By Keith Sharp
And when he does, people have a tendency to listen. David Clayton-Thomas former lead vocalist for multi-Grammy-winning blues/jazz band, Blood Sweat & Tears has just released a collection of 10 songs on his latest solo album titled, `Say Somethin’ (Linus Records), the subject matter of which is bound to spark controversy on both sides of the 49th parallel.
Dealing with subjects like gun violence, politics, climate change, immigration and the injustice of the youth legal system, Clayton-Thomas pulls no punches with a certain current U.S president firmly in the centre of his lyrical crosshairs.
“There are people who are either going to love me or be really pissed off with me, but in either case, my job is done,” laughs Clayton-Thomas on the phone from his Toronto residence as the new opus is being released. “So many things have gone absolutely wacko down there over the past few years and I just felt I had to write about it.”
Written from a Canadian standpoint (although Clayton-Thomas was born near London, England) once he had the lyrics together, he summoned his four favourite musicians (keyboardist Lou Pomanti, guitarist Eric St Laurent, bassist George Koller – replaced in the recording sessions by Marc Rogers – and drummer Davide Di Renzo) to his house where he read them the lyrics out loud. They then recorded the lyrics on their phones, took them home and came back with their own ideas.
“We felt that these songs say something and I said, `that’s the title for the album’,” Clayton-Thomas noted. “From that point on, the project became “Say Somethin’” and that became the criteria for all the songs.”
`Say Somethin’ starts off with a poignant autobiographical piece called “Burwash” (co-written by Eric St Laurent) in which Clayton-Thomas sings about his own troubled youthful experiences, being incarcerated at Burwash Industrial Farm. How an old guitar, left behind by a former inmate, inspired his musical aspirations and how, upon release, Clayton-Thomas cultivated his talents, first in the clubs in Toronto (with The Shays) and then later in New York, where, as legend has it, famed folk singer Judy Collins caught his act and recommended him to Blood Sweat And Tears drummer/leader Bobby Colomby who recruited him as lead vocalist for his band.
Yet that experience also allowed Clayton-Thomas to observe the injustice of how youthful offenders are treated in the legal system, chronicled in the album’s second song (co-written by Davide Di Renzo) titled “The System”, he highlights how many young people end up in the prison system and how this experience turns them into repeat offenders. “When I was 16, what did the courts do with a homeless kid, they shipped you off to reformatory,” he explained. “They didn’t ask why you were homeless? I would rather sleep in an empty building or a car than go home and get beaten up by my father.”
“So I helped form Peace Builders International. What this organization is doing is intervening with kids 14-18 who got tangled up in the justice system. We get the courts to send the kids to us and we have counselling circles to work with them and build their self-confidence and self-worth. Because of this, we can boast a 90% success rate with these kids.”
Much of the album’s material is political in nature with a number of songs firmly targeting U.S president Donald Trump. “Dear Mr. Obama” (co-written with Lou Pomanti) was prompted by Obama’s classy eulogy about departed democratic senator Elijah Cummings but also takes a backhanded swipe at Trump. “Remember when the position of the President of The United States was dignified, thoughtful, intelligent, well-spoken, do you remember that! What the hell happened!” Clayton-Thomas fumes
Clayton-Thomas continues his attack on Trump with songs like “King Midas” (St Laurent) mentioning his greed and avarice, “The Circus” (Pomanti) in which he describes Trump and his cohorts as clowns in a circus, trying to distract the American public from the reality of what is really happening and “A Bright Shining City” (Pomanti) which talks about Trump’s obsession with building his wall to keep immigrants out of his country and begs the question “What happened to welcoming neighbours”
“The Precipice” (St Laurent) generalizes about the inherent danger of climate change and global warming and “This Town” (St Laurent) focuses on the influence of money, the treachery of politics and the loss of innocence which could be about Washington but could also be about New York or any other city (Toronto!) where big business is a driving factor.
Yet this album’s most poignant track is “Never Again” (Pomanti) which focuses on gun violence, especially in U.S schools (Sandy Hook, Parkland, Columbine) and is written from the point of view of a Canadian observing the day to day tragedies which occur in the U.S.
“I am saying, hey, listen. This is your best friend talking. We don’t have mass shootings every three days in Canada,” explained Clayton-Thomas. “We both watch the same movies, we both play the same video games, we’ve both got a bunch of crazies, so what’s the difference? Well, the difference is people in Canada don’t walk around with automatic AK-15’s, you can’t legally buy weapons up here that are designed to kill people, but it’s pretty hard to get away from it. When you see a mass shooting every three or four days, it’s not even news anymore, it’s absolute madness.”
Clayton-Thomas closes out the album with “God’s Country” (Koller) his love song to Canada which praises this country’s natural beauty, it’s resources and its friendliness in welcoming immigrants. But he also warns this could change if Trump gets another four years in office. “What happens if he wants to annex Canada! He’s criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for being weak, he has already ripped up the NAFTA agreement, it’s a scary thought!”
Clayton-Thomas can lay claim to having fronted one of North America’s most successful recording group’s; (Blood Sweat and Tears) triggered massive radio hits, with tracks like “Spinning Wheel”, “You Make Me So Very Happy”, “And When I Die” “Lucretia McEvil” and “Hi De Ho”, winning five Grammy awards in 1970 for their Blood Sweat & Tears album (beating out The Beatles’ Abbey Road in the process), while also selling 10 million copies and topping the Billboard album charts for seven weeks.
And having lived in New York for much of his life and having performed extensively across The U.S, Clayton-Thomas claims he doesn’t have a vendetta against Americans but is just frustrated at the current state of affairs.
“I haven’t seen the world so divided, so polarized and so screwed up since the 1960s, and the 60s launched a musical wave of protest from Bob Dylan to Woodstock, even The Beatles got on board,” Clayton-Thomas explained. “Maybe I am naïve but here we are at the most confused time since the 1960s. I was in the middle of it, I played at Woodstock and maybe now we are due for another revolution.”
Discouraged by the lack of creativity by BS&T and their constantly revolving personnel lineup, Clayton-Thomas finally pulled the plug on the band in 2004 after his third session with the group and has gone on to record a phenomenal number of solo albums, `Say Somethin’’ being his 18th such effort. Domestically he has been inducted into Canada’s Music Hall Of Fame, Canada’s Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame and Canada’s Walk Of Fame, and at the age of 78 is still performing live.
He had planned a record launch party at Toronto’s Jazz Bistro, and a live performance at this city’s Koerner Hall but that and two other scheduled concert performances at Oshawa’s Regent Theatre and Pembroke’s Festival Hall have been put on hold by the current COVID-19 virus.
“I’m like everyone else, sitting at home, wondering what is going to happen,” Clayton-Thomas mused. “This Coronavirus doesn’t care what side of the fence you are on, it’s an equal opportunity killer.”