt.” “You can get that record at the Louisiana Music Factory,” Adcock tells the crowd. “Double A-side, we don’t make no fuckin’ B-sides.”

Adcock recalls going to McLain’s concerts as a ne’er-do-well high-schooler, procuring Jack-and-Cokes from indifferent bartenders. “They could get that where we played,” McLain confirms, kind of: “That’s what he says. I can’t remember him [then], but I remember him as he got a little bit older. He was talkin’ to me one night at the Jazzy Cajun, place that I was playin’. Warren Storm was there that night. That damn C.C. kept talkin’ and talkin’. I told Warren, ‘Go talk to that dude, he knows more about music than I do. He knows Doug Sahm and all those people.’”

Tommy McClain and C.C. Adcock
In June, McLain and C.C. Adcock are shoving off for a series of Northeast dates with another of McLain's collaborators, Nick Lowe.

Privately, the pair has a cantankerous, Cold War sitcom working relationship. “Charles is somethin’ else,” McLain marvels. “He don’t ever shut it down. He’s full of wee-wee and vinegar. He’s a worker. Not that good of a guitar player with anybody else, but with me, he’s great.” He pauses to grin and let the dig land, then continues. “That’s the way you get. Once we get to play, we got our own sound. Nobody else can do that, don’t care if they got 15 pieces. He’s believin’ it now. He said, ‘We’re on our way.’ I said, ‘Hell, we’re there now, brother.’”

McLain, ever a humble son of God, stops short of marveling at himself, more active now than he’s ever been. He calls this the happiest and most fulfilling stretch of his long career. “I did it so much, the roads. Just runnin’. Phone rings, I’m ready to go. Leavin’ too much. I’m doin’ that again.” He shed 40 pounds after his hospital stay, but he looks to have put most of it back on. “Gettin’ fat again,” he says. “I’ve been through this before, in ’66. The audience changes and the clothes change, food changes a little bit, but it’s the same.”

His catalog’s subject matter is a different story. At age 82, Tommy McLain isn’t interested in being so sad (to watch a good love go bad). “I’m not talkin’ about writin’ boyfriend-girlfriend stuff,” he says. “That all changed. Now I’m writin’ about where I’m goin’.”

And running down one more dream. Before he grows too old.