Songwriter Interviews

David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears

by Carl Wiser

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Led by Al Kooper, Blood, Sweat & Tears released one album (Child Is Father to the Man, 1968) before reconfiguring with new lead singer David Clayton-Thomas. A Canadian upstart who spent much of his teenage years in reformatories, he came bearing a song: "Spinning Wheel." Worked up with a fusillade of horns, it became one of the biggest hits of 1969, arguably the biggest year in music history.

The nine-piece band mixed a variety of styles, but their hits were derived from David's urgent vocals, those startling horn arrangements, and a sprinkle of jazz. These hits included covers of the Laura Nyro song "And When I Die," the Motown tune "You've Made Me So Very Happy," and another Clayton-Thomas composition, "Lucretia Mac Evil."

As David explains, a brutal touring schedule took a lot out of him, and he left the band in 1972. He returned in 1975 and did 30 more years in a BS&T lineup that saw scores of musicians come and go. The band is still active, kept alive by drummer Bobby Colomby, who owns the name. Since 2014, they've been fronted by Bo Bice, the runner-up to Carrie Underwood on American Idol in 2005.

David, who now lives in Toronto, released an album of soul music covers called Soul Ballads that was issued in Canada in 2010 and finally got Stateside distribution in 2015.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): David, can we talk about "Spinning Wheel"?

David Clayton-Thomas: Sure.

Songfacts: I understand you wrote the song when you were still in Canada, and it was one of the first ones that you wrote. Can you talk a little bit about what was going on when you wrote it and coming up with that song?

David: Yeah. I wrote the song two years before I joined Blood, Sweat & Tears. I tried to get a Canadian record company interested in it, and it got turned down by everybody. A familiar story in this business, right? They said, "It sounds too jazzy. We can't sell jazz." So, I just put it back in my guitar case and carried it around for two years until I met the guys in Blood, Sweat & Tears, and then it all fell into place.

But I came up with the song just picking it away on a guitar when I found some chord changes I liked. As for the lyrics, everybody was getting so serious about "The Revolution" and everything else in those days. Do you remember "The Revolution"?

Songfacts: The Beatles sang about it.

David: It was just kind of a way to say, "Lighten up people. Take it easy. It's all going to come full circle." And it did. Ten years later, we went from "The Revolution" to Ronald Reagan.

Songfacts: Can you talk about how you came up with some of that imagery, like the carousel with the painted pony.
"Spinning Wheel" may have been the first song to directly reference a Joni Mitchell composition. Mitchell gained a following in Canada in the mid-'60s, with "The Circle Game" part of her live repertoire. That song was recorded by Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1967 and by Tom Rush in 1968. Mitchell, who didn't start recording until 1968, included it on her 1970 album Ladies Of The Canyon.
David: I stole those two words from Joni Mitchell.

Songfacts: Oh, no way!

David: In "The Circle Game" she says, "The painted ponies go up and down." I just love the line, and I've always been a huge Joni Mitchell fan. As a writer, she was one of my early influences.

Songfacts: This is an interesting song, because it's one of those that you can read so much into if you really want to. And it certainly is profound. Have you had people read things into it that you haven't expected?

David: Constantly. Over the years, yes! I've had born-again Christians write me letters and say it's all about God, and Jesus, and religion – which it wasn't. And I've had other people say that the song is from the Devil – which it wasn't. No. People do read their own things into song lyrics, especially if they're a little bit oblique. And those song lyrics are.

Songfacts: When you guys ended up putting it on record, there's some crazy stuff - at least on the album version - that happens at the end where you're really bringing the carousel thing into play. How did that come about?

David: By pure accident, as most of the best things in the studio do. We didn't really have an ending for the song. We were cutting the track, and I think Frank Lipsius [BS&T sax player/arranger] kicked into that funny little "Oh du lieber Augustin" thing, and everybody jumped on it.

That's the way it went down. There was something to be said for the way we recorded in those days, because everything was recorded live. We had very little multi-tracking capabilities, so we simply rehearsed the song, went in the studio, and everybody did it live - the vocal cut live with the band and everything else. A big contrast to the way things are done today where everything starts with a click track, and the bass player might come in on Wednesday, and the piano player comes in on Friday. Those kind of spontaneous moments happen when you're recording live.

