Gary James' Interview With
Blood, Sweat And Tears'
David Clayton Thomas
There are singers and then there are singers. David Clayton Thomas, now there is a singer!
David was the lead singer of Blood, Sweat And Tears. When David came on board as the group's singer, their first album resulted in three Gold singles and three Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Award for Album Of The Year. That album featured David's song "Spinning Wheel", which became a Billboard #2 hit for the group. In 1996, David was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame. In 2002, the first Blood, Sweat And Tears album that David was on was honored with a Grammy Hall Of Fame Award. In 2006, "Spinning Wheel" was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame. In 2002 he received a star on Canada's Walk Of Fame.
David Clayton Thomas talked with us about his life, both on and off the stage.
Q - David, your voice is so unique. I think what makes it unique is your phrasing. When you sing "You've Made Me So Very Happy" or "And When I Die", I believe every word you're saying. You're not just singing a song. You're almost relaying a personal story. And the song never sounds old!
A - That's what a singer tries to do.
Q - That is kind of unique in Pop music, isn't it? You would agree with that, wouldn't you?
A - Well, I think especially today when the lyric is not as meaningful as it was in the day that songs like that were written. When Laura Nyro wrote "And When I Die", it came out of an era of (Bob) Dylan and Lennon And McCartney. The songs had real meaning. Today, they're basically music tracks for a dance studio. So, the lyric doesn't have the same meaning. It doesn't have the same depth.
Q - You've been honored quite a bit in Canada, but how about the U.S.? Are you in the Cleveland Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
A - No, thankfully. (Laughs).
Q - Is that the because they consider Blood, Sweat And Tears more of a Jazz group than a Rock group?
A - Absolutely. Well, they put Miles Davis in.
Q - So, that's not the reason. Why do you think you haven't been inducted?
A - Oh, I don't know. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is directed by Jann Wenner and a little cabal of Rolling Stone people and who they would like to be in. Now, if The Sex Pistols are in the Rock And Role Hall Of Fame and Blood, Sweat And Tears isn't, well then I'll be very proud of that.
Q - Where did you get this name of yours, David Clayton Thomas?
A - Oh, way back in the bar days working in Toronto. All my Blues idols had three names, like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Sam Hopkins. (Laughs). So, I came up with that one.
Q - This first group you were in, The Bossmen, was that a cover group or an original group?
A - We were writing original material. We had the longest running number one single in Canada back in the early 1960s. It was called "Brainwashed". It was the first band to actually use Jazz musicians in a raw context. Very much The Bossmen led to me going to New York and hooking up with people like Randy Brecker and Bobby Colomby and getting involved with the first Blood, Sweat And Tears.
Q - Did you have five Gold Records with The Bossmen?
A - No. I had five number one records, but they were with two different bands, The Shays and The Bossmen.
Q - Why did you leave The Bossmen?
A - I basically left Canada to go to New York because I was working in an area called the Yorkville Village. It was very much an extension of Greenwich Village. A lot of the singer / songwriters that worked in the Village here and New York kind of interchanged. Joni Mitchell would play here and then she would go down to New York. People like Lonnie Johnson, John Lee Hooker, they would play in the Village of New York and came up to play Yorkville Village. So, there was a lot of interchange back and forth. I had been to New York once. I was very excited about it. I loved New York very dearly. I lived there for almost 40 years. In Canada, in the early 1960s, there really was no music industry. You say we had five Gold records, but to get a Gold record in Canada in those days you had to sell 10,000 copies. There was just no music industry up here. So, most of the people who worked in the Yorkville area, the Yorkville Village, myself, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, John Kay, we all left and went to the States. Some went to New York, some went to L.A. I chose New York 'cause that's where all the Jazz players were.
Q - You are on Hullabaloo with The Shays?
A - Yeah. That was my first trip to New York. That was the first time I ever went to New York. Paul Anka brought us down to play Hullabaloo. We had four days in New York City and I was hooked. I really wanted to get back there. I ended up spending close to 40 years, as I said, in New York.
Q - Do you remember who else was on that show with you?
A - No. (Laughs). Paul Anka.
Q - You were on that show because you had a hit record?
A - Yeah we had a number one record in Canada. Probably sold to immediate relatives and 12 other people. (Laughs).
Q - It was enough to get you on the show. Hullabaloo was a big deal here in the States.
A - Oh, it was a huge deal. We were the first Canadian band to ever be asked to go and play on a network show in the United States. It made a lot of news in Canada.
Q - After taping the show, you went to Greenwich Village and saw Jimi Hendrix?
A - Among other people. You gotta realize in those years, Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor, Carole King, Laura Nyro, they were just folks working down on Blecker Street in little clubs. You could go into any club any night and see all these people. They weren't famous at that time. They were just starving musicians like the rest of us.
Q - Some accounts have you watching these people. Other accounts have you on the same bill. Was it both?
