Raised in Willowdale, Ont., the singer-songwriter grew up with an abusive father and spent his teen years bouncing between the streets and jail. After a departing inmate left him a beat-up guitar, Clayton-Thomas taught himself to play, and by 1968 was living in New York, the lead singer of Blood Sweat & Tears. As he explains in his new autobiography, Blood, Sweat and Tears, to be published in September, the journey from homelessness to a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame has been rather eventful.
Q: You’ve been close to some icons: Janis Joplin, Miles Davis. Do most musicians have inner demons?
A: Yes. Janis Joplin, there was so much pain and insecurity, and that’s what you heard when she opened her mouth. I would say with all of the great ones, there’s pain there. Now, Justin Bieber? No. Not yet, anyway. And I’m not going to rush out to buy his autobiography.
Q: You’re very open in the book about your own troubles: your difficult childhood, your time in prison.
A: The natural tendency is to gloss over painful and unpleasant things, but an editor won’t let you get away with that. You have to go over everything in your life in great detail.
Q: It sounds like therapy.
A: Yeah, Gestalt! It can be painful, that kind of self-examination, but I made a decision early on not to sugar-coat anything. And now my life really is an open book.
Q: It wasn’t always. When Dick Cavett mentioned your criminal record on TV in 1970, you got upset and walked off the show. Were you embarrassed?
A: I wasn’t embarrassed, it’s just that I thought I’d put it behind me. We were winning Grammys, we had gold records—I really thought I’d closed the door on the past. What you learn with time, of course, is that you never close the door on anything. It’s always all there. Cavett was just doing his job, but at the time it was a shock. I really didn’t expect that to be thrown at me.
Q: From a purely practical point of view, it’s hard to understand why so many bands implode at the height of their careers, when they’re poised to make the most money. Why did that happen to Blood Sweat & Tears in the early ’70s?
A: There were massive egos, and success only made them bigger. When I joined BS&T there was already a lot of political infighting, and by 1969 we had the number one album in the world—throw $20 million into the mix, and love beads and flower power go out the window. There were nine guys in the band, and each one had a girlfriend or family telling him, “You’re the real star, you don’t need those other guys.” Another issue was that a few of us were making a lot more money than everyone else. I was the principal songwriter, so I was making royalties off the songs I’d written, like Spinning Wheel, and two others owned the band’s name, so they were really the owners of a corporation and getting a bigger cut. Everyone else only made money if we toured. Because the band was run like a democracy, the majority was always voting to tour—it was their only way to make a living. Touring like that was very hard on my voice, and while a trumpet player could take a break and they’d bring someone else in, the lead singer has to go on every night. In 1972, I quit because I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Q: With that much tension, wasn’t it a nightmare being on the road together?
A: The band divided into factions, and I pretty much kept to my own faction. You’re on the road with 25 people or so, including the roadies and crew and everyone else, and you tend to spend time with the people you like. My closest friends from the band are still my friends.
Q: I loved your account of Woodstock, which in a way you didn’t really experience: you were all flown in on a National Guard helicopter, played for an hour and then left, essentially. Did most musicians have the same sort of experience?
A: It depends. Some of them, who basically were opening acts, have gone on to make their careers all about Woodstock. But for us, at the time, it was just a gig. We were the number one band in the world, we had the number one album and three hit singles, so we were doing big concerts constantly in 1969, it was all a blur. It didn’t feel like a big historic moment until we got on stage and saw 600,000 people. To me, one of the most remarkable things about Woodstock was that despite half a million plus people, there wasn’t violence. There easily could have been. If the National Guard hadn’t been able to get helicopters to bring in the acts—the New York state thruway was jammed to a standstill—the place would have erupted. It could have been a bloodbath, not three days of flower power.
Q: Because you were a Canadian with a criminal record, you were always in danger of being deported from the U.S., until the State Department offered the band a deal in 1970: permanent residency for you if BS&T did an Eastern European tour to generate goodwill for the Nixon administration. Did that tour change your politics?
A: We’d protested the Vietnam War and played a benefit at Kent State after the shootings there, but we didn’t see ourselves as political figures. We were musicians. It’s true that music was the voice of the peace movement, but by that point it was already not pure. A lot of the record company executives pushing the music of the counterculture were living in huge houses in Westchester—it was a business. And with our songs being played all the time on the radio, it was hard to argue we were part of the underground. Touring in places like Romania, where freedom and democracy did not exist—when we got back to the U.S. we practically kissed the ground, we were so happy to be back. We hadn’t known how good we had it, living in a free country. But that tour really cost us with the activist wing of the anti-war movement, people like Abbie Hoffman said we were sellouts. At some point the anti-war movement essentially became anti-American, and that’s not how we felt, especially not after seeing what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.
Q: Is the public too cynical now to view music as a political force?
A: Now you have street rage, rap, but that’s not the same, people singing about bling and Lamborghinis. Maybe music could be a political force again, it just hasn’t happened yet. Right now I think we’re in the death throes of the old industry. Music has become very soft, very corporate and conservative, it’s run by programmers rather than musicians. You don’t need to know how to play, you just need a drum machine. I don’t call scratching a turntable particularly musical.
Q: You have a new solo album out next month. Is it blues, or jazz, or?.?.?.??
A: It’s called Soul Ballads, and includes songs by Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke—songs I used to sing on Yonge Street 40 years ago. I just finished yesterday, actually.
Q: Given that you no longer drink or take drugs, how did you celebrate?
A: Well, a lady friend came over and we watched Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. It’s a documentary about the Band, and it was about the 10th time for me. We were kind of laughing at parts, it’s so obvious now that they were stoned. But so was the audience. In BS&T we also drank and did drugs, but never to the point where we were stumbling around on stage, not able to perform. For one thing, some of the members were Juilliard graduates and our music was heavily jazz-influenced, technically very challenging—they couldn’t have played it if they’d been out of it. A lot of the drinking and drugs happened afterwards, when the show was over.
Q: You rejoined the band in 1975 and until 2004, you rented the name Blood Sweat & Tears in order to tour but you were the only original member from the band’s glory days. Do you wish you’d gone solo earlier?
A: Yes. We were on the road 250 days a year, and it’s very hard on your body and your voice. But I had a daughter to put through college and there were a lot of people depending on me, musicians who needed to make a living. I did, too. I was still writing, but I never had a chance to record anything. We were a nostalgia act, the money was in touring, so there was no push to get back into the studio. Now I’m writing, I’m recording, and when I do concerts, it’s at places like Massey Hall, backed by a symphony orchestra. That’s much better than playing under a Ferris wheel at a carnival, I’ll tell you that.
Q: It’s interesting how many times you’ve been ripped off by managers and so on. Why didn’t you learn how to avoid that?
A: This is the problem with artists: we’re vulnerable because we want to be liked. The only reason you get up on a stage and sing for a few thousand people is that you want to be liked. That makes us vulnerable to the sharks, and there are a lot of them in this business.
Q: You’re turning 69 in a few weeks. Do you think you’ll be playing 10 years from now?
A: I hope so. I don’t see why not. I can’t jump off the speakers like I used to, but I can still sing. You lose a bit of your upper register, but my voice still sounds pretty good, I think.