Songfacts: I'm trying to understand how you can do your vocals live when there are all these guys making all this noise around you. Were you in an isolation booth of some kind?

David: Oh of course. Oh Yeah – everybody's in an isolation booth. You'd have the horns in one section, drums in its own booth.

Songfacts: Everybody's in a booth, but you're all playing at the same time?

David: Yeah. We were all on headphones. We could all hear each other and, for the most part, because they are glass windows in the booth, we can see each other. But they'd separate the audio.

Strangely enough, I just finished an album this past couple of weeks, actually the artwork's being done, and it's called Combo. It's recorded with a quintet. It's an album mostly of standards, which I've always wanted to do. And we went back to the "old school," where literally we put everybody out and we recorded everything live, because it is a jazz album, and that's the only way jazz can be recorded. You can't record jazz through a click track.

Songfacts: Well, very often the vocals are done afterwards.

David: Oh yeah. Today, yes, because you have unlimited digital editing capabilities. But in those days, the only way to edit was to take a razor blade and actually cut the tape. The best engineers were masters at doing that. So now, with the digital studios, you just push a button to do editing. And even though we did the Combo album completely live, there's going to be a few parts where I say, "You know, I could do something better on the bridge of that tune. Let me go back and punch some vocal in." In those days, it was a little more difficult. The first Blood, Sweat & Tears album that I was involved in, the "Spinning Wheel" album, was basically recorded on two four-track machines gang-hooked together, the same way that Sgt. Pepper was recorded. The big multi-track studios didn't exist in those days.

Songfacts: I don't understand "gang-hooked" together.

David: Oh, you just take two four-track machines and hook them together so you're actually recording eight track.

Songfacts: Gotcha.

David: But four-track machines were the best we could get.

Songfacts: Yeah. And that means you have to mix down a couple guys onto one track sometimes. Because if you have ten streams on audio coming in, but only eight tracks, then a couple of them are going to have to share.

David: Exactly. And you know what? The most remarkable records were made that way. Sgt. Pepper was made with two four-track machines. And in my earliest records, all we had was two track. So everything had to be done live, with no editing whatsoever. What happened on the floor was what went on the record.

Of course, today it's a whole different ballgame. But it was kind of fun doing Combo with everybody live, which is not old-school for jazz, because all jazz is recorded that way. The musical interaction between the musicians – the musical conversation – is so intuitive that you can't overdub. It happens in the moment and that's it, as opposed to a lot of the records that are made today where they set the click track to a dance beat and then put the parts in one at a time over a period of weeks or months. That's pop music. That's not jazz. Jazz can't be recorded that way.

Songfacts: I think it's interesting how your voice is so conducive to that big sound because it cuts right through. There are so many instruments playing, but you never miss a word of your vocals.

David: Well, I guess so. And after 40 years of doing that, that's why I went back to the jazz-combo quintet, small band to do this album. Because there's nothing getting in the way of the vocals. When you're just singing with a piano, bass and drums, all acoustic, all unplugged, the vocal sits in its own pocket. You don't have horns blasting away here, and big arrangements and everything else. So, it was kind of a treat to do this album and not have to sing against that big horn section.

David's is the only name listed on the songwriting credits of "Spinning Wheel," "Lucretia Mac Evil" and "Go Down Gamblin'." This provided some passive income in the form of royalties, but many of the other band members made their living from the live shows.
Songfacts: I read somewhere that at one point you offered half of your publishing on "Spinning Wheel" to Fred Lipsius. Is that true?

David: Yes. A lot of the songs that Fred worked on were my compositions, but Fred's contributions were so great that we did split publishing, because the arrangement was just as important to the song as the lyrics and the melody.

Songfacts: Okay. So he did get half of the publishing on that, and probably on some of the others.

David: Yeah, but I did that with a lot of the guys in the band. Dick Halligan and I co-published a lot of songs where his arrangement really made the song work.

Songfacts: You're the only guy listed as the songwriter, so that gives you the songwriter credit. But the publishing is a different animal.

David: The band was very much a team effort. As a matter of fact, the publishing company that we published all of that early music on was jointly owned by five of the original members of the band.

