By James Sandham
Most people know David Clayton-Thomas (born David Henry Thomsett) as the singer from Blood Sweat & Tears – the voice behind such chart-topping singles as “You Made Me So Very Happy,” “And When I Die,” or the song for which he was enshrined in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, “Spinning Wheel.” They may also know him as the Canadian Music Hall of Fame’s 1996 inductee. Or they may simply recognize his name from a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. But however people know him, what they may not know is that he reached these heights after being homeless and a petty thief, which is where he found himself in 1953, at the age of fourteen.
Yes, Clayton-Thomas’ early years were rough. It started after his family left England, his birthplace, and moved to the Toronto suburb of Willowdale. He wasn’t yet school aged then, but by the time he was he’d already had a long and dysfunctional relationship with his father, and by fourteen he’d left home. Much of his teen years were subsequently spent sleeping in parked cars and abandoned buildings, or stealing food and clothing to survive. He was arrested on a variety of occasions for vagrancy, petty theft and street brawls, and it wasn’t long before he was in and out of jail and various reformatories.
Normally that would be a real bummer. But in this case, was actually quite fortuitous, because it was while in jail that Clayton-Thomas’ musical interest bloomed. He’d always been interested in music through his mother – she was a piano teacher – but it was only in jail that he actually got his first musical instrument: a battered old guitar left behind by an outgoing inmate. He began to teach himself to play, and it wasn’t long before he was doing the jailhouse rock – quite literally, singing and playing at jailhouse concerts.
Released from prison in 1962, Clayton-Thomas relocated to Toronto’s Yonge Street strip, which back then was a seedy six block stretch of bars and strip joints primarily inhabited by hustlers and hookers – not exactly leaps and bounds from street-life and the penal system, but a social and artistic milieu nonetheless.
It was here that Clayton-Thomas came in contact with Ronnie Hawkins and his band The Hawks. Hawkins recognized the young singer’s formidable vocal talents, and soon had him fronting his own band, David Clayton-Thomas and The Fabulous Shays. Their success was limited, but their cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” got them to New York where they appeared on NBC’s “Hullabaloo” – hosted, coincidentally, by fellow Canadian (and future Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee) Paul Anka.
Highly impressed by the New York scene, Clayton-Thomas returned to Toronto and integrated into the Yorkville coffeehouse scene, the early stomping grounds of other Canadian greats such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. He immersed himself in jazz and blues, and was soon playing with The Bossmen, one of the first rock bands to incorporate jazz musicians. Their song “Brainwashed,” an anti-war tune, dominated the Canadian charts for sixteen straight weeks.
It wasn’t until the late ’60s, however, that Clayton-Thomas’ big break came: after “sitting in” with John Lee Hooker in Yorkville, he decided to go back to New York with him, where folk singer Judy Collins heard him play. She mentioned him to her friend Bobby Colomby, whose band had just broken up after releasing their debut album. That band was Blood Sweat & Tears. Colomby invited Clayton-Thomas to help them rebuild. Six weeks later, there were lines around the block to see them perform.
The rest is history: Blood Sweat & Tears’ first album with Clayton-Thomas produced three gold singles and won three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. They played around the world, and their Greatest Hits album of 1972 – the year Clayton-Thomas left the band – sold more than seven million copies. Clayton-Thomas returned to the group after a three year hiatus – after many of the original members had left – and continued touring under their name well into 2004. He returned to Toronto after that, where he still plays. Not bad for a street kid.
Blood Sweat & Tears – “Spinning Wheel”