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David Clayton-Thomas began his amazing journey as a homeless street kid and developed into one of the most recognizable voices in music, to date selling over 40 million records. In 1996 he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and in 2007 his jazz/rock composition “Spinning Wheel” was enshrined in the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame. In 2010 David received his star on Canada’s Walk Of Fame.
His 1968 debut album with Blood Sweat & Tears sold 10 million copies worldwide. The self-titled record topped the Billboard album chart for seven weeks, and charted for a staggering 109 weeks. It won an unprecedented five Grammy awards, including Album Of The Year and Best Performance By A Male Vocalist. It featured three hit singles, “You Made Me So Very Happy” “And When I Die”,” and “Spinning Wheel” as well as an irresistible rendition of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” that became a signature song for David. A 1969 summary in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that “Blood Sweat & Tears just may be the most important pop music group of the decade”.
He was born David Henry Thomsett in Surrey, England, on Sept, 13, 1941. His father Fred Thomsett, was a Canadian soldier, his mother Freda, a British music student. After the war, the family settled in Willowdale, a suburb of Toronto. From the beginning David and his father had a troubled relationship. By the time David was fourteen he left home, sleeping in parked cars and abandoned buildings, stealing food and clothing to survive. A tough, angry street kid with a hair-trigger temper, it wasn’t long before he ran afoul of the law and was arrested several times for vagrancy, petty theft and street brawls. He spent his teen years bouncing in and out of various jails and reformatories.
David inheirited a love for music from his mother and when a battered old guitar came into his possession, left behind by an outgoing inmate, he began to teach himself to play. Before long he was singing and playing at jailhouse concerts and for the first time in his life, he found acceptance. Now he had a dream and his life had direction… he put the reformatory years behind him and he never looked back.
When he was released in 1962, he gravitated to the Yonge Street “strip” in Toronto. “The “strip” was a bawdy six block long stretch of bars and strip joints populated by a rough crowd of hustlers and hookers, catering to a rowdy clientelle of steelworkers, truckers and miners, in town for the weekend, looking to blow off steam along with their pay cheques. Rhythm & Blues, migrating up from Detroit and Chicago was the music of choice on the strip and Arkansas rockabilly Rompin Ronnie Hawkins, with his band “The Hawks” reigned supreme. Hawkins recognized the formidable talent of the young singer and took him under his wing. It wasn’t long before he was fronting his own bands. The first was called “David Clayton-Thomas and The Fabulous Shays.” By this time David had changed his name to put some distance between his new life and his troubled teenage years.
In 1964 David and The Shays recorded a smoky, funky rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” It was only a regional hit but it had a vocal that stopped you in your tracks. This led to the Shays going to New York to appear on NBC-TV’s “Hullabaloo” at the invitation of its host, fellow Canadian Paul Anka. David fell in love with New York City. “We had three days there, and I spent every spare moment in Greenwich Village,” he recalls. “I saw the young Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Havens, Carole King and James Taylor. “I went back to Toronto but life wasn’t ever the same.”
Abandoning the bars on the strip, David began performing on Yorkville Village’s bustling coffeehouse scene, His bar band soon drifted away, there was no money on Yorkville, but David hung in, playing solo, soaking up influences from the great bluesmen, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Joe Williams and Lonnie Johnson. He immersed himself in the local jazz & blues scene, attracted by the superb musicianship of Lenny Breau, Oscar Peterson and Moe Koffman, jazz players of dizzying technical prowess.
David made his mark more forcibly with his next band, The Bossmen… one of the first rock bands anywhere to incorporate jazz musicians. In 1966, he wrote the explosive anti-war song “Brainwashed” a jazz piano/rock guitar roar of fear and refusal, tougher than any rock recording you can name from the era. It rocketed to number one nationally and dominated the Canadian charts for an amazing sixteen straight weeks.
One night in 1966 after “sitting in” with blues singer John Lee Hooker in Yorkville, David left with him for New York. Hooker soon departed for Europe and David stayed on in New York City. “I survived by playing basket houses” performers were given a few minutes of stage time and then passed the basket.
Folk singer Judy Collins heard David one night at a club uptown and told her friend, drummer Bobby Colomby about him. Bobby’s band, Blood Sweat & Tears, torn apart by infighting, had broken up four months after releasing its debut Columbia album, “Child Is Father To The Man” and the band was being written off by everybody. Bobby invited David to help rebuild his shattered band. “We never heard anyone sing like that” Colomby recalls. They took the reformed group into the Café Au Go Go in the Village. Six weeks later, there were lines of people around the block, waiting to get into a club which only seated about 200 people.
In his 1974 autobiography, “Clive: Inside the Record Business”, Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records, described his initial impression of hearing David Clayton-Thomas at the Café Au Go Go: “He was staggering… a powerfully built singer who exuded an enormous earthy confidence. He jumped right out at you. I went with a small group of people, and we were electrified. He seemed so genuine, so in command of the lyric… a perfect combination of fire and emotion to go with the band’s somewhat cerebral appeal. I knew he would be a strong, strong figure.”
With David largely dominating the creative output, BS&T continued with a string of hit albums, including “Blood Sweat & Tears 3” which featuring such highpoints as David’s “Lucretia MacEvil,” and Carole King’s “Hi-De-Ho,” and “BS&T 4” which yielded another Clayton-Thomas penned hit single, “Go Down Gamblin’.” Blood Sweat & Tears’ “Greatest Hits” album has to date chalked up over seven million copies in worldwide sales.
BS&T headlined at major venues around the world… Royal Albert Hall, The Metropolitan Opera, The Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden and Caesar’s Palace, as well as the Newport Jazz Festival and Woodstock. It was the first contemporary band to break through the Iron Curtain with its historic 1970 tour of Eastern Europe.
In the early years David lived on the road, traveling all over Europe, Australia, Asia, South America, the US and Canada with BS&T. But the constant touring began to take it’s toll… David left the band in 1972, exhausted by life on the road. By the mid-70’s the founding members began to drift away to start families and pursue their own musical ambitions. One by one they were replaced by such notable jazz players as Joe Henderson, Jaco Pastorius and Mike Stern.
His departure left a gaping hole in the group, which fumbled through personnel changes. The fans simply would not accept a BS&T without David Clayton-Thomas.
“No matter how interesting we tried to make the music, audiences still wanted to hear David Clayton-Thomas” BS&T guitarist Steve Katz told Downbeat Magazine at the time.
After a three year hiatus he returned and the band came storming back to the concert stages of the world. Headlining international jazz festivals, concert halls and casino show rooms with David and a line-up of top-notch New York City session musicians. He was the only one left from the glory years, but it was David Clayton-Thomas that the fans came to see, and he continued to tour successfully under the BS&T name until 2004.
Today, living back in Toronto, his boyhood turf and the place where he still feels most at home, David has launched a 10 piece band under his own name.
Through the years, he has lost none of the attributes that have made him one of the greatest vocalists of his generation. That unmistakable voice now soaring and sunny, now a dark, somber shade of blue. He still just sings the hell out of a song.
“People like me don’t retire,” says David with his face in a wide grin around those storied, steel-blue eyes.”This is what I was put here to do”. With the BS&T years now behind him, look for an outpouring of new music from this gifted and fiercely creative artist.
Credit @ Larry LeBlanc