Songfacts: So you weren't the only guy getting rich off of that song.

David: Oh no. And you know, that's very common in rock and roll. Eagles and bands like that, quite often somebody will come in with a guitar lick that turns into a song, and that guitar lick is just as integral to the composition as the rest of it. So, it's quite common for groups to share.

On his album Soul Ballads, David covers some of the songs that inspired him to become a singer. The tracklist includes "Midnight Train To Georgia," "Dock Of The Bay," "When A Man Loves A Woman" and "A Change Is Gonna Come."

David has plenty of credibility in the world of soul music: James Brown recorded a funky instrumental version of "Spinning Wheel" for his 1970 album Sex Machine, and released it as a single the following year. His version went to #90 in the US. Surprisingly, David didn't know about Brown's recording.
Songfacts: Talking about Soul Ballads, when one of your songs gets recorded by the "Godfather of Soul" that kind of clears up any question of your bona fides in that area. What was it like having James Brown do your song?

David: James Brown did one of my songs?

Songfacts: He did "Spinning Wheel."

David: Did he?

Songfacts: It's instrumental.

David: Well, over 400 artists have recorded it. I guess I missed that one.

Songfacts: I'm really surprised you didn't know that.

David: No. I didn't know that. Since he was one of my idols, I'm very complimented.

Songfacts: Here's one that I'm sure you did know: Milli Vanilli used some of "Spinning Wheel" on their song "All or Nothing." What happened there?

David: It was funny. I was living in New York at the time. I came home one day, and there was a phone call from my friend, Doug Riley, one of our legendary keyboard players up here in Canada. His eight-year-old son had just come home from school and said, "Dad! I heard Uncle David's song on the radio. It was by somebody named Milli Vanilli. It was different words, but it was his song."

He called me up, so I made a point of going out and buying a Milli Vanilli record - you couldn't download it in those days. And there it was: a note-for-note copy. So, of course immediately I called my publishing lawyer and said, "Hey! We've got an infringement here." And sure enough, it was an infringement, and they had to pay me for it.

Songfacts: When you did cover songs with Blood, Sweat & Tears, some of them are really, really, different. You put a completely different spin on them. Especially "You've Made Me So Very Happy" and Laura Nyro's song ("And When I Die"). Can you talk about how you came up with those different versions and what your process was?

David: Well, it was very much a group of friends. Laura Nyro was Jimmy Fielder's girlfriend. Jimmy Fielder, who by the way I just had lunch with two days ago here in Toronto, was the original bass player with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Laura used to come to our rehearsals and hang out. Sometimes she'd bring a pizza to the rehearsal place - we were just all pals, and we knew Laura's songs. Even before she got her recording career launched, she was one of the inner circle of people we hung out with.

That's how a lot of great music starts, you know. Mostly its friends in the studio. Yeah, there's two ways of doing it. I guess you could hire a bunch of faceless studio musicians, but I much prefer working with friends. It's a much more creative environment. And the strange thing is, I hate to keep going back to the Combo album, but the young man who called me on the Milli Vanilli thing who was eight years old at the time, Doug Riley's son, actually played drums. He's a young drummer now, I guess he's 30 years old. Beautiful drummer. So sometimes it's really valuable to have a personal connection with the guys that you're in the studio with.

I think one of the reasons why I'm making such good records up here in Canada now, including Soul Ballads, is that nearly everybody on that record were buddies of mine. We all worked together. Lou Pomanti, the producer, was in Blood, Sweat & Tears with me for five years – toured the world with me. Some of the other guys in that band went back to my jazz club and barroom days in Toronto in the '60s. So I'm in the fortunate position now, in the musical community here, if I want to make an album, I just call my friends up and say, "Let's do one."

Songfacts: Did you have any kind of religious, gospel upbringing? I was thinking about that when I was listening to your cover of "People Get Ready."

David: No, not in my family. Only in that I just loved that kind of music. Coming into the music business, my first influences were R&B. People don't understand why Toronto is such a heavy R&B city. What's described as the "Toronto Sound" is just steeped in rhythm and blues, and the blues. And the reason that came about was because when we all started out back in the '60s there was a severe color bar south of the border. If you were a black band in Detroit, you played in black clubs to black audiences on the black side of town, and they very seldom mixed. So the R&B artists from Chicago and Detroit used to love to come up and play in Toronto - it was a short drive up the highway. And up here, there was no color bar. So, they played in clubs to mixed audiences, and the young musicians just idolized them.

