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The Heyday of Blood Sweat & Tears (Interview with David Clayton-Thomas)
Once in awhile, a replacement singer of an already-successful band can help take the entire unit to the next level of success. Such is the case of David Clayton-Thomas. The Canadian belter was also a replacement singer – following Al Kooper as the frontman of Blood Sweat & Tears.
After the Blues Project broke up in 1967, keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Steve Katz formed BS &T — fulfilling their pioneering vision of a jazz-rock band with a horn section. The democratic nature of the Blues Project had frustrated Kooper, who insisted on guiding the musical direction of BS&T as its bandleader.
BS&T’s 1967 debut, Child is Father to the Man, would be named one of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” but upon its release it was not a huge commercial success. Soon Kooper clashed with drummer Bobby Colomby over the band’s concept and arrangements and Colomby insisted on replacing Kooper as lead vocalist. Kooper quit BS&T in April 1968.
Determined to continue recording, BS&T found the missing element in David Clayton-Thomas, a Canadian vocalist seeking success in New York City. With Clayton-Thomas as the lead, the band’s self-titled Blood Sweat & Tears won the Grammy for “Album of the Year” in 1970. The LP produced three Top 5 singles: You’ve Made Me So Very Happy, And When I Die, and Spinning Wheel, which was written by Clayton-Thomas.
In an interview with Rock Cellar Magazine Clayton-Thomas talks about taking the reins from Al Kooper, the history leading up to writing and recording their hugely-successful album, and how a 17th century Viennese tune ended up as part of one of their biggest hits.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Before joining Blood Sweat & Tears, what kind of music did you play?
David Clayton-Thomas: Mostly R&B. I actually had three #1 records in Canada; that’s what kind of gave me my entrée to come to New York. In the early ‘60s there wasn’t much of a music industry in Canada. If you wanted to hit the music industry, you came to New York. Everything was in Greenwich Village.
RCM: How did Blood Sweat & Tears discover you?
DCT: When I came into Blood Sweat & Tears, they were playing a little 200-seat club in the Village called the Café au Go Go. The first Blood Sweat & Tears had fizzled and broke up. It was down to four guys and they were still playing at the Café au Go Go.
We were all just a bunch of out-of-work musicians, scuffling around the Village. I was playing everything from basket houses in the Village to clubs – Steve Paul’s Scene, Ondine’s, Ungano’s. We’d all play in the same clubs and we knew each other. I used to bump into [trumpeter] Randy Brecker and Bobby Colomby; [bassist] Jimmy Fielder was playing with Frank Zappa at the Garrick Theater above the Café au Go Go. So we used to see each other at the deli all the time. So it wasn’t like wow, I went to Schwab’s Drug Store and they discovered me.
Colomby and Fielder came up to the club I was workin’ uptown, Steve Paul’s Scene, and said, “Hey, we’re gonna try and put the band back together again. You wanna give it a shot?” And I said, “Well, who’s in it?” They said, “Randy Brecker’s gone but we got a new trumpet player named Lew Soloff. We’re trying to recruit some new guys.”
I said, “Yeah, let’s do it, man.” You didn’t turn down any gig in those days.
RCM: How was it to step into a band as the new singer?
DCT: Blood Sweat & Tears was such an unusual mix of people. We had guys in that band whose background was totally Juilliard. We had other guys who were right out of Berkeley – hard-core be-bop jazzers – and then we had another faction like me who were basically saloon-trained rock and roll R&B Telecaster players.
That’s what I think made the band magic. That band was not supposed to be together! [Keyboardist] Dick Halligan should have been playing with the Juilliard ensemble. Randy Brecker went on to be one of the great jazz trumpeters of all time. Me, I was raised on Otis Redding and Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and a couple of the guys in the band, like Jim Fielder, had those common roots with me so Jim and I became very close friends.
It was a complex mix with a lot of different musical ethics and viewpoints. But somehow or another we pulled it together and it worked and it was very, very different. Remember too, when Blood Sweat & Tears hit the scene in Greenwich Village, it was all three-piece bands. It was Cream and Who and Hendrix; it was three guys and 40 Marshall amplifiers.
And here comes this band with flutes and trombones and Basie-Ellington-type orchestrations and a lot of Broadway. It was very much a New York City band. You could hear it in the music. You could almost hear the car horns and the sidewalks and the pace of the city and the aggression.
When that band hit the stage it was not subtle. It came and hit you right in the gut. It was very fiery. It wasn’t West Coast surfer music!
RCM: Did you know the band would become as successful as it became?
DCT: Yeah (laughs). I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but yeah. The first time I walked in and sang with that band, we were in shock. It was one of those electrical things that happen.
