The Blood Sweat and Tears of David Clayton Thomas
By Mende Smith
“This is really not anything new for me,” comes his voice, jovial and empty with a certain charmed anticipation. “…And recording these songs, it was really funny that I did not even need sheet music, they are so engrained into my mind—these are the songs I did way back in the beginning of my career when I played in clubs.”
Most of the questions I have for him are about the journey that brought the front man of the nostalgic band Blood, Sweat & Tears (BS&T) international stardom. “We can talk about the Soul Ballads album, but not what I did sixty years ago.” The man says again. David Clayton-Thomas asserts he not the same as he was then, and he makes no apologies. As he opens to the conversation, slowly as if holding the story of his past closed with a pair of vice grips, his voice reads easy.
There is no arguing these tracks on this album are timeless now; committed to the nostalgic court of multi-generational appeal by ballad radio stations all over the world, and listening to Clayton-Thomas’ renditions of them, one might believe his voice is the new voice of these soul ballads, not merely the covers they are, but the new expressions of them that he hopes they will be. From where he sits comfortably in his Toronto home, he orchestrates the conversation he wants to have. Unskillful, his voice echoes, thunders.
“Can we talk about the Soul Ballads album rather than digging back into the book? You want to know about the past, read it in the book I wrote, it’s all in the book...” I wonder if I have hit some nerve—or maybe placed a coin in the wrong slot of the 70s memoir machine? I decide to follow his lead and see where it goes.
Trying to draw a line between the two points of Clayton-Thomas’ music career, we talked about working with the right people to make the right things happen. Of his success, he says that it was clear from the first performances, which way the ball was rolling.
“I think we knew from the very first day that Blood, Sweat & Tears was something different, and something very special—I think all the guys in the band knew it from the very get-go.”
Of his younger days in BS&T, Clayton-Thomas recalls the tireless pursuit of making music, while residing in two countries. In those days, his band toured the world and played five shows a night in forty-minute sets with twenty-minute breaks in between, and it is clearly not among his fonder memories now, as we might expect.
“ My touring days are behind me now, I’ve already done that for forty years with Blood, Sweat & Tears,” Clayton-Thomas laughs, “I am still doing performances, but nothing like before; nowadays we pick nice events. This is a different kind of thing; like going back to the beginning, to my roots.”
Today, Clayton-Thomas enjoys the fruits of his laboring years greatly. Talking about his companion musicians adoringly, like faces in his community now close at hand. When I try to engage in the origin story further, he caps the conversation by referring me to his webpage for links to his autobiography and begins talking about how easily he comes by his talent.
“I find that the elite, really top-notch musicians are a very small club—and we all know each other, so its not very hard to get a group together for a thing like this, you just call your friends.”
As a grandfather of his industry, his impression of the way the music business has changed over the years from a “marketing and promotions tool” to the “distribution-only engine” shares a common view.
“The reason we would ever sign with a record company in those days was for promotions, for getting shows—for your career, that was the basic idea. Now, the Internet does all of that. Any musician can record and just put it out there—I’ve met new artists that are doing the whole thing themselves from production to marketing who do not even want to get signed,” Clayton-Thomas adds. With the effortless pick-up of his tell-all book by a major publisher, Clayton-Thomas admits that his story did pay off in the end.
But he is not looking back there anymore.
The Soul Ballads album had its debut on Universal Canada in 2010, and Airplane Records has re released it in the states today—prompting this review. Clayton-Thomas is all too pleased to imbibe—like the interview today, once he has presented his story, his way. Soul Ballads was the brainchild of Clayton-Thomas’ friend Lew Pomanti, who had recently wrapped a Michael Buble’ album. Pomanti asked his old friend David to take on the task of recording his versions of what he calls “soul tunes” like those he and Pomanti played in the clubs back in the BS&T heydays together—this association strikes a kinder chord in Clayton-Thomas. Teaming up with a full orchestra, they produced the recordings in this century with a chorus of enthusiastic friends and musicians.
“Lew and I go way, way back,” Clayton-Thomas says, “We toured the world together for about five years in the seventies.”
Every one of the album’s tracks date back to more than thirty years in American music history, and a few, more than fifty. Nostalgia is a brand that Clayton-Thomas does not mind spinning in some circles. Clayton-Thomas says he is already in the best company, and so the album ‘practically made itself.’ Crediting the talents of the late greats, he explains how the ninety-day session turned out classic hits by Brother Ray (Charles), Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Kenny Rodgers, and Curtis Mayfield—cherishing the most over-played songs on American radios made new ‘in the modern recording studio of twenty-first century technology with a full orchestra’.
“I think it’s intimidating. And in other interviews I have been quoted saying no one should attempt to do these great songs but Ray Charles or Gladys Knight. And here I am now taking on the task of doing them. I think it’s important that when you pay homage to these great, great songs, you try to do it with respect and use your own voice—don’t try to do an imitation.”
Clayton-Thomas refers to how the collaboration made it all sound new again, adding that it is the best way to pay tribute to the greatest artists—recording the tracks to the highest quality in post-modern spectrum, where most of these original recordings were so limited in the technology of the fifties and sixties, only the soul of these records came pouring through despite the early recording tools. When asked to give some advice to budding artists, Clayton-Thomas pauses for a moment and answers with the cold-hearted truth of what’s come to pass?
“The record business has gone through enormous changes in the last three or four years, and the fans seem to think they can just get all the music for free—and its basically bankrupted all the record companies. With no money, there is no money to support new acts—even acts like myself, and so, we have the power back in our hands. We don’t have to wait to get signed to get going anymore—that is one thing that is for sure today that we did not have the advantage of the first time around.”
Clayton-Thomas adds that as recently as ten years ago if a record company did not sign you, you did not even get into the business. He proudly takes a seat at the helm of his next project with a group of musicians doing old jazz standards.
Time will tell if Soul Ballads will do the justice to the talents of the last century of music, time was, the spinning wheel still turning, we have the nostalgia of the first carousel ride to look back to and those long-gone psychedelic roots locked tightly in the memoirs of the bands who soaked the world in their own blood, sweat, and tears so none other would ever have to again—what goes up, obviously came down.
For more information and future concert dates about David visit his website. http://www.davidclaytonthomas.com