Clayton-Thomas: Smiling through the tears

By Ben Rayner, Toronto Star
September 20, 2010
At his daughter’s urging, legendary musician tells his gritty life story appropriately titled Blood Sweat and Tears

David Clayton-Thomas has some skeletons in his closet, but he’s setting them all free and it feels mighty good.

“The pressure’s off now in interviews,” laughs the onetime Blood, Sweat and Tears frontman, a few weeks shy of his 69th birthday, over lunch a few steps away from his lakeshore penthouse. “There are no loaded questions they can ask me anymore. There it is. Read the book. It’s all out there. Who gives a sh–?”

 He comes clean about the humiliating beatings he withstood at the hands of his father, his criminal teenhood as a Toronto street kid, his years spent as a scrappy convict bouncing between juvenile halls and prisons where the frequent fighter and troublemaker would entertain himself by singing in the “natural echo chambers” that were solitary-confinement cells.

He comes clean about the drugs, the cutthroat business dealings and the ego clashes that went on within the band during its platinum-plated 1970s peak and its subsequent dissolution into Clayton-Thomas and a revolving cast of hired-gun musicians half his age, not to mention the fatal 1978 overdose in Amsterdam of his friend and bandmate Greg Herbert. And he comes clean about how the staunch will to succeed that elevated him from the streets into pop music’s elite was, for decades, a strain on his health, his family and his interpersonal relationships.

There’s also, however, a genuinely inspirational rags-to-riches story to be found in the life of a self-made man who, as Clayton-Thomas recalls, once “walked out of Millbrook with 20 bucks in my pocket, a mail-order guitar and a dream.

“It’s a double-edged sword. You have the benefit of that drive to succeed because going back is not an option,” Clayton-Thomas says of his bullheaded nature. “On the other hand, it can be awfully obsessive and a lot of people around you get sucked into that vortex.

One of the primary victims of Clayton-Thomas’s thirst for success, he concedes, was his daughter, Ashleigh. He missed a lot of birthdays and PTA meetings back in the day and has grown to realize that you don’t get those moments back.

“Because of her background in creative writing, my daughter was the one who really pushed me to write a book,” he says. “She always said: ‘You’ve got a great story, Dad. You should write it down as a novel, as a serious memoir.

With the book coming out and an induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame — “a source of tremendous pride for me” — looming in October, Clayton-Thomas figured he’d better get a new album out. Thus, early October will see the release via Universal Music of Soul Ballads, a collection of classic cuts from the likes of Ray Charles and Gladys Knight reinterpreted with the aid of a full orchestra.

“These are songs that I sang in bars on Yonge Street 40 years ago. They’re tunes that every young singer of my generation grew up with.”

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