Soul Inspiration: An Interview with David Clayton-Thomas

The Blood, Sweat and Tears legend discusses his LP, Soul Ballads,and how rhythm and blues in particular has influenced the music he's made throughout his career.

Album Review: Bob Dylan - Shadows in the Night

The mercurial legend proves himself surprisingly suited to these songs of auspicious pining and futile, forlorn desire.

Interview: Singer/Songwriter Miel de Botton Realizes Enduring Musical Ambition and Passion on 'Magnetic' Debut

'There was a growing freedom in me in feeling that I really wanted to pursue what I wanted to do in life, and that life can be short...'

DVD/2CD Review: The Rolling Stones - From The Vault: L.A. Forum (Live in 1975)

The band's reputation as live performers in this era was arguably unsurpassed, and utterly justified.

DVD Review: Bob Marley - Uprising Live!

Marley was incendiary to the end.

April 01, 2015

Soul Inspiration: An Interview with David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears

By the time he joined Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1968, David Clayton-Thomas was already a seasoned disciple of the blues, R&B, and soul — music that not only resonated with him as art forms to appreciate but ones which he could sing well and with conviction. “Actually, I first started out doing Mississippi Delta Blues with John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins and Jimmy Reed, stuff like that,” Clayton-Thomas tells Write on Music, recalling his formative days playing the Canadian bar and nightclub circuit. “Then I started hanging out with a lot of jazz musicians and started to get into R&B, people like Ray Charles and Otis Redding.”

Such influences were integral to the expansive, brass-spiked palette of Blood, Sweat & Tears, of course, and with such classic sides as “Spinning Wheel,” “And When I Die,” and “You Made Me So Very Happy” Clayton-Thomas emerged as one of the most distinctive vocalists of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

Though he ultimately left the band (and the rigors of nearly four decades on the road) in 2004, Clayton-Thomas has continued to write and record with the same integrity and passion that distinguishes his signature works. 

With his 2010 LP, Soul Ballads — originally released by Universal Canada upon the publication of his autobiography, aptly titled Blood, Sweat and Tears — Clayton-Thomas collaborated with producer and arranger Lou Pomanti on a set of R&B standards as a tribute to some of his biggest and most cherished influences.

“We didn’t go looking for obscure R&B songs that nobody had ever done before,” says Clayton-Thomas of the album, which was released this week in the States on Airline Records. “We made the decision going right in that we wanted those great, iconic tunes that everybody already knows and loves.”

For the Soul Ballads album, it really must’ve been a tall order to record songs by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and others that the public already know so well.

When we did this album, I didn’t even take lyric sheets to the studio. I knew these songs so well. They’re a part of DNA. Lou [Pomanti] had been after me for quite some time to do this, and that was one of the reasons why I wouldn’t want to do it.… It was very intimidating. I love those songs so much that I didn’t think they could ever be done better.

Maybe “better” isn’t what you’re working toward with these songs, though.

No, no. Well, we’re able today… When I went back to listen to the original records, [on] a lot of that stuff the recording was really terrible. They were recorded on a four-track machine or maybe even just in stereo — or a tape recorder, in those days — and of course we have the advantage today of a modern digital recording studio. And quite often, like the Bobby Hebb tune, “Sunny,” the horns were so out of tune on the original record I couldn’t believe it. But it didn’t matter because that soul just came through.… What we could do [though] was we could take these iconic songs and with the use of modern recording techniques and really superb musicians we could bring those songs into the twenty-first century. Based on that, I said, “Come on, let’s do this album.” And we did it, and Lou Pomanti produced it. He’d been my piano player in Blood, Sweat & Tears for about five or six years. We traveled the world together. He also played with me in the early days when we played jazz clubs and bars here in Toronto, and he heard me sing a lot of this material. 

I’ve been reading your autobiography, actually. You’ve led a remarkable life — a remarkable life in extremes.

Yes, from the lows to the highs and then back again three or four times.

What was it about the blues and soul and R&B that first drew you in, not just as music to enjoy but that which you could sink your teeth into as a singer and try yourself?

As you know — you’ve read the book — I spent most of my teenage years a homeless kid, in and out of reformatories, and the blues just seemed to be… That’s where the blues came from. The blues came off of chain gangs, prison work gangs, with the chants and everything else. And I just gravitated to that. 

