There are few voices in popular music that are truly iconic; a vocal that can instantly summon an era.
David Clayton-Thomas happens to have one. Simply reading the phrase, “What goes up, must come down” will bring his voice to the minds of millions.
Of course, Clayton-Thomas first sang that line nearly 52 years ago as the front man for Blood, Sweat, and Tears. But that moment, and Spinning Wheel, the song it begins, ensured that his voice would be heard for a very long time.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to think that because one musical moment has become iconic, that there aren’t dozens or even hundreds of other brilliant highlights in a career that has lasted for more than half a century. Millions of albums sold and an armload of Grammy awards prove it.
Clayton-Thomas brings his 10-piece band to the Flato Markham Theatre on January 23 at 8 p.m.
Born in Surrey, England on September 13, 1941, the child of a Canadian soldier and a British music student, his family relocated to North York after the war. Despite the lovely suburban setting Clayton-Thomas had a troubled relationship with his father and left home at the age of 14. Soon enough he found himself making short stays at various jails.
He inherited a love of music from his mother, so when a fellow inmate left behind a guitar he began to teach himself to play the blues. It seems that all he needed was a little direction because it wasn’t long before he was performing on the Yonge Street strip in Toronto and in the legendary Yorkville coffee houses of the 1960s.
When a local recording of Clayton-Thomas got the attention of famous Canadian Paul Anka, he was invited on Anka’s show Hullabaloo in New York. From there Clayton-Thomas moved to New York and started getting the lasting attention of anyone who hears him blowing the walls of clubs in Greenwich Village.
One of these listeners was folk singer Judy Collins. It was her that connected Clayton-Thomas with Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
“Well, I wasn’t a trained musician,” laughs Clayton-Thomas, when asked about what made his voice stand out to people. “Honestly, I think setting my untrained voice against these incredibly well-trained players grounded the music in a way; and gave our fans a place to start listening.”
His work with the band has become, naturally, the classic version of a band that has nearly always had a rotating lineup of talented musicians. This version of Blood, Sweat, and Tears sold well over 10 million albums, won five Grammy awards and had a string of hit singles like Spinning Wheel, And When I Die, You Make Me So Very Happy, and Go Down Gamblin.
After this initial success and around the time that he performed at Woodstock, Clayton-Thomas realized that it wasn’t accolades and reward that was driving his musicianship.
“Woodstock was a movement, not a concert,” he says. “It’s easy to think of it as a cool show, but it was less about music than people think. It was about coming together to change things for the better. That’s why I think we’re all here.”
This idea hasn’t been far from his music and career ever since. Rather than chasing his initial success for a repeat, he began a solo career that featured his songwriting and its focus on important topics and issues.
“The music I came up with was always about something, Clayton-Thomas says. “I wanted to do something important. I still want the music I make to mean something; to inspire something.”
In 2004, Clayton-Thomas moved back to Canada where he formed his current band under his own name. While he’s never stopped performing live, his recorded output has exploded since his move home, with nine albums since and a new one, Say Somethin’, on the way in early 2020.
“Say Somethin’ is an album about saying something,” Clayton-Thomas says. “There are songs on there about climate change, immigration, politics, the justice system, and gun control. The real issues of our time”
The album’s first single, Never Again, was inspired by the movement for change started by the young survivors of the Parkland school shooting in Florida. The track became something of an anthem for some in the movement and attracted the rage of those who opposed it. Advertising for the track was censored by social media sites as a result.
“That’s the thing about all these songs,” he says. ‘I feel like they need to be heard now.”
The show in Markham will feature all of the hits you would expect from a David Clayton-Thomas show, but it will also save room for this urgent new music.
“We got a chance to try out the show this past November at Koerner Hall in Toronto,” he says. “It was a great night and a great show. We can’t wait to bring it up to Markham.”
And of course, he’ll have his iconic voice with him too. Despite a half-century of use, it continues to cut through. When asked what it’s like to have such a voice, the music legend finds himself humble.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he says. “I try not to think about it. I don’t think I could and still try to make the music I actually want to make.”
Photo: David Clayton-Thomas plays The Flato Markham Theatre on January 23 at 8 p.m.