David Clayton-Thomas

Soul Ballads, David Clayton-Thomas’ latest recorded triumph, represents one more landmark in a career filled with them, from his early solo hits in Canada to his days as lead singer with a juggernaut known as Blood, Sweat & Tears when they were the hottest rock band in the land. But there was a time when dreams of stardom must have seemed quite remote.

“I had a very bad childhood,” says David, who was born in Surrey, England but mostly raised in a suburb of Toronto. “I was on the street when I was 14, and basically bounced in and out of reform schools and reformatories, and finally four years in provincial lockup. I’d always been musical. My mother was musical. She played piano. And I adored my mother. I guess she handed off a little of her music talent. There was a kid in the reformatory who had an old guitar. It was a real piece of junk. The strings were about an inch off the fretboard. It was almost unplayable. And I somehow inherited it. So I worked on the guitar and got it actually playable, and I actually did my first concerts. They were like Christmas concerts in the joint!”

When he was set free in 1962, Davis headed straight for Toronto’s swinging Yorkville Village district, where transplanted Arkansas wildman Ronnie Hawkins and his Hawks (later known as the Band) reigned with their raucous rock and roll. “I started hanging around the Yonge Street strip, sitting in with bands wherever I could. We used to have a thing called matinees here, where the liquor laws didn’t apply in the afternoons. They didn’t serve booze for the two shows in the afternoon. We would do five shows a night, and on Saturday afternoon, we’d do two shows, so we’d actually end up doing seven shows on Saturday.

“The afternoon shows, the young underage musicians could get in, because there was no booze sold. And so these jam sessions would develop. The band that had been playing five shows a night was all too welcome to give up the stage, go out and have a drink, and let somebody else do it. We all knew the same songs. You could go in and sit in with Ronnie Hawkins’ band, and you could do a Sam Cooke tune, or a Jimmy Reed or a Ray Charles tune, and everybody knew them. So it wasn’t long before I had my own band, and I was playing up and down the strip right alongside of the Ronnie Hawkins Band and all the rest of the artists. And I did that for basically two, three years.

“We hung out together. We were all buddies. We would do like five shows a night, and then at one o’clock when the bars closed, all the bands would gather at this little restaurant called Fran’s, right off the strip, and we’d have breakfast at two o’clock in the morning. Then we’d go back to our clubs and rehearse ‘til dawn, because in the clubs, you had to keep the material fresh, all the time. We were basically playing the Top 40, in terms of the R&B stuff, so new tunes had to be brought in every week. So it was a tremendous training ground, it really was.”

The young singer put together his own combo, the Shays. “That was my first band. It was a bunch of kids. Two of them were still in high school,” he says. “It was a true garage band. We used to go up to one kid’s house and rehearse literally in his garage. And play these little teen hops around town, stuff like that.” Clayton-Thomas and the Shays hit local paydirt with a 1964 rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” “Then we kind of redid it and called it ‘Walk That Walk,’” he says. “It was just a different version of the same song. And it went national.”

Covers would only take a hungry young band so far, so Clayton-Thomas widened his musical horizons. “Up in the Yorkville area, which was kind of Bohemian—Toronto’s answer to Greenwich Village—there were artists like Neil Young and John Kay and Oscar Peterson and Joni Mitchell, who I just idolized,” says David. “I started hanging out more and more up in the Village with the more Bohemian creative bunch, and started writing a lot of my own stuff.”

One of those hard-hitting originals was “Brainwashed,” which elevated the singer to a new level. “‘Brainwashed’ actually went to number one nationally in Canada, and stayed number one for like 16 weeks or something,” he says. “But it never did get released in the U.S. because it was a little in advance of the anti-Vietnam sentiment that would sweep the country in the mid-‘60s. And no American company would take a chance on it, because it was a pretty nasty radical record!”

Clayton-Thomas and the Shays made their first trip to New York City to tape an episode of NBC-TV’s Hullabaloo hosted by fellow Canadian Paul Anka. “The three days that we were filming Hullabaloo, I spent every minute that I could get down in the Village. I saw the young Jimi Hendrix, then Jimmy James,” he says. “James Taylor was with Flying Machine. Richie Havens, who became a lifelong friend of mine. John Hammond, Jr. I met all of these people, and I went back to Toronto after the Hullabaloo show. I couldn’t get New York out of my mind.”