A - Oh, we played all the same clubs. They were called basket houses. They were all over Greenwich Village and basically you just stood in line with a bunch of other singer / songwriters and they let you sing a couple of songs and passed the basket. Then you'd move onto the next club. That's how we kept ourselves in rent money in those days. So sure, it's hard to call it headlining. The clubs seated probably about 22 people. They were just little hole-in-the-wall joints. Basket houses. We all started out there. Great songwriters like Tim Hardin and James Taylor, they were all just working up and down the street. I first saw Carole King at The Bitter End, which probably holds about 30 people packed to the rafters.
Q - Fast-forward to Woodstock. What did you think of that Festival?
A - It was really chaotic. I guess you didn't read my book then?
Q - I'm sorry, I haven't.
A - There's a lot in there. I have a couple of chapters on Woodstock. It was a very chaotic and crazy thing and history was right, if you remember Woodstock, you weren't there.
Q - How long did it take you to write "Lucretia Mac Evil"?
A - That song? I don't remember. That was back in the bars. I have over 400 songs in my catalog to date. A lot of them were written before I joined Blood, Sweat And Tears. "Spinning Wheel" and "Lucretia" were both written before I joined Blood, Sweat And Tears. They were written for my bar band in Canada. I took them down to New York with me and Blood, Sweat And Tears recorded them.
Q - So, you don't remember if they came fast to you or you had to slave over the lyrics and music?
A - Well, songs are basically an evolution. I probably carried "Lucretia" around in my guitar case for two years, half finished. I probably truly didn't finish it until I recorded it with Blood, Sweat And Tears.
Q - Is it true you were living on the streets when you were 14?
A - That's true.
Q - Didn't you have to go to school?
A - Not really. I dropped out at Grade 9 and basically I was on the street when I was 15.
Q - In the U.S. you can drop out when you're 16. When you are 14, the school sends their truant officer after you, to your house, to find out where you are.
A - It depends on what part of town you live in., A lot of 14-year-old kids in Harlem and the South Side of Chicago are on the streets at 14 just like I was.
Q - What did you do for food and shelter back then? You weren't singing in clubs.
A - You just scuffled. You just got by from day to day.
Q - At one point you were doing 300 concerts a year with Blood, Sweat And Tears.
A - Oh, yeah. I did that close to 40 years, until 2004 when I finally packed it up with Blood, Sweat And Tears and left New York and moved back to Toronto. In excess of 200 concerts every year. That's how they made their living, by being on the road all the time.
Q - That's a lot of road work!
A - Yes, it is. That's why I'm not doing it anymore.
Q - It was reported you made a fortune, only to lose it. Were you ripped off by a manager or a record company?
A - Wasn't everybody?
Q - In the 1960s? Yes.
A - (Laughs).
Q - I take it back. There was one guy who wasn't ripped off.
A - Who was that?
Q - Dave Clark of The Dave Clark Five. He owned all the masters to his records. In 1964, you didn't have guys doing that.
A - No, you didn't.
Q - So he was ahead of his time.
A - I own (my Masters) mine now. It took a few years to learn.
Q - Do you still performed Blood, Sweat And Tears songs?
A - Well, my own songs. They're mostly songs that I wrote. So of course they're still part of my show. If I was to do a show and people were to buy tickets and I didn't do "Spinning Wheel" or "God Bless The Child", I think they'd ask for their money back. (Laughs). We have a very successful new album out right now. It's doing very, very well, Universal Music. We're really excited about it. We've been playing it for the last six months. But I don't do a lot of concerts anymore. I'm only doing two concerts this year (2013). I'm doing a big concert in Canada called Festival Of Friends, which is in Hamilton, Ontario. There will be about 12,000 people. Then I'm playing the big Muddy Blues Festival in St. Louis. Those are the only two concerts I'm doing this year. My life is not consistent with going out on the road anymore.
Q - I guess you had your fill of it.
A - I still love doing it, but going on the road and doing concerts are two different things. Doing a concert like the big Muddy Blues Festival that I played before, but it's a great Festival. Going on the road playing Indian reservation casinos five nights a week to pay the band and put gas in the bus and make sure the manager gets the money he needs, no. I don't do that anymore. I much more enjoy writing, being in the studio, being involved with my foundation, which is the Pine River Foundation, which I do a lot of work with now. It's a foundation that goes towards helping intervening with the young 15-year-old kids who are on the streets, basically kids like myself. We provide early education. You asked how I could drop out of school. Well, it's very easy. If nobody cares about you, you're on the street. Trust me, there's a lot of kids nobody cares about. Hence, Pine River Foundation. I do fundraisers. It's much more rewarding for me than going out touring and doing oldies shows. I work with the Pine River Foundation to give back and do something for these kids that are thrown out and nobody cares about. We have a 200 acre camp about 90 miles North of Toronto. It is staffed by PhD's, doctors, counselors, teachers. We currently have a student body of about 60 kids. They go up there for about a year and a half to two years. It's a program that follows them right through graduating high school and into college. The families are involved with the program. They're not swept into the reformatory system the way I was and supervised by jail guards. They're supervised and mentored by professionals. Part of my role is I set up a music program for Pine River. We found some very talented kids already, guitar players, sax players, singers. We built a music cabin. We're mentoring a lot of these talented kids. Sometimes the most troubled kids are the brightest and the most sensitive and the most artistic. So, we're encouraging that.