We grew up on the Yonge Street strip here playing the clubs. It would be nothing to be playing in a club and have the James Brown Band playing next door, Ike and Tina Turner down the street, and everybody from Muddy Waters to The Temptations. We saw these people, and we just idolized them as young artists, much the way the British artists did.

There was a whole school of music called "British Blues" - from The Stones, to Led Zeppelin and everybody else – and they literally took those songs that were so much a part of their growing up – everything from John Lee Hooker, to Lightnin' Sam Hopkins, to B.B. King - and they did them with a British flavour. Here we had a little more of an advantage, because we saw these people live, we didn't just hear them on records. The high point of my life in those years was to run over between sets and listen to The Muddy Waters Band – arguably the greatest blues band ever. I'd just sit at the bar with my jaw hanging open and watching them.

We were exposed to this very, very early, so when we came to do the Soul Ballads album, I didn't even have lyric sheets in the studio. Those songs were so much a part of me, I knew them all so well. I'd sung most of them a thousand times in the clubs in the old days. It just all fell back into place. It's a very natural style of music for me.

Blood, Sweat & Tears, without me, was basically a jazz band. I think my contribution to the band was the rhythm and blues and the soul I brought into it.

Songfacts: Yeah. I can definitely hear that. When you listen to a song like "And When I Die," it has a very spiritual component to it. It's almost like reincarnation. And when you listen to many of the songs you sing on Soul Ballads, it's like church.

David: But the church runs through all of rhythm and blues. It always has. One of my earliest idols was a Staple Singer. It was Mavis Staples. And Pops Staples. That was pure gospel. Even early Elvis Presley stuff – that was the first time they heard a white guy singing gospel music. So, the blues and the black church were very much intertwined. Even a song like "God Bless the Child" is basically a religious song.

Songfacts: You are a very accomplished songwriter. When you look at the songs that you did on Soul Ballads, which one to you is the most impressive feat of songwriting?

David: Oh my goodness! That's very hard, because every single one of those songs are great. The hardest thing about picking songs for Soul Ballads was paring it down to 10 or 11 songs that we were going to put on the actual album. Most of the songs, we stayed fairly close to the original arrangement, but just made it better.

I say better in that the original recordings from the '50s and '60s of some of these songs were not recorded very well because of the technology and the musicianship. But it didn't matter because that soul and that feeling came through – never mind the horns are out of tune or anything else, or it wasn't very well recorded. It was probably recorded on a two-track Nagra machine or something. But we have the advantage of now re-recording those songs and bringing them into the 21st century with a full orchestra, some really skilled players, and a top-notch digital recording studio. So, it sounds incredible.

Songfacts: When you did "Midnight Train to Georgia" were you working off of the original version, which I think was "Midnight Plane to Houston"? [Jim Weatherly wrote and originally recorded the song as "Midnight Plane to Houston." When Cissy Houston recorded it, she changed the title because, you know, she's Houston. This is the version Gladys Knight & the Pips worked from when they recorded the definitive version.]

David: No. Not at all – I didn't even know there was a "Midnight Plane to Houston." As a matter of fact, that's one song that I had some trepidation about doing. I once jokingly said in an interview several years ago, "There should be an act of congress saying that nobody again can ever again record "Georgia On My Mind," because Ray Charles has done it." And I can probably say the same for "Midnight Train to Georgia."

We didn't have the Pips, so most of the Pips parts are written for the horns. And of course, I'm not going to sound like Gladys Knight - I'm a guy, and I have my own voice. But that was an intimidating song.

Songfacts: What about that song makes it interesting or difficult? I'm just trying to get the perspective of somebody that's a very accomplished songwriter/musician to break it down and talk about what's going on there.

David: "Midnight Train to Georgia," the original Gladys Knight version was just a great record. You can listen to the whole history of music and that's got to be in the Top 10 of some of the greatest records ever made, which is why it was a daunting task and a little intimidating to record it.

