A Grammy Award-winning Canadian musician, singer songwriter, David’s best known as the lead vocalist of the 70’s jazz rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears. His first album with the band in 1968 sold ten million copies worldwide, won five Grammy Awards and featured three iconic hit singles, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, “Spinning Wheel”, and “And When I Die” as well as the hit rendition of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child.” In the 70’s he release a bunch more BST albums and 2 solo albums. He’s performed at some of the world’s greatest venues including Royal Albert Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, the Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, and Caesar’s Palace, as well as the Newport Jazz Festival and Woodstock. He’s enshrined in the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and in 2010 he received his star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. A conversation too long for this page, we talked a bit about music and a lot about politics….
Mb: David, how are you?
Mb: Before I start, I have to tell you, this is going to be great for me. I was barely 7 years old when I heard my first Blood Sweat & Tears album and learned all the words to Spinning Wheel. It was the first cover song I ever learnt. I spun that album until it was bald!
David: That’s terrific! So we’re coming to visit you guys in Peterborough!
Mb: You are! Do you play some of the old Blood Sweat & Tears in the show?
David: Ya, we do a little of it. We’re doing a lot of stuff, because the new album is being released March 20, so we’ll be playing stuff from the new album. I have a wonderful singer in the show named Geneviève Marentette, Gigi. We do a couple of duets together, from a couple of other albums. But we make sure we get the old hits in too.
Mb: I have to ask about that first album. You join the band and then suddenly get a Grammy for Best Album and then a Grammy for Best Male Vocal! You beat The Beatles’ Abby Road!
David: I think the operative word there is “suddenly!” (laughs) It happened very very quickly. I’d been in New York almost two years, practically starving in Greenwich Village and I’d run into a bunch of these young fellows around town, the guys who eventually became Blood Sweat & Tears. My visa had run out and I returned to Toronto and I got a phone call from one of the guys saying “Hey we need a singer, want to come down?” I said “OK” and I was on the next plane, because I knew all the guys. I knew they were top notch musicians. I flew into New York, we rehearsed for about a week and we opened at the Cafe Au Go-Go, and we started recording basically our set. What we were doing at night down in the village, we’d go up to 52nd street and record the songs in the daytime. Everything we put on that album, we played live before we recorded it. We released that album in October 1968 and by New Year ’69, it was the number one album in the world. It happened that fast.
Mb: And “Spinning Wheel” all about the ups and downs of the biz and now you were up as high as you could get!
David: It’s an old theme, everything comes around, right? I actually wrote that song about two years before I went to New York. I wrote it here in Canada and recorded it for a Canadian record company. They heard it and they were horrified. They said ‘It’s jazz. It will never sell. You can’t do this!”
Mb: That’s the thing. At the time, to be hitting it with jazz during the hippy roots rock era. The Beatles…
David: There were a lot of people going that way. There was The Electric Flag on the east coast, Chicago Transit Authority, which eventually became Chicago, so there were a lot of people working in that direction. Even up here, the record Brainwashed was the first record I know who had actual jazz musicians playing on it. It was #1 in Canada for 16 weeks. They never did get it released in the states but that’s another story.
Mb: I just interviewed Murray McLauchlan a few days ago and we were talking about the Yorkville coffeehouse scene and I know you played them too…
David: Sure. We were a bunch of out of work musicians hanging around Yorkville. There was Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Johnny Kay and Gordie Lightfoot. Out of work musicians playing the coffeehouses. Now Murray and I are with the same record label. I signed with True North this year. The new album called Say Something is coming out and it’s a killer. It’s really good. We spent a lot of time on it and like the title suggests, it says something!
Mb: What’s it say?
David: It says everything! It’s about climate control, it’s about immigration, it’s about gun control… it’s about all the issues you see on the news everyday today. Even Trump! (laughs) Though I don’t name him, there’s one song called King Midas which is about somebody with too much gold.
Mb: Interesting you’re still talking politics. I read that at one point Blood Sweat & Tears had some issues because of your politics.
David: Songs like God Bless the Child had become real anthems for the anti-war movement and I was in the country on a visa and the US government put pressure on the band. They wanted us to do a State Department tour of eastern Europe, Russia, Poland, Yugoslavia. We didn’t think anything of it because jazz musicians had done that for years. Louie Armstrong would go to Moscow and the Bolshoi Ballet would come to Lincoln Centre. We didn’t realize it was all that controversial, but a lot of the real far left, Abbie Hoffman, and people like that, seemed to get very upset with us for the fact that we actually did something to co-operate… we actually went to the White House. We thought it was a great honour and I still do, so… (laughs) end of story.
Mb: OK, let’s talk about the new album.
David: It’s really a very powerful album. One of the songs on it I wrote for the Peacebuilders Organization, which is an organization dedicated to restorative justice for teens. Instead of locking kids up in reformatories, give them some training and help reclaim them. It’s going to be very controversial. It’s strange how much controversy matters in this day and age. You’d think with all the information we have out there, people would be over that. We have one called song Never Again which is written for the kids of Parkland and urges gun control. Well, Facebook banned it! It’s too political. We’re in a world where we have social media up the … and they’re censoring stuff. Of course, the radio stations now are totally gutless. They won’t do anything controversial. They’re just walking on very conservative… they basically play the Top 10 from the States. Radio has pretty much lost its kick anyway. Everything has gone to social media and streaming now. These same companies, the Facebooks, have advocated that they’re the voice of freedom, and are censoring things all over the place to protect their own asses. Ironically, Facebook censoring the song, only got it more attention! “What’s this song you don’t want us to hear?” Right?
Mb: Why do you think music has such a power to convey a message?
David: I go back to the Woodstock generation. We basically stopped a war. We changed the direction of the country, if not the world, with music. I’m afraid those days are gone. I’m still trying to do it but we’ll see if anyone’s listening or not.
Mb: Why do you think that is? Are we too desensitized?
David: I think everyone has their own truth today. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “One Truth.” There’s no such thing as what’s right and what’s wrong. No matter how whack-o your views may be, you can find somebody on the internet who agrees with you. So, everyone has their own truth. It’s not like in the 60’s when everybody knew that war was bad. Hundreds of kids a week were coming home in body-bags from Vietnam. That was bad. That was truth right in front of our eyes. Today, the truth is whatever you believe it’s going to be. I think we’ve lost touch with reality.
Mb: Are we looking for justification? Is it a defensive thing?
David: No it’s just that… there’s no reality on social media. If people are going to Facebook for their news, they better go somewhere else. Facebook is just everybody’s opinion. Like today, they’re having a massive thing going on in Virginia about guys who are white supremacists marching against gun control. Now they’re going to find a 100,000 people online who agree with them. And you’ve got 100,000 people who think the United States has completely lost its mind.
David Clayton-Thomas appears
Sunday March 22 at Showplace.