Cover Story: David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears
By Cece M. Scott www.cecescott.com
Music gives him a reason to live.
Best known as the singer and frontman for Blood, Sweat & Tears (BS&T), David Clayton-Thomas is an inductee in The Canadian Music Hall of Fame (1996), the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2007) for his song Spinning Wheel, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame (2008), and Canada’s Walk of Fame (2010). He’s also a multi-Grammy award-winner, having sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.
A musical icon, Clayton-Thomas, now 76, earned his chops with David Clayton-Thomas and The Fabulous Shays, laying down hits like Out of the Sunshine and Walk That Walk. In 1964, the band opened for the Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens – a proud moment for Clayton-Thomas, whose parents were in the audience. “You showed them, David. You showed them,” said his mom.
The teenage years were a tumultuous time for Clayton-Thomas. At 14, he ran away from home to escape his abusive father. He spent the next several years living on the street and in various reformatories (for petty theft, vagrancy and street fighting), including the Guelph Reformatory and the Burwash Correctional Centre. “Burwash was thirty miles from Sudbury and a thousand miles from nowhere,” says Clayton-Thomas.
THE EARLY YEARS
To fill the time, Clayton-Thomas taught himself to play a guitar that had been gifted to him by an inmate. Before long, he was performing concerts for his fellow prisoners. When he was released in 1962, Clayton- Thomas was armed for a new lifestyle, along with his guitar and a newly discovered singing voice.
His first stop was on Yonge Street in Toronto, with a strip of legendary bars that included Le Coq d’Or, Friars’, The Colonial and The Town Tavern. Clayton- Thomas’ robust, soulful voice caught the attention of others and he found himself being mentored by some of the best, including Ronnie Hawkins.
After The Shays broke up, Clayton-Thomas went solo, playing Yorkville’s storied coffee houses alongside the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. He was invited to New York by his-then idol, John Lee Hooker, and spent the next two years playing Greenwich Village. “I was in good company playing the basket houses – Carole King, James Taylor, Jimi Hendrix. We’d play two songs and pass the basket.”
In 1966, Clayton-Thomas joined the Bossmen, scoring a Top 20 Canadian hit with the anti-Vietnam war song, Brainwashed (1966). Following an invitation from BS&T drummer, Bobby Colomby, Clayton-Thomas joined the group as the lead singer in 1968. They went on to win critical acclaim for their self-titled album that included such hits as, And When I Die, You’ve Made Me So Very Happy and Spinning Wheel. The album won three Grammys, including Album of the Year, beating out the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
One year later, BS&T was a headline act at the epochal Woodstock Festival (1969). One of Clayton-Thomas’ fondest festival memories was meeting Levon Helm and the rest of The Band backstage – his old pals from the strip. “We were like, wow! A couple of years ago we were playing the Yonge Street strip and now we’re headlining the biggest concert in history. It was pretty amazing.”
THE HEADY DAYS
It was a speedy transformation for BS&T. They were now a money-making machine, with the added pressures that went along with it, including expectations to tour. “For the first three years none of us had homes – but we had really nice luggage” says Clayton- Thomas. “There was no such thing as having a steady relationship.” Clayton-Thomas’ own three failed marriages were a casualty of being on the road for a good part of each year.
In 2005 Clayton-Thomas decided to semi-retire, and moved back to his hometown of Toronto after living in New York for several decades. “For 47 years, my life consisted of performing 250 concerts a year all over the world with Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was a blur of running to airports, sleeping where I could – it takes its toll. I wanted to settle down in one place, and I chose Toronto because I love it here,” says Clayton- Thomas. “Of all the places I’ve been in the world, I think Toronto is one of the finest places on the planet. I never gave up my Canadian passport.”
The last twelve years have been busy. Clayton-Thomas has put out an album each year, and has performed at selected concerts in Canada and in Europe. His 2017 Canadiana album is a tribute to Canada’s 150th Birthday, and features music by old friends, including Neil Young, Levon Helm and Joni Mitchell. An original soundtrack of new songs will be released later this year.
In 2011, Clayton-Thomas experienced a health scare, which forced him to slow down. A bacterial infection impacted his aortic heart valve. “I got the valve replaced and I came through it, but I don’t move as fast as I used to. At one time, I was a runner, but now my exercise consists of taking Maggie for a walk down the beautiful Toronto boardwalk three times a day.”
Music played a life-changing role in Clayton-Thomas’ life, and he’s never forgotten it. He’s involved with Peacebuilders – an organization that fosters the reformation of the justice system and provides support for underprivileged kids. In addition, he supports the Hamilton Music Collective – An Instrument for Every Child. This organization provides musical instruments, and instruction, to inner-city kids through a partnership with Mohawk College. “There are so many young kids who don’t have the money to buy a guitar or learn how to play. This gives them a chance in life.”
Someone referred to me as the Dean of Canadian singers. I guess that means I’m
getting old. – David Clayton-Thomas
Another youth advocacy group that he’s committed to is Pine River Camp in Orangeville. “Instead of going to jail, Pine River offers kids in the reform process a second chance,” says Clayton-Thomas. “The kids go there for two years, get a specialized education and, ultimately, get their high school diploma.”
Clayton-Thomas is also working to get legislation passed so that streaming companies, such as Spotify, pay fair royalties to the artists for their music. “We need to keep the music alive.”
Clayton-Thomas counts his daughter Ashleigh, his granddaughter Dani, (a second grandchild is expected this year), his Miniature Schnauzer Maggie (named after Margaret Trudeau), and his downtown, lake-view crib as life’s gifts – as well as being on stage and performing for a hometown crowd. “I will always remember playing at Maple Leaf Gardens,” says Clayton-Thomas. “When I get on stage now, all the aches and pains go away. I don’t think about it until afterwards. I get back to the hotel and think, oh God I hurt. But it’s fun making music – I have always loved it.”