I've faced that many times in my career. I faced that same dilemma with "God Bless the Child" in which I was advised by a lot of people - even people at the record company – don't touch that song. It's a black anthem. It's a Billie Holiday classic, and it probably shouldn't be done again. Probably nobody can do it again.

And the guys in the band, Blood, Sweat & Tears and I, we sat down while we were doing the arrangement and we said, "Look, we've got to come at this from a completely different perspective. We can't just clone the Billie Holiday recording of 'God Bless the Child.' We've got to do it differently." I even changed up the melody somewhat to accommodate the horns. We came out if it with our own very distinctive version of it, and it stood up very, very well.

But these songs are intimidating. Soul Ballads especially, because we didn't go looking for obscure R&B songs that nobody had recorded before. We went looking for those great iconic songs that everybody already loves, and that makes it a little intimidating because you're setting a pretty high bar. If you're singing a song that was made famous by Otis Redding or Ray Charles or Sam Cooke – oh boy!

Songfacts: The Sam Cooke song ["A Change Is Gonna Come"] was pretty specific to that time. How did you relate to the sentiment in that song and make it so convincing?

David: Oh, I don't think it was specific to that time. A great song is timeless. You know, you talk about "A Change Is Gonna Come," it was true in the '60s, and it's happening now. There is always change, isn't there? We've got a world right now that's in enormous change. So, I think that's a great song, and the message doesn't relate to a particular period in time. A great song is just a great song, and it's forever.

Songfacts: You talked about how one of the reasons you left Blood, Sweat & Tears back in the '70s was because it was physically difficult to perform with them night after night. Which of those songs was the most difficult physically to sing?

David: Oh, I don't think there was any particular song. It was just wear and tear. Understand that the band in those days, the only people that were making some serious money were myself - as the songwriter - and Bobby Colomby who owned the name. The rest of the guys only got paid when we toured. They made 100 percent of their living from gigs. And so, to take more gigs all the time was voted for in the band. More gigs, more work, more work, more money.

And a voice isn't like a bass guitar. It doesn't stand up to it. It can only take so much pounding. I used to go through airports in the middle of a concert tour and I couldn't talk until three o'clock in the afternoon. I was always afraid I'd get onstage that night and the pipes wouldn't be there. I was putting a lot of pressure, as were a couple of other guys – I wasn't alone – to ease off on the touring.

Even our management wanted to cut back on the touring. From the time we released our first Blood Sweat & Tears album - the "Spinning Wheel" album with 50 million sales - to the time we got back into the studio to record BS&T III, was almost three years. And even the record company and the managers were calling us up and saying, "You guys have to get back into the studio and get some new music out, because in the three years you guys have been on the road making your millions, Chicago has put out three albums, and there's more horn bands coming along every minute."

We just couldn't get the touring to stop, so the only way for me to stop and take a vacation and take a break, was to stop and take a break. And that's what I did.

Songfacts: Which of the songs on Soul Ballads was the most difficult to sing?

David: None of them really – they were old friends. Every one of those songs is like an old friend. I've sung them all so many times.

Songfacts: Yeah. But knowing a song is very different from being in there and trying to sing a Ray Charles song. I understand this is what you do for a living, but to a listener, that's like, "Wow!"

David: Well to me it was like "Wow!" too, because Ray Charles is way up on a pedestal to me. He was one of my early gods. I have early recordings here in Canada where you can tell I'm trying to sound like Ray Charles.

Songfacts: David, I'm wondering why you didn't write more songs. On the BS&T album that came after "Spinning Wheel," I think there's only one song that you wrote: "Lucretia." I'm wondering why there weren't six or seven David Clayton-Thomas songs on that album.

David: Well, there are two reasons for that. The band in the early days was very much a cooperative band and everybody brought in material. Steve Katz was also a writer, and he got a song on the album. And sometimes we'd do a tune like "God Bless the Child" just because Dick Halligan had written an extraordinary arrangement to it. So everybody was contributing.

And I've always considered myself to be a singer first and a songwriter second – a singer who happens to write songs now and then. But I'm not like a Bob Dylan that's got an 800-song catalog who's primarily a writer first and a singer second.