Coming out of the first rehearsal, we went across the street to the Tin Angel on Bleecker St. and we sat around the table and looked at each other and said, what the hell have we done? What is this? It was like nothing anybody had ever heard before.
We were just, holy shit, this is some kind of band. And we knew it. It wasn’t arrogance. It was just amazing confidence. And sure enough, within about three weeks after we opened at the Go Go – we weren’t even in the studio yet – there would be a thousand people lined up down Bleecker St. to get into a 200-seat club.
RCM: You were able to build on the success of the group you joined. Other replacement singers generally just sing the songs of the established singer…
DCT: I suppose you didn’t hear about those guys because those groups were already famous. If you want to step in and replace John Fogerty in Creedence or Janis in Big Brother or Jimi Hendrix in the Experience it’s just not doable. I was able to come in and put my own stamp on the band and people just accepted me for what I am, which is basically an R&B singer in a jazz band.
RCM: Talk about the musicians in Blood Sweat & Tears. Were certain guys the driving forces in the band?
DCT: Absolutely. In a big band like that, nine pieces, you’ve got guys who just happened to be in the band at the time it hit and cashed in and were just worker bees. Then you have a hard core of really driven, creative people. I would have to list Bobby Colomby as one of the key members of the band. Really creative, co-producer on a lot of the records.
And then you had the arrangers, Dick Halligan and Fred Lipsius. Absolutely essential. They were the chart writers. They were responsible for the God Bless the Child charts, And When I Die – those brilliant charts. They were the brain guys. And then of course you had some virtuoso soloists. They had guys in that early band like [guitarist] Mike Stern, [trumpeters] Lew Soloff and Randy Brecker, who’ve gone on to be pre-eminent jazz artists now.
RCM: Let’s talk about the album Blood Sweat & Tears. Did you perform those songs live with the band before you recorded them?
DCT: Actually, that was our set that we were playing at the Café au Go Go in Greenwich Village. We’d run the tunes through the set on the weekends and weekdays take them into the CBS studio on 52nd St. and record them.
RCM: How did you come to write Spinning Wheel?
DCT: I had been playing it with my band up here in Toronto. We went into a little 2-track studio in Toronto and recorded a demo of it. Shopped it around to a few Canadian record companies but they weren’t that interested in it. I brought it down to New York when we were going through material for the new Blood Sweat & Tears album; material was coming in from a lot of different sources.
With Spinning Wheel, it was just, “Hey guys, I got a tune here. I wrote this up in Canada last year. What do you think?” And I had a cassette that I played for them. Fred Lipsius went right to the piano and started lifting the guitar lines off of it, writing them for horns. Within a couple of hours that afternoon, we had the outline of the charts and we recorded it within a couple of weeks.
That’s how things come about; there’s no big epiphany moment or anything (laughs). At any given time I’m probably carrying around 10 or 15 songs that you’ll never hear. And maybe it’s just as well! (laughs).
RCM: What did you intend to say with Spinning Wheel?
DCT: It was the ‘60s and everybody was caught up in movements. I think that song was just saying hey, back off a little bit, nothing is forever. Just tend to your own beliefs and have a good time. Catch a painted pony, man, it’s all gonna come around. That’s all it meant.
It was very hard to say something like that in the anti-war movement era. In those years it was almost suicide in this business to even be pro-American. You had to be a dissident. And I just thought everybody was going over the cliff, like lemmings…!
RCM: Tell us about Spinning Wheel’s funny ending. How did Ach Du Lieber Augustine – from the 17th century – end up on a rock record?
DCT: Dick Halligan stuck it in. We were playing the ending and repeating it through and then everybody just dissolved and somehow or other Ach Du Lieber Augustine came into it. Everybody started laughing and just kept playing it. Then at the very end, you hear Dick Halligan say into the microphone, “That wasn’t very good, was it?”
It was just a laugh, and we forgot all about it. Then a few weeks later we were back to do the mixes and heard it and said, “Ah, let’s leave it in, what the hell.” You don’t contrive those touches. Sometimes things happen in a studio and you say “Well, that’ll never happen again, so leave it in there.”
RCM: You’ve Made Me So Very Happy. Who discovered that song?
DCT: I give Al Kooper credit for that – it was the b-side of a Brenda Holloway single from Motown. Kooper suggested it, an arrangement had begun but he never did get to record it. And when I joined the band, one of the guys in the band said, “Hey, remember You’ve Made Me So Very Happy? I think David would sound good on that, let’s run it down, we’ve got a chart somewhere on it, let’s play it.” And we did, then played it a couple of nights at the Café au Go Go. It went over well with the audience and so there it was, it was on the album.
RCM: You really made these songs your own. Laura Nyro’s And When I Die – how did that come to you?
