Born David Thomsett in 1941, the native of Surrey, England moved to Toronto at the age of six. A colorful adolescence saw him spend time at both Millbrook Reformatory and the Burwash Industrial Farm. But it was during this period that he discovered a new outlet for his energies, reportedly walking out with a guitar and $20 in his pocket.
His first public show was in ’63 at Toronto’s Bluenote Club at the age of 18, under the stage name ‘Sonny Thomas.’ But within a year, he’d changed his name to David Clayton-Thomas, and his band Boom Boom had changed their name to The Fabulous Shays, then simply The Shays. They recorded a string of singles over the several months and the lp, but tracks like “No No No” on Roulette and “Sing A Song” on Columbia failed to make a dent on the charts. Thomas soon left the group for brief stints in Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks and The Rogues (later Mandala), before forming David Clayton-Thomas And His Quintet and releasing “Walk That Walk” in the fall of ’65.
He formed The Bossmen in February of ’66, where the band went through various incarnations while developing a new jazz-tinged pop sound and building up a loyal following, both in the NY village scene as well as back in Canada at Yorkville. The group included Tommy Collacott on piano, who played with Sarah Vaughan at Carnegie Hall at the age of 14. While the group honed their sound and built a respectable fan base, Thomas was also on the circuit during this period as a solo act. The Bossmen released the ’45 “Brainwashed,” twice that year, one backed with “Barbie Lee” on Roman Records, then the Tower Records version with “Born With The Blues” as the b-side a few months later. The track was a scathing criticism of American involvement in Vietnam, and climbed to #11 on Canada’s RPM chart by that June. But after a disasterous tour of western Canada, Clayton-Thomas left the group. The Bossmen split up shortly after, where drummer Al Morrison and guitarist Bill Ross briefly spent time in The Myna Byrds with Rick James (b. Ricky James Matthews).
Clayton-Thomas occasionally recruited The Ardels while performing the circuit’s clubs for the next year or so. It was while opening for blues legend John Lee Hooker that got him invited to New York for more club dates. Dates were set, but once Thomas arrived in the Big Apple, he was unable to track Hooker down. Obligated to fulfill the commitments on his own, Thomas assembled several backing groups, one which became Electric Flag, featuring Mike Bloomfield and Harvey Brooks.
He returned to New York while he worked out the details of his next plan of attack, forming The David Clayton-Thomas Combine, which also featured ex-Bossmen guitarist Jack Mowbray, ex-Luke & The Apostles drummer Pat Little and Peter Hodgson on bass, who’d left Jon Lee’s troupe. They released two singles on Yorkville Records, “Mind Painting Time Machine,” backed with the original version of “Spinning Wheel” and “Father Dear Father.” Soon after disbanding Combine, Thomas resurrected the remnants of Jon Lee & The Checkmates as his next backup group, The Phoenix. But before the band could really take off, they were forced to break up after Thomas was deported for being an illegal immigrant, reportedly because of the anti-Viet Nam sentiments of the Bossmen’s single “Brainwashed.”
By the time Clayton-Thomas was back in Toronto by the spring of ’68, his tenure in short-lived groups continued, including a second run with Combine. But that summer, friend/drummer Bobby Colomby approached Thomas for a new project he’d started called Blood Sweat & Tears. Though they’d released CHILD IS FATHER TO THE MAN in ’68, one of rock’s most influential names began its run at the top a year later, with Clayton-Thomas as their new vocalist for their second lp, self titled.
While BS&T was tearing up the charts, Clayton-Thomas continued his solo career, releasing his blues-tinged self-titled debut on Decca in 1969, featuring the lead-off “I Got A Woman” by Ray Charles and the single, “Say Boss Man’ b/w “Done Somebody Wrong,” and covers of Willie Dixon’s “Howling For My Darling,” Leiber and Stoller’s “Poison Ivy,” and Jon Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” Shortly later BS&T released their second lp, self titled, featuring the monster hits “Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.”
He continued to focus his energies with BS&T for the next few years, as they released the lp 3 in 1970, featuring “Hi De Ho,” and appeared on the soundtrack to the Barbara Streisand/George Segal movie “Owl & The Pussycat” later that year. 4 followed in ’71, featuring “John The Baptist,” “Mama Gets High” and “Valentine’s Day.”
The next few years saw Clayton-Thomas release solo lp’s, as well as working with BS&T. A ‘best of’ package came out in the spring of ’72, shortly after Columbia released his second solo effort, also self-titled The album featured only one track he wrote himself,as he relied on the talents of some of the scene’s hottest songwriters, including Neil Diamond, Gary Wright, Todd Rundgren, Edgar Winter and Gram Parsons, and featuring the single, “Magnificent Sanctuary Band,” backed with “North Beach Racetrack.” BS&T released NEW BLOOD before the end of the year.
He teamed with musical director Willie “Smitty” Smith for TEQUILA SUNRISE in ’73, and was Clayton-Thomas’ first solo album that featured mostly originals in a more piano-based project. The cover of Chuck Berry’s “Down Bound Train” and “The Face of Man” by Marshall and Martin were the only two non-originals on the album. The same year NO SWEAT came out as a BS&T album, followed by MIRROR IMAGE in ’74, and NEW CITY in ’75.
He went back to doing mostly covers for ’74’s HARMONY JUNCTION. The solo album featured an eclectic assortment of musical genres, including a cover of the traditional tune, “Workin’ On The Railroad,” and Isaac Hayes’ “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Sweet Fantasy” by Hoyt Axton and the 50’s ramba number, “Hernando’s Hideaway.”
A pair of BS&T albums came out in ’76, first LIVE & IMPROVISED, then MORE THAN EVER before the year’s end. In 1977, Clayton-Thomas released CLAYTON, produced by famed Canadian guru Jack Richardson (The Guess Who, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper). Along with a cover of Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound,” the album contained a collectionof originals that showed a year off from the road produced a more vitalized, tight set of arrangements. BS&T released BRAND NEW DAY still in ’77, produced by Jimmy Ienner and featuring the tracks “Somebody I Trusted “, “Dreaming As One,” and “Same Old Blues.”
Clayton-Thomas released his last new material with Blood Sweat & Tears in 1980, with NUCLEAR BLUES. The sound had evolved over the last 12 years, but this time it was more charged, three years in the making. Except for working with other acts, he dropped out of the scene, feeding the classic rock show fire during the summer outdoor festival season. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in ’96, and resurfaced to the record shelves a year later with the solo BLUE PLATE SPECIAL, a mix of new material he’d written during the time off, and covers of blues standards. He released BLOODLINES in the summer of ’99, a dozen new originals with Doug Riley serving as musical arranger on the majority.
Two years later saw a project Clayton-Thomas had always held dear come true, THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM. He continued to be a mainstay during the summer festivals for the next few years, and went into Inception Recording Studios in Toronto in the summer and fall of ’04. The result was AURORA hte next spring to critical acclaim. Five decades shaping pop music showed he hadn’t lost a step. Mostly a collection of songs he’d found inspirational, including “River” by Joni Mitchell, the Billie Holiday number, “Don’t Explain,” and “Lazy Bones” by Hoagie Carmichael, it also contained the originals “Mercy Lord Above,” “A Visit From the Blues” and the raucus “Wild Women and Po’ Boys.” In 2006 Clayton-Thomas announced he would no longer be touring under the BS&T monikor.