Was there a moment early on, while working in the clubs as a young singer, when you realized that what you weren’t just acting out a passion but that — all modesty aside — you were really good at it?

Oh yeah, the first time I stepped on stage and performed. The rockabilly singer, Ronnie Hawkins, he just let me sit in one afternoon at the club. And I got up and I sang. I think I sang a couple of Jimmy Reed tunes and stuff like that. I was hugely influenced by Jimmy Reed. He’s kind of been forgotten in the whole history of blues, but that first album, Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall — double-album set — I learned every single note, every song on that album. It was just amazing. So I sang a couple of Jimmy Reed tunes and people stood up and they cheered and clapped and I said, “Hey, I must be pretty good at this.” But I’d already been doing prison concerts and stuff like that. It wasn’t like I was totally green performing.  

You got to see a lot of the music greats perform back then, too.

Yeah, that’s true. What’s described today as “The Toronto Sound” is just steeped in R&B. There’s a very good reason for that. When we were young musicians growing up and seeking out our idols there was a color bar in the States, especially in music. If you were a black band and you played in Detroit you played on the black side of town in black clubs to black audiences. And there were seldom any mixed bands. A lot of the bands that I worked with up in Canada were mixed. We couldn’t come down to the States, couldn’t get booked down there. I’m going way back now; I’m talking about the early sixties. Things have certainly changed. But the result of that was all those great Motown artists and the Chicago blues artists, they loved to come up here and play in Toronto where there was no color bar. They played to mixed audiences in nice clubs. 

So [in] our various experiences working up and down what they called the Strip, which was the Yonge Street strip of about ten or fifteen bars, you’d be working and at a club next door would be B.B. King and down the street would be Ike and Tina Turner and the Temptations. They all came up here. So they really influenced the young Canadian musicians. Even today, especially Toronto, there’s a heavy R&B influence here. So I grew up with it.

Your singing has always seemed so visceral. Was there a danger over time of losing that instinctive quality of your singing, like if you found out how the engine ran then maybe the engine wouldn’t run the same?

Well, I think you can get burned out. Now, I was on the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears for forty years. It was a big band with a lot of mouths to feed, agents, managers, an office and everything else. We were on the road two-hundred days a year for forty years with hardly a break ever. And you do get to a point where you’re thinking, Here we go again. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I left in 2004. There was just nothing left for me anymore. It was just going out and just doing the oldies night after night after night, making a lot of money doing oldies. 

There’s no growth there. There’s no chance to write. There’s no chance to explore different things, and it can be very suffocating. I just got to a point where I wasn’t doing it for the money anymore ... and not only that, but I looked around me and didn’t know anybody in the band. It was all new guys, some of them weren’t even born when Blood, Sweat & Tears started. I just said, “I’ve had enough of this.” But I think a major reason was you just find yourself running out of inspiration. You’ve sung this song two-hundred times in a row, night after night after night — literally, over the years, thousands of times — and it starts to go stale. 

But the people who come to the concerts, some of them are seeing you sing those songs for the first time in their lives.

And that’s what saves you, the audience reaction. You sing “You Made Me So Very Happy,” no matter how many times you’ve sang it, when you see people’s faces light up in the audience, it’s worth it. And of course I’m still singing those songs of Blood, Sweat & Tears, “Spinning Wheel,” “Lucretia Mac Evil,” all that stuff. I’m still doing them now, but I think I’m doing them with a little more joy, a little more energy because it’s not all I do. When you just go out night after night playing a medley of your hits…

Then you’re just a legacy act.

Exactly right. And I just got to an age when I thought, Well, I don’t know how many years I’ve got left at this point. Do I want to spend the rest of them doing this? Nah, I don’t think so. 

In a sense, Soul Ballads brings your career full circle. 

Yeah, and you know what? I’ve always been kind of obsessed with writing my own material, but I had so much fun making that album. Another thing that really influenced me in the old days was standards. I loved singing standards, “Stardust” and “Summertime,” stuff like that. I always had half a dozen standards in my show. I was so happy with the way the Soul Ballads album came out that I decided to do it again with standards. So we’ve just finished a new album. The hard work is being done now and it should be out later on this spring. It’s called Combo, which is five of Canada’s finest jazz musicians in a small combo doing standards. So, yeah, again full circle. I don’t know if it’s the age I’m getting to or what, but it indeed has come full circle.

