BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
David Clayton-Thomas was a Canadian singer who fronted an American brass-rock band, Blood, Sweat & Tears (BS&T), during the four years, 1968-71, when it achieved its greatest commercial success. One of the first groups to add horns and jazz elements to the backbeat of rock ’n’ roll, BS&T scored with a succession of million-selling singles, including Spinning Wheel, You’ve Made Me So Very Happy and And When I Died. Then, as Clayton-Thomas put it, “the band floundered in a wave of its own imitators.”
“When we first hit, we had a unique sound because we were the first rock band to use a big horn section,” he told me in 1979. “But it’s not so unique any more. Everybody’s doing it now – Tower of Power, Chicago, all those bands. The Blood, Sweat & Tears sound has become part of American mainstream music.”
Another thing that made BS&T unique was the presence of Clayton-Thomas, a self-styled “raw belter” who had developed his gritty singing style performing in Toronto’s so-called “basket houses” – clubs that didn’t pay singers but granted them a few minutes of stage time and allowed them to pass the basket afterwards.
“It was an unlikely, unusual marriage,” Clayton-Thomas said of his 1968-71 stint with BS&T. “If they had gotten a conservatory-trained vocalist, I don’t think the band would have had the same power, the same raw excitement.” He had been recruited to front the band after moving from Toronto to New York where, he said, he was “discovered” by folk singer Judy Collins.
After his four years with BS&T, Clayton-Thomas left in 1972 because, he said, he no longer felt “musical rapport” with the group. He thought the conservatory-trained musicians in the band were not giving him the respect he deserved, and he couldn’t stand to be on the road with them any more. While he struggled to reinvent himself as a Tom Jones-style singer appearing in front of large orchestras, BS&T struggled to survive without him. Neither succeeded. Clayton-Thomas rejoined a revamped BS&T in 1974, and the band’s fortunes began to improve again. While not as successful as it had been in 1968-71, the band did make the charts with an album called New City, featuring a cover of the Beatles’ Got To Get You Into My Life.
Clayton-Thomas left the band for a second time in 1978. He was burned out and wanted to try some musical things that wouldn’t work within the BS&T context. “I guess an artist always feels he wants to be more than a cog in a machine,” he told me. “He wants to make his own personal statements. And that’s what I’m doing right now.”
He maintained, however, that this separation was only temporary. The first breakup had occurred when Clayton-Thomas thought the band members were making fun of him onstage, mimicking his movements, and laughing behind his back. This split was only going to last a few months, until he got time to catch his breath. Because he was the only singer, he had to work all the time while other band members could come and go as they pleased. A trumpeter or a sax player could take a couple of months off to rest, “but I had to keep grinding it out, month after month.”
BS&T ceased activity while Clayton-Thomas tried for a second time to establish himself as a solo artist. He told me that while he did plan to return to the band when the time was right, he would never again let his identity as the lead singer of BS&T become the sum total of what he was. “It’s just too much of a burden having to carry this 20-man organization on my back 12 months a year.”
His second attempt at becoming a solo artist was no more successful than the first. In 1979, I saw him do a club gig where a lot of his newer material sounded like it might have come from the old BS&T repertoire. “His continued emphasis on horn-based arrangements seems to indicate he really doesn’t want to stray too far from the kind of music he has been performing for the past 10 years,” I wrote in my review. Later that year, Clayton-Thomas was back touring with yet another version of BS&T, this time with a predominantly Canadian lineup.
In 1983, Clayton-Thomas made one last attempt to go it alone, again to little avail. In 1984, he accepted the inevitable, acquired the rights to the BS&T name, and spent the next 20 years playing festivals, concerts and casinos all over the world with a constantly-changing roster of players. In 2004, at age 63, he finally disbanded the group. “It was a big decision, but not necessarily a hard one,” he told the Edmonton Journal. Touring had become so much of a hassle that Clayton-Thomas didn’t want to do it any more. “There’s a wear and tear on your mind, body and spirit.”
The hardest part was giving longtime friends and associates their notice. “Shutting down BS&T was a big undertaking,” said Clayton-Thomas. “We had over 30 people on the payroll and you’ve got to deal with workers’ compensation and all sorts of details.” He moved back to Toronto from New York, phoned up some old musical friends, and started making plans to do the occasional blues and jazz festival in Canada. Just enough to keep his hand in, he said. He’d done the road thing for long enough. In June 2014, at age 72, he played the main stage at the Toronto Jazz Festival as part of a 10-day showcase featuring such pop luminaries as Chaka Kahn, Dianne Reeves and Melissa Etheridge.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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