When the opportunity arose to go back, David jumped at it. “I was playing across the street from John Lee Hooker,” says Clayton-Thomas. “I used to grab my guitar and go over between sets and sit in with him, and we became friends. He said, ‘Look, I’ve got a gig in New York next week.’ See, John didn’t drive, and his driver was refused entry to Canada for some reason or another. He got stopped at the border. So I made a deal with John. He said, ‘Look, my Cadillac is in Buffalo, New York. Go down there, pick it up, drive it to New York, leave it at my lawyer’s office, and come down to the Café au Go-Go and I’ll have a gig for you.’

“So I said, ‘Okay, John, I’ll do it!’ So I took a bus down to Niagara Falls, picked up John’s Cadillac, drove it all the way down to New York City, dropped it at his lawyer’s office, went down to Greenwich Village at the Café au Go-Go, and John Lee Hooker had canceled! They had the American Blues Festival tour going out at that point and he was asked to be on that, so off he went to Europe. So I arrived at the club with my guitar at about two o’clock in the afternoon and found out the bad news, that not only was there no gig, there was no John Lee Hooker. And the owner of the club said, ‘Well, I don’t have a headliner. Do you have a band?’ I said, ‘Sure I do!’ I’d been in town like 40 minutes. I knew nobody.

“So I spent about two hours going out on the street to all of the little clubs around,” he continues. “I ran into a couple guys: Charlie Musselwhite, a harp player, and Mike Bloomfield, the guitar player. And I said, ‘Hey, I got a gig, guys!’ And five o’clock, we went down to the club and rehearsed, and we opened that night. We actually ended up playing there about three weeks. And that was my foot in the door, basically, to getting on the New York scene.”

When there were no paying jobs to be had, David still picked up a few bucks with his powerful pipes. “On Bleecker Street in New York, there were probably eight, ten, 12 clubs. A lot of them we called basket houses,” he says. “A basket house is where you’d go in, stand in line behind four or five other artists with your guitar. There’d be Dave Van Ronk, or Richie Havens or James Taylor. And they’d give you like one song, two songs. They didn’t pay you, but you were given a basket. You could pass the basket afterwards. And we all did that, including Carole King and James Taylor. So we all knew each other. We all stood in the same line.”

David’s big break arrived when he joined Blood, Sweat & Tears as their new front man and took the band into more pop-friendly climes. “The Café au Go-Go had a theater upstairs called the Garrick Theater,” says David. “Playing there was like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and a band called Blues Project, who was about to break up. And they were morphing into something called Blood, Sweat & Tears. So I had met the guys. We had played on gigs together, like different bands, but on the same gigs, different little clubs around town. So I knew Randy Brecker. I knew Bobby Colomby.

“Anyway, I had wrangled a gig up at a place called Steve Paul’s Scene on 47th Street. And we were basically the house band there. It was a late-night after-hours club where everybody hung out after, and you could go in there some nights and there’d be the Righteous Brothers, or there’d be Eric Clapton or Jimi. They’d just go up there to jam afterwards. And we were the house band, so we backed everybody and did our own little show too.

“Blood, Sweat & Tears had broken up like three months after they got together. They put their first album together, it didn’t do well, and I guess the band was all pointing at each other, saying, ‘It’s your fault!’ But I guess who took most of the heat was Al Kooper, because the guys did not feel that he was the right singer. These guys were all jazz players. In the early days, before we got pop success, Blood, Sweat & Tears was a damned good jazz band. We were big band jazz. The guys in the band came out of Berklee and Juilliard and Manhattan, and were very much a New York City band.