As a singer, I've come out of the tradition of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and Ella and Sarah Vaughan and Mel Tormé. I played guitar in the early days because I couldn't afford a band - the only way I could get gigs was to do the guitar work myself. But I never considered myself to be a great guitar player.

I'm first and foremost a singer, and one of the lovely things about Soul Ballads is that all I had to do was sing. Lou Pomanti handled the arrangements and the production, and basically I just came into the studio and sang to his finished tracks. It was a snap. They just flowed very, very naturally. We knew they would. That's why we selected them.

Songfacts: Were you the second-highest paid act at Woodstock next to Jimi Hendrix?

David: We were, but it's all relative because nobody got paid anyway.

Songfacts: Nobody got paid for their Woodstock performance?

David: You didn't know that? Well, how could anybody get paid? The fans broke down the fences. Nobody was paying for tickets. There was no money. Jimi got $17,500. We got $15,000. We were the two highest-paid acts. But we didn't get paid. Nobody got paid.

Here's another little piece of trivia: If you notice the Woodstock movie, none of the headliners are in it. The Grateful Dead aren't in it. The Band isn't in it. Dylan's not in it. Janis Joplin's not in it. They cut us out so they wouldn't have to pay us.

All the headliners had an agreement with the promoters that they would get X number of dollars and then a percentage of the film rights. Well, Woodstock was a financial disaster. All of those bands wanted to be paid, but there was no money. The only chance they had to make money was out of that film. So they couldn't be giving away pieces of that film to all of the headliners who had, contractually, a piece of that film. So, they cut us all out. I'm in great company. Basically, the Woodstock film is all of the opening acts who didn't have a piece of the film rights.

So in a way it's a shame, because we were kind of cut out of history. I feel funny when my daughter says, "Dad, were you at Woodstock? I saw the movie and you weren't in it." I don't think Jimi Hendrix's iconic National Anthem was in the movie either. None of the big stars from Woodstock were in the film.

Songfacts: I had no idea. I always figured you guys made a fortune off of that.

David: No. Nobody got paid at Woodstock. And following Woodstock there were years of litigation and lawsuits. The artists basically went on their way and said, "It's not worth it. I don't want to spend the next 10 years in court fighting for a few thousand dollars."

May 1, 2015. Get Soul Ballads or Combo at davidclaytonthomas.com.
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Comments: 4

  • Sherman Cundiff from Summerfield, FloridaI was in the paratroopers @ Fort Bragg,N.C. In 1969. I was a big Blood,Sweat & Tears fan. On a July Saturday afternoon I was skydiving and having a great time. On my third jump as the plane was climbing into the sky, I began singing “ what goes up must come down- spinning wheel got to go round”. Exiting the plane I continued singing, feeling the exhilaration of the free fall. All was well until I pulled the ripcord but the chute wouldn’t properly deploy.
    I pulled the emergency chute in time to land in a large pine tree. Even today, over 50 years later I still love the song and think of that experience.
  • Robin from Bossier City, LaI works as a stage manager with him once. Very nasty disposition. Band had to apologize profusely to our Director. BUT WHAT A TALENT!
  • 'georgy' Mysie( Watson) Mcjannet from Vernon B.c.I knew David in 1966 in Yorkville village.He spoke about going to New York. I recall him as being such a gentleman and I always wondered thru the years how accurate my perception was,,,but reading this interview confirms my recollections. He was not only a super nice guy who could sing but a songwriter who reflected and expressed the times with songs like Brainwashed and I am proud to have been his friend albeit for a short time. I wasn't as nice to him as I could have been,,,I was young,,,,and to this day I regret that,,,,,he truly was a lovely person,,,a little uncommon for a person with so much talent,,,very down to earth,,,I miss him.
  • Mark The Amp-shark from Aurora, ColoradoTHANKS for yet another fantastic glimpse into the past, with yet another amazing talent delivering tasty trivial tidbits for our pleasure! How ignorant I was until now, to not fully realise all the best acts were absent from the Woodstock movie! Clayton-Thomas waxed some of the best pipes ever recorded, and Blood, Sweat and Tears was a seminal contributor and essential component of, the soundtrack of its time. Too bad the corporate killed musical creativity long ago, and now gives us regurgitated pap, where we once enjoyed truly gifted artistry. Painted ponies for all!
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