DCT: Laura Nyro was [bassist] Jimmy Fielder’s girlfriend. She used to come to rehearsals and I had the honor of recording Laura Nyro songs before she recorded them! She hadn’t gotten her recording contract going at that point and she was just Jimmy’s girlfriend. She’d sit down at the piano and play us tunes like Stoney End and Stone Soul Picnic, And When I Die, He’s a Runner, Wedding Bell Blues. We all knew she was brilliantly talented as a writer. Within the band we had a great writer and we took advantage of it.
RCM: God Bless the Child. Was it intimating to do a Billie Holiday song?
DCT: Yes. That was the most daunting task on that album. When I sat down with Dick Halligan and we started talking about an arrangement, we said we can’t do the Billie Holiday arrangement of it – it’s like trying to do Georgia on My Mind after Ray Charles has done it. If you’re not gonna do something totally different with it, don’t even go there.
I said to Dick, I gotta do my own thing, totally put my own stamp on this song. And Halligan came up with an absolutely brilliant arrangement, pure genius. It’s funny, a couple of months ago I heard young Nikki Yanofsky singing God Bless the Child at Massey Hall. And she was playing the Blood Sweat & Tears version; it’s become the new standard of that chart.
Everybody who does God Bless the Child now plays it with the Blood Sweat & Tears arrangement. Remember, the original Billie Holiday version was just a piano trail, and she sung it and phrased it very much differently. I went out of my way to try to bend that song and not copy Billie’s phrasing.
RCM: With all of those talented writers and musicians, why did Blood Sweat & Tears do so many covers?
DCT: I don’t know. Everybody contributed material – it didn’t matter whether you wrote them or not. It just happened to be that Steve Katz and I were the only two real songwriters, and Steve only wrote two or three songs during the whole history of the band.
RCM: Soon after Blood Sweat & Tears hit, horn bands like Chicago, Ides of March, Lighthouse and Chase became popular. Did any of those bands acknowledge their debt to Blood Sweat & Tears?
DCT: No, because the music business is like that. When somebody comes along and does something different, all of a sudden these marketing geniuses at the record companies go, “Oh, that worked.” And they clone it endlessly until you’re sick of hearing that kind of stuff anymore, and then they move on.
It’s not a creative process, it’s a cloning process. [The band] Chicago was created by the same record company, Columbia, the same producer, Jimmy Guercio, in the same studio in New York to be a more pop Blood Sweat & Tears because Columbia felt that Blood Sweat & Tears was too progressive. It’s just a natural process in the recording industry.
DCT (cont.): We couldn’t get arrested in the years when it was all 3-piece Marshall amp bands. Yet as soon as Blood Sweat & Tears broke through with that first album, they were running around the country trying to find any band that had horns.
RCM: Some of the bands, like the Ides of March, sounded remarkably like you.
DCT: I think Vehicle is one of the best records of the era. As a matter of fact I have relatives of mine that came up to me at the time and said, “Hey, I heard your new record: ‘I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan.’” I said, “No, no, that wasn’t me. That wasn’t us.”
RCM: How do you account for the many different styles on your album: Country, Latin, jazz?
DCT: That’s New York City, isn’t it? That’s New York City musicians, that’s their experience. If you grow up like John Mellencamp in the Midwest, you have a Midwestern perspective. If you’re Brian Wilson, you grow up with surfer music. But when you grow up in New York, you are bombarded every day by every type of music in the world. You can walk from one end of Manhattan to the other and hear Afro-Cuban, salsa, Latin, jazz, Broadway, symphonies.
It’s such a melting pot. If you’re a New York musician, you absorb all of those sources. New York City had a hell of a lot to do with the sound of Blood Sweat & Tears. It was angry, tough. I think Blood Sweat & Tears couldn’t have come off the streets of any other city in the world.
RCM: Despite your success with them, you eventually left Blood Sweat & Tears.
DCT: Well, Blood Sweat & Tears left me. There’s no Blood Sweat & Tears left. There’s something out there called Blood Sweat & Tears and as long as there’s a dollar to be made somebody will put together some kind of band and call it Blood Sweat & Tears but for me, the real Blood Sweat & Tears is gone. I kept it going as long as I could sanely and physically do it, but no, Blood Sweat & Tears was Bobby and Steve and those guys. One by one they drifted away and by the ‘90s, I pretty much found myself the only one left.
RCM: Don’t people still come to a Blood Sweat & Tears show expecting to hear you sing those hit songs?
DCT: Yeah, but you know, if you price it cheap enough and the memory grows thin, people just want to hear the songs and feel young again: “Take me back to 1969.” Somebody owns the name and who cares who’s in the band? There will always be a market. If there’s a buck to be made somebody will make it.
David Clayton-Thomas’ new CD, A Blues for the New World, is due out in Spring 2013. David’s autobiography, Blood Sweat & Tears, is available on his website HERE.