“So my gig at the Scene ran out and my visa ran out about the same time, so I had to go back to Canada. And a couple weeks later, I got a call from Bobby Colomby. He said, ‘Hey, I was there that last night. I came with Judy Collins and saw you the last night. We’re going to try to put Blood, Sweat & Tears back together.’ I said, ‘Well, who do you have left?’ He said, ‘Well, there’s four of us left out of the original nine, but we really need a singer, and Randy Brecker suggested you, and Judy Collins suggested you. So you want to give it a shot?’ I said, ‘Sure, of course! Back to New York? Yeah! All you’ve got to do is get me a visa.’ So they worked that out, and I came back to New York and ended up staying 40 years.”

The newly reformed band’s first eponymous album for Columbia with Clayton-Thomas, produced by James Guercio, topped Billboard’s pop album charts for seven weeks in 1969 and went platinum. “We were playing at the Café au Go-Go two or three nights a week, and we basically went into the studio and recorded the set, the stuff we were playing,” he remembers. “Which was kind of a combination of songs that were left over that Al Kooper didn’t sing, and some of my songs that I had brought in, and some we just kind of chose like ‘God Bless The Child.’ And we literally go up to the 52nd Street studio of Columbia Records and record what we’ve been playing in front of a live audience the night before.”

The set spawned three gold singles, each one of them peaking at #2 pop. The first one, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” was a cover of a recent Motown hit. “They had tried it with Al Kooper and they weren’t happy with the vocals, so they never did record it,” says David. “Then up at Bobby Colomby’s place one day, he was playing me a bunch of stuff that they had been considering, and I heard ‘You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.’ I said, ‘Whoa, who’s that? That’s Brenda Holloway! I know that song!’ So we did the chart and it went into the show, and we played it down at the club, and we ran up in the studio and recorded it.”

Next came David’s own “Spinning Wheel.” “I actually wrote that song in Canada almost a year before I left and went to New York,” he says. “I’d actually recorded it up here but never did get it released, because they said, ‘It’s too jazzy! Jazz doesn’t sell.’ So at one of our rehearsals, I brought the song out. But I kind of just was saying, ‘When you get swept up in all of these movements, it’s all gonna come full circle.’”

“And When I Die,” the last of the expansive band’s fusillade of 1969 smashes, came from an extended member of the band’s family. “The bass player, Jim Fielder, was dating a girl, and she used to come up to our rehearsals. We rehearsed at a sixth floor walkup above the Café au Go-Go, in a loft,” says David. “She used to come to our rehearsals every day, and she’d bring pizza up, and coffee, and stuff like that. One day she said to me, ‘Do you want to hear some of my songs?’ And I said, ‘Oh, are you a writer?’ Jim said, ‘Yeah, she’s a great writer!’ And I said, ‘Sure, come on!’ Me and Bobby Colomby said, ‘Yeah, let’s hear a few of your songs.’ She sat down at the piano and played ‘Wedding Bell Blues,’ ‘Stoned Soul Picnic,’ ‘Eli’s Coming.’ ‘And When I Die,’ just one incredible song after another. Of course, Jimmy’s girlfriend was Laura Nyro. So she was kind of one of our inner circle. She was one of our buddies.”

That album also featured a revival of Billie Holiday’s immortal torch ballad “God Bless The Child.” “I had a lot of kind of soul searching about doing it, because it was such a black anthem,” David says. “I think more people got introduced to the song through the Blood, Sweat & Tears recording than they ever did the Billie Holiday recording.”

Blood, Sweat & Tears’ mammoth overnight success was startling. “We went from the Café au Go-Go to Madison Square Garden. It was in three months. It was just astounding,” says David. “When Blood, Sweat & Tears came out, the prevailing trend was the three-piece bands, what we used to call the Marshall bands. Three guys and 10 Marshalls. It was Hendrix, it was the Who, it was Cream. And we came out of left field with classically trained brass players and Berklee-trained jazz musicians and a blues singer, and it was totally different. In those days, that was a plus. To have something that was totally unlike anything else on the radio, they loved it.”

BS&T was also on the amazing bill at Woodstock. “I can remember being backstage at Woodstock and running into Levon Helm,” says David. “And he basically said, ‘Hey, who’d have thought? You know what I mean? Here we are!’ Blood, Sweat & Tears had the number one album in the world at that point, and the Band was coming up the charts really, really fast and had a tremendous fan following. And there we are, backstage at Woodstock!”