Maybe writing your autobiography a few years ago triggered something for you.

That’s a good point. I think you’re probably right. Writing a memoir… Human beings, we tend to take all the dark things in our lives and push them into the back corners of our minds and don’t think about them a lot. But when you sit down to write an autobiography or memoir you realize you’ve got to come clean. You can’t BS your way through this because many of the people who read this book were there. They know the story. So you’ve got to be right up front and you’ve got to dredge up some of those dark corners and bring them out again. 

It’s cathartic, but it can be a little painful too…. I didn’t want to use a ghostwriter so I did it myself. You’re reliving those moments just about every day for a year and a half. But you’re also living the great moments too, you know? So it kind of balances out. I’ve got to say, I’ve probably had more great moments than the down moments, because once I started in music there was no turning back and I had a wonderful life from that point on. 

The U.S. release of Soul Ballads is available now on Airline Records. For more information on David Clayton-Thomas, please visit the artist’s official website.

March 15, 2015

DVD/2CD Review: The Rolling Stones - From The Vault: L.A. Forum (Live in 1975)

As recording artists the Rolling Stones by 1975 were, depending on your perspective, either trudging through a provisional rut or growing accustomed to the status of a legacy act. Their magnum opus, Exile on Main Street, was ensconced three years in the past; their brazen resurgence (or anomalous triumph), Some Girls, lay three years ahead; and their weakest effort in the interim, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, was what they’d ostensibly mounted their much-hyped Tour of the Americas to promote.

Of course by this point the Stones didn’t need to release a spectacular album to sell concert tickets. Not only was their reputation as live performers arguably unsurpassed in this era but, as evidenced on L.A. Forum (Live in 1975) — recorded during a five-night stand at the Forum, bootlegged for years thereafter, refurbished and most recently released as a DVD/2CD set by Eagle Rock — utterly justified.  

With the ever gregarious lead guitarist Ronnie Wood now in tow after having replaced the often taciturn Mick Taylor, the band is especially rambunctious during the 24-song set, even by Stones standards — not unlike Wood’s old mates, The Faces, veritable connoisseurs of errant behavior both on and off the stage. Auxiliary musicians (including percussionist Ollie E. Brown, saxophonist Trevor Lawrence, and keyboardist Billy Preston) no doubt enrich the sound and each man has his moments, but ultimately it’s the Stones stalwarts (Ian Stewart, Bobby Keys) that prove indispensable.

Flamboyant to a fault, Mick Jagger unleashes a primal, savage growl throughout that gives even the ballsiest songs (“Rip This Joint,” “Star Star,” “Brown Sugar”) an added guttural thrust. On the rare ballad (most notably “Angie”) he summons a soul man’s urgent ache, his gruff vocal suggesting Otis Redding’s raw, Southern-bred inspiration. Yet it’s on a torrid, sixteen-minute romp through “Midnight Rambler” that Jagger is at his most intoxicating, at turns humping and writhing atop the stage floor, brandishing his glittered belt like a whip as if in a masochistic fit. It’s a steal-the-show moment in any other band’s show. But this is the Rolling Stones in their prime as live performers, and L.A. Forum (Live in 1975)
 thrills from start to finish. 

March 04, 2015

Interview: Singer/Songwriter Miel de Botton Realizes Enduring Musical Ambition and Passion on 'Magnetic' Debut

“I’m still kind of pinching myself,” says Miel de Botton on the line from her home in London, keen to discuss her forthcoming debut, Magnetic, whilst offering insights to circumstances that both instigated and hindered its making. 

Indeed the Swiss-born philanthropist would be the first to concede that while the double album realizes her life’s abiding passion — to craft and interpret music for the masses, to sing intimately personal songs that reflect universalities of the heart, particularly French chansons she first heard as a child that continue to resonate with her as an adult — it does so as a result of much self-scrutiny and reflection.

