Origin Stories: David Clayton-Thomas on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel”
David Clayton-Thomas got his start much like many of the other great Canadian songwriters of the 1960s–– as an underage musician playing Toronto’s Yonge Street strip. He honed his chops by sitting in on jam sessions with legendary Arkansas rockabilly wildman Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and his band The Hawks, before they were known as The Band.
“The bars on the strip used to have weekend matinees, which didn’t serve liquor, so the young, underage musicians of Toronto could come and watch or sit in with their idols, and The Hawks were really our idols,” he says.
In those early days, the bar scene on the Yonge Street strip was a germination point for some extraordinary talent. On a Saturday night it was not uncommon to catch trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie or blues greats like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters performing at one of the local hotspots like The Colonial Tavern.
“A lot of the R&B artists and blues bands from the U.S., particularly Detroit and Chicago, loved to play up here in Toronto because there was no colour bar,” notes Clayton-Thomas. “In the ’60s, a black band in Detroit played in the black clubs, but here audiences just loved them.
“That made a real impression on us as young Canadian musicians,” he adds. “We grew up going to see some of the greatest players in the world. Those guys are really what started what is called the ‘Toronto Sound.’”
At the same time, Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood housed a vibrant artistic community and was the epicenter of the city’s folk music and counterculture scenes. “Everyone hung around there,” he says. “I used to play the little clubs on Yorkville Ave. at night, and then sit and have coffee in the daytimes at the little sidewalk cafés with Neil, John Kay, Joni––we all knew each other.”
But, Yorkville couldn’t last forever. Eventually, the price of local real estate, among other things, skyrocketed and rent became too exorbitant for the club owners to afford. The cafés were quickly replaced by hip, new shops, and the artists no longer had anywhere to perform.
“They basically swept through Yorkville in a matter of two weeks and shut it down. Once that happened, there was no music here; there was no music industry. The bars on the strip basically became Top 40 and R&B clubs that only played the hit parade and required you to wear a suit. In Yorkville, the artists were writing their own music so within one summer we were all gone to the States.
While most packed their bags for Los Angeles, some like Clayton-Thomas, headed for New York in search of jazz. During his Yorkville years, he had discovered the sounds of Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and Lenny Breau, and so the Big Apple had a certain allure.
Prior to leaving Toronto, Clayton-Thomas fronted a band called The Bossmen. In the summer of 1966, the band even had a Canadian Top 20 hit with their now infamous anti-war anthem, “Brainwashed.”
“At that point, I was already experimenting with guys like Tony Collacott, who was a very gifted jazz pianist, and using jazz musicians in a rock context, so in my mind I was already on a parallel course to joining Blood, Sweat & Tears,” he says.Upon making the move to New York, Clayton-Thomas immediately gravitated towards the city’s infamous Greenwich Village scene.
“Yorkville really was a microcosm of Greenwich Village,” he says. “A lot of the blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, and other guys that I teamed up with, had all played up here, so when I arrived in New York I went straight to Greenwich because that’s where I was comfortable––it was like a great big Yorkville. Granted, Greenwich Village was like eight square blocks, but at that time it was the world headquarters of the music industry. Everything was happening in New York, so within those borders you met everybody.
“I lived upstairs from a place called the Café Wha?, and Jimi Hendrix, who was still going by Jimi James then, was playing in the basement at a club called The Underground. Carole King and James Taylor were at The Bitter End. Actually, I used to sub in for James and a band called The Flying Machine on Saturday afternoons because he couldn’t make it in from Boston or wherever the heck he was coming from. So, it was very much a community thing.”
Also at that time, Clayton-Thomas was working a regular gig uptown with the house band at a club called The Scene. One night, folk singer Judy Collins came in. So blown away by what she had heard, Collins returned the following evening and brought Bobby Colomby and Jim Fielder of Blood, Sweat & Tears with her.
“Like I said, the scene was small so I knew Bobby from around town. Blood, Sweat & Tears had already released their debut album, Child Is Father To The Man, on Columbia but then they broke up so Bobby was looking for a new singer. Anyway, they came in and were knocked out, and it ended up with me joining the band.”
Things seemed to move at lightning speed after that.
“We knew right from the first rehearsal that we had a very special combination,” says Clayton-Thomas. “It was different and there was nothing else out there like it. We got a gig playing a little club called Café au Go Go on Bleeker Street, and we played there four or five nights a week. The club only seated 150 people, but there were always a thousand people lined up on the sidewalk trying to get in.”
When less than a year later in December of ‘68, Blood, Sweat & Tears released their self-titled sophomore album, which featured the David Clayton-Thomas penned “Spinning Wheel,” the band rocketed to international acclaim. By Christmas of the following year, they had the number one album in the world.
Interestingly, Clayton-Thomas had written the song two years prior to joining Blood, Sweat & Tears and had even recorded it while still in Toronto.
“I actually recorded the song for an [independent] Canadian company called Arc Records, which is long gone now, but they were horrified,” he says with a laugh. “The label guys were just like, ‘No, no. We want another ‘Brainwashed.’ This sounds like jazz. Jazz doesn’t sell. We can’t make any money off of jazz.’ They basically ripped up my contract and rejected the record, so I stuck it back in my guitar case and carried it around with me for the next two years.
“When I joined Blood, Sweat & Tears, I played it for them and because they were all jazz musicians they related to it immediately. They basically took the demo from Canada and wrote horns to it.”
And what a difference those horns made. Their impact is something Clayton-Thomas attributes to the strength of BST horn player Lew Soloff. “I recently had the honour of going down to Rochester, NY, to induct the late Lew Soloff into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame at the Eastman School of Music. It was during the course of that week that I realized just how important his trumpet was to the sound of that song.
“There’s never been another one like Lew,” he adds. “Even to this day when I’m playing shows or hiring musicians I’m always saying, ‘Can you play that Lew Soloff solo?’ If you can’t hit the double high G at the end of that solo, you don’t get the gig. And, there are very few who can.”
On his most recent album, Canadiana, which was released via ILS Group/Universal in late 2016, Clayton-Thomas opted to re-record “Spinning Wheel” as a tribute to his late friend and bandmate.
“When the record company first asked me to re-record the song I just thought, ‘Man, I’ve sung it fifty-thousand times. How could I do anything new with it?’ But, Lew’s passing sort of gave me a different feeling about it. I wanted to do the song because I realized that his lead trumpet was what made that record what it was. I will forever be grateful to him for that.”
Though the re-recorded version of “Spinning Wheel” is more of a jazz-swing tune, Clayton-Thomas ensured that the trumpet solo was constructed note for note from Lew’s original piece.
“I went to our trumpet player, Jason Logue, and said, ‘Will you transcribe that Lew Soloff solo? We’re going to play it note for note just like the original as a tribute to Lew.’ And he just looked at me and said, ‘Transcribe it? Are you kidding? Every trumpet player in the world knew that song in high school.’”
At the time of its original release, “Spinning Wheel” went on to top the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart and peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was also nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1970, taking the honour for Best Instrumental Arrangement while Blood, Sweat & Tears won in the Album of The Year category.
And, though it’s been nearly 50 years since then, the mark of a truly great pop song is its ability to maintain meaning even as the cultural background appears to shift and change.
“’Spinning Wheel’ was really just my way of saying, ‘Hey, don’t get too caught up in movements because everything comes full-circle,” says Clayton-Thomas. “In 1969 everyone was talking about the anti-war revolution and within five years we had Ronald Reagan. Today, a reality TV star is the President of the United States, so there you have it.”
[This article was originally published via the National Music Centre.]