That first set earned five Grammys, including one for Album of the Year. “I was kind of elected by the band to go up and be the spokesman and accept the Grammys,” says Clayton-Thomas. “And the big one, which was Album of the Year, was given to me by Louis Armstrong. To be standing onstage with an armful of Grammys and Satchmo is pretty exciting stuff.”

The band’s 1970 Columbia followup set, Blood, Sweat & Tears 3, another #1 smash, was produced by Colomby and Roy Halee and contained two more major singles. The first, “Hi-De-Ho,” emanated from the fertile pens of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, responsible for a raft of early ‘60s smashes. “I knew about Carole’s work,” notes David. “I’d seen her at the Bitter End a dozen times. She used to just play there with solo piano.”

The set’s other big charter was a Clayton-Thomas original, “Lucretia Mac Evil.” “That’s another song I wrote back in the old barroom days, when we’d go play these little funky bars in these small towns in Ontario. Every small town had a bad girl,” he says. “I wrote the song, and I didn’t have a title because I couldn’t use a real girl’s name. That would get me in trouble. After I came to New York, I was listening to jazz radio out of Newark one night, and I heard a Horace Silver tune. And the announcer said, ‘That was “Filthy McNasty,” by Horace Silver.’ I said, “‘Filthy McNasty.’ Ah, ‘Lucretia Mac Evil!”’

The band’s next long-player went gold and included “Go Down Gamblin’,” their top-selling single of 1971. “We were about to go in and do the album B,S&T: 4, and we had just become the first rock band to ever headline at Caesars Palace. In Las Vegas, basically. A few other artists had tried it. The Mamas & the Papas tried it, Simon & Garfunkel tried it, but the audience that they had for the music in concert was not a Vegas audience. The high rollers didn’t go out for the Mamas and the Papas. They were still going to see Mr. Sinatra.

“Our band, for some reason or another, just breached that gap, because opening night at Caesar’s Palace, there was Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Count Basie, Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor. They were all in the audience that night. And it was just a real triumph. And somewhere during that week, my head got exploded a little bit, and I thought I was on top of the world and I couldn’t lose. And I went down to the casino and found out that I could lose. Basically, the song ‘Go Down Gamblin’ was born out of that experience. I never went back to the casinos again. I played casinos on occasion, but I don’t go into the actual gambling room anymore. It’s not my scene.”

Despite all the acclaim, Clayton-Thomas quit Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1972. “I was just burned out. The band was basically run by a democratic vote. And you have to realize that seven out of the nine guys made 100 percent of their living by touring. Me and Bobby were the two exceptions, Bobby because he owned the name (he still does today; I never had ownership in that name) and me because I was writing the hit songs, so I had a huge royalty income coming in,” he says.

“I just couldn’t keep it up. I would be at the airport some mornings where I couldn’t talk ‘til three o’clock in the afternoon. That was a big belting band, and it was a physical gig to sing with them, as much as I loved it,” says David. “I finally said, ‘You guys either back off the touring, or I’m gonna quit.’ That was the only way I could get a break was to quit, because they certainly weren’t going to vote on their own to do it.” After being reassured that the band’s touring would be cut back, Clayton-Thomas ultimately returned to B,S&T in 1975.

“That lasted 30 years,” says David. “Come about 2004 and I found myself the only last remaining member in what was called Blood, Sweat & Tears, and half the kids that were playing in the band weren’t even born when we started the band, I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ So I moved back to Toronto. I’d been in New York for 40 years.”

Clayton-Thomas has been on his own musically for the last decade. “I’m a hell of a lot happier with what’s going on right now. I’m living a much more relaxed existence,” he says. “We’re just picking and choosing events. This year, I headlined our Toronto Jazz Festival. A huge, huge festival here in Toronto, one of the biggest in the world, actually. And I headlined alongside Chaka Khan, my old buddy, and Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s something that you get excited to do. Last year, I also headlined two nights at Massey Hall with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

“I’m so happy Soul Ballads is coming out in the states.”