Raised in relative affluence, coming of age amid the implicit (and sometimes overt) expectations of scholastic and professional accomplishment, particularly those of her father — Gilbert de Botton, who died at age 65 in 2000, was a venerable financier and fine art benefactor — she wavered between his wishes and her own ambitions. She studied law at Oxford, later worked as a clinical psychologist in Paris. As she entered her forties, having married and divorced while raising two young children, de Botton ultimately decided to pursue her artistic promise in earnest.

Produced by Andy Wright (whose credentials include works by Duran Duran, Simple Minds, and the Eurythmics), Magnetic is whimsical in some moments, solemn in others, and altogether inspired throughout. 

Was there some sort of realization that your passion was translatable as talent? Most people reach a point where they recognize that they can’t go any further than their passion.

It’s interesting. It did take a long time, and I think that time was actually beneficial to me because it was a time of maturing. Then suddenly things did seem to all line up and doors were opening. I had a lot of enthusiasm and passion and … I had a beneficial environment, I guess, that I’m very grateful for. I wish it for the maximum number of people out there, but I can’t fully explain why me at this stage because I’ve myself got a sense of wonder about it. 

How did you connect with Andy Wright?

That was one in a series of coincidences which were, I think, quite magical. I was working with a band before and I couldn’t find a producer who was giving me a reasonable offer. I asked this lady, who’s my healer, and I was just chatting to her and I said, “I’m really having trouble.” She said, “Why don’t you come to this event next week. I think this producer, Andy Wright, might be there.” So I looked him up, and I thought, My God, this guy is the real deal. So, yes, I met him there, and his first question was, “Are you incredibly ambitious?” And I said, “Why, yes sir!” [Laughs] 

The chemistry between you two in the studio has been good?

It’s been really good. I think initially we were both a little bit on our guards and didn’t really know what was going to come out of this. Gradually it just grew stronger and stronger to the extent that we’ve just got this great creative synergy where I come in with my words and my melodies and he puts them to orchestration and instrumentation. It’s just so fabulous. It blows me away every time.

Have you been singing throughout your life or have you only come to it within the last few years?

I’ve been doing it throughout my life just to bring me a feeling of joy and a kind of healing thing in in my life. I just love to do it, singing and dancing. But in a more structured way I’ve only been doing it for three years, but I have been very actively doing it with two voice coaches who are classically trained. They have developed my voice; it’s been really amazing. I’ve seen it develop with their teaching, and that’s been an amazing process. 

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Leonard Cohen is one of your biggest influences. How did his music first enter your life and ultimately have such a profound effect on you? 

He was played to me in my childhood by my parents. The music that went through the house was mainly classical. We had some Janis Joplin, and a lot of Leonard Cohen. So I sort of grew up with him, liking the melodies but obviously not understanding the words so much. Then, when I was a teenager, I connected with his words. That was when I really connected with him.

Growing up you weren’t encouraged toward the kind of ambition you’re now pursuing, but rather toward a traditional, education-based kind of career. Your father, in particular, was someone who greatly supported the arts and who appreciated the talents of those artists. Still — and it seems contradictory — it seems like he didn’t feel that a vocation in the arts was on par with, say, being a doctor or a lawyer.

It’s an interesting question because, I must say, I think this was very much lying dormant. People would say I had a pretty voice and I had a lovely voice and things like that, but it was not something that stood out. That’s why I think the timing was… In a way, maybe it was meant to be. In any case, it just took some time to mature. Nobody really thought it at the time, including me. I loved to sing and that was my dream, but I’m not sure I even voiced that, to be honest. I think it was just something that I loved. I never thought of it myself even as something vocational. So maybe it was all just a blind spot that we had, I don’t know. 

So this wasn’t a case where you professed your desire to pursue your musical ambition and you were denied.

No, no. But maybe the blind spot was due to the fact that we were all very academically pushed and that this was not something which would have been considered necessarily a career, a serious career. So I think there was some of that involved, but none of it was voiced. 

What I’m getting, then, is that your father wasn’t necessarily disparaging any sort of artistic course. He didn’t even know it was there to encourage.

Exactly. To be honest, he was quite disparaging about the psychology initially. He always said it was akin to flower arranging. He was much preferring the law; that was really his preferred [option].

In a general way, though, your father’s wishes for you were ultimately in looking out for your wellbeing. He wasn’t encouraging you to pursue something just for the sake of pleasing him; he was trying to get you to do something that would provide for you in the future.

Exactly, but in so doing he definitely did have trouble accepting the psychology. When he saw that it was serious, then he accepted it. But he said, “You finish your law degree.” Then he wanted me to continue to become a solicitor or a barrister, and it was my brother [author/philosopher Alain de Botton] actually who intervened and said, “Leave her in peace. She wants to do psychology.” 

As you’ve now come to music after doing other vocations, some of which were rewarding in their own ways but ultimately weren’t as fulfilling to you as a career in music, what finally convinced you to turn your passion into a professional pursuit?

I think it’s a combination of internal and external factors. I was a clinical psychologist before and I did that for many years, but I had stopped doing that quite a while ago. I had a personal tragedy. My father died very suddenly. I decided just to take a break, raise my two children, and I think there was a growing freedom in me in feeling that I really wanted to pursue what I wanted to do in life, and that life can be short. But I think it was just gradually with maturing with a feeling of freedom and joy, and that was coming out in singing and dancing with people around me, and they picked up on it. I think that’s how it happened. Everybody, friends and people who worked with me, [were] suddenly picking up on it and all saying, “You should speak with this person. You should speak with that person. Your voice is really lovely.” It was mainly about freedom and joy and enthusiasm after a lot of hardship — I [also] got divorced — a lot of sadness. Out of that came a feeling that I wanted to be free of that and fully express myself. I think the inner then influences the outer.

Do those hardships you’ve been through inform your songwriting or come through in your music in some constructive way?

Yeah, definitely, maybe in the same way that Leonard Cohen uses it. There’s a mixture of melancholy mood and searching for joy. One cannot really go without the other. I think if you’ve lived through the melancholy you long for the joy. 

Magnetic will be released on March 9. 

For more information on Miel de Botton, please visit the artist’s official website.

February 16, 2015

Album Review: The Jeff Healey Band - Live at The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern 1993

While he’s most widely known for his 1988 cover of John Hiatt’s classic, “Angel Eyes,” Jeff Healey possessed a talent that was at once eclectic and expansive. Indeed almost seven years after the blind musician’s death at 41, it’s unlikely that even Healey’s most ardent fans have yet to appreciate the full extent of his artistry. 

Adding a bit more perspective to the overall picture, so to speak, Live at the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern 1993 (Eagle Records) finds the JHB delivering a potent set heavy on electric blues and juke-joint-friendly rock ‘n’ roll. While with a stunning pair of love songs (“You’re Coming Home” and, of course, “Angel Eyes”) Healey summons a warm and tender respite amid the otherwise raucous selections, with scorching versions of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues,” The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and B. B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” he brings the band to maximum boil.

February 08, 2015

Album Review: Bob Dylan - Shadows in the Night

Bob Dylan

Perhaps it’s ironic that Bob Dylan, who revolutionized the craft of popular songwriting in the Sixties onward and thus delineated it from that of the standards so prevalent in prior generations, should on Shadows in the Night (Columbia Records) engage the Great American Songbook with such striking sincerity. Incongruous though it may seem, however, the mercurial legend proves himself surprisingly suited to these ten songs which Frank Sinatra recorded toward the middle of the last century. 

Dylan sustains a noirish, pensive conceit from the opening strains of “I'm a Fool to Want You” to the closing crescendo of “That Lucky Old Sun,” underscoring this, his thirty-sixth studio effort, like a solemn cinematic motif. Aside from the music’s lingering melancholy and even the dulcet subtleties of Dylan’s five-piece band on these arrangements, though, the most obvious distinction here — indeed it’s the very first thing you notice — is Dylan’s singing. Though his voice has attained a certain resonant depth and insight with age, it has not sounded this consistently fluent and impassioned since Blood on the Tracks, maybe even since Nashville Skyline, at once suggesting the unmitigated effort these performances require as well as Dylan’s sheer reverence for the material. He is most affecting when a lyric calls for unadorned vulnerability, as manifests in moments like “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and “Why Try to Change Me Now,” which bridge the emotional distance between auspicious pining and futile, forsaken desire.