David Clayton-Thomas talks The Hawk, The Band, Neil, Joni, and Toronto in the 60's

While speaking to David Clayton-Thomas a couple of days ago about his show coming up at the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival Thursday night, at one point in the conversation I mentioned one of his solo hits from his Toronto days, back before joining Blood, Sweat and Tears and shooting to fame. That quickly got us talking about the amazing Toronto scene that Clayton-Thomas was an integral part of, and I realized it was a golden opportunity to go over some of the important Canadian music history he was a part of. So, we quickly scheduled another block of interview time, and here is part two of the David Clayton-Thomas interview, all about the 60's from his vantage point, for the record.

"I got my start on Yonge Street, I used to beg to sit in with the Ronnie Hawkins band, which of course later became THE Band, and became very close with them. I eventually started my own little band on the side, known as The Shays. Ronnie never pretended to be a great singer, that's why he hired me to be in his band. "Oh man, with your pipes, oh ya ya, you got a job." That left him free to circulate around the club, be the genial master of ceremonies, the host, the party-giver, and that's what he was best at."

"Yonge Street, we called it The Strip, and there was 8 to 10 bars up that Strip, Le Coq d'Or, Friars', Town Tavern, The Colonial, and you could make a living just going club to club. You play two weeks in one place, then you go up to Bloor and play two weeks in another place, and then come back downtown and play another two weeks. It was a tremendous breeding ground for a lot of young musicians who got their start there."

"It was a very exciting time here, because all of the black artists in the 60's, the R'n'B artists from Detroit and Chicago and Memphis, they couldn't play in white clubs in the States, the colour barrier was still very much in force. So they loved to come to Toronto. Us young, fledgling musicians, we were treated to seeing James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, they all played on Yonge Street in the bars. They loved playing up here. That's why today, what's identified as the Toronto sound from then is very much R'n'B. When The Band first broke, everyone thought they were from the Deep South, they were so funky, nobody dreamed they were from Kitchener, Ontario. That's where we got our influences."

"The Hawks, they were the best rock and roll band I've ever heard, today, before or since. When they became The Band and put out that first album, I threw a party and had all my friends come over, saying this is the album of the decade. I guess the spiritual leader was Levon, Robbie was always very business savvy, and the rest of the guys just wanted to party. When you watched the show, you never thought, this guy is the star of the show, and this guy is the sideman. It was very much a band, and I fell in love with them."

"One of the characteristics of those gigs is that you played matinees on Saturdays. And at the afternoon matinees, there would be no liquor served. So all the young musicians could get in, and everybody used to come down on Saturday afternoon and jam with The Hawks. And they were glad to have you because they were glad to get the afternoon off and take a break. So on Saturday afternoons, we all would turn the club over to everybody sitting in. We were all basically exhausted, because we did five shows a night. Forty on, twenty off, all night long. By Saturday, we just wanted a break, so the fact that all the young musicians could get in, it turned into a free-for-all, a jam session every week."

"I still had my regular bar job with Ronnie Hawkins, and the Shays and I played more of the teen hops, the plaza dances and high school dances, we played mostly one nighters. If the Shays didn't have a gig some months, Ronnie would say, 'Come on, you're in my band this month', so it was an off-and-on thing, over a period of a couple of years."

"One of the things that gets missed in the history is that those were tough bars. They were full of steel workers from Hamilton and lumber jacks from Sudbury, and everybody's in town with a week's pay cheque and just looking to party, and if they didn't get laid, have a fight. Ronnie was such a genial, loveable kind of guy, but he was a tough son of a bitch. Nobody messed with him. And you pretty much had to be that way in those days."

By the mid-60's, a different scene had opened up a little further north, in the Bloor-Avenue Road area of the city known as the Yorkville Village. It was filled with small clubs, initially featuring jazz and folk, a mini-Greenwich Village. Pretty soon, some of Canada's top talent gravitated there, including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. And of course, David Clayton-Thomas.

"After the Shays had had a couple of hit records, and I started to get bigger gigs, opening for The Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens, that kind of thing, I started hanging out in Yorkville. On Yonge Street, you played Top 40, we would play until one o'clock in the morning when the bars closed, we'd all go out for breakfast at one o'clock and all the bands would meet up at Fran's, the restaurant up on Dundas, because we had to be back at the club at 3 to rehearse. And we would rehearse from 3 am until the sun came up, because we had to constantly keep the material new, we had to play what was on the charts. I became friends with Doc Riley, (Doug Riley, Dr. Music). We started going up and seeing people like Oscar Peterson, Lonnie Johnson, Lenny Breau. And a lot of the acts from Greenwich Village in New York started to come up and play the little clubs on Yorkville. So you could see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, and folk acts like Tim Hardin. And we were all playing the little clubs on Yorkville, little one nighters, there was no money there, most of us couldn't afford a band with the money they paid in the coffee houses. So I kind of juggled both for a while, the gigs downtown which actually paid not much, but they at least paid a living, and Yorkville, which paid zero. I just got all tangled up in the scene in Yorkville, and started to play less and less on Yonge Street and more and more in Yorkville. People there were writing their own music, and you had brilliant songwriters like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordie Lightfoot playing the clubs. I was already bitten with the writing bug, I wanted to write my own music, I just didn't want to play recycled Top 40 stuff. It was a very creative community."

Yorkville became the hub of Canada's music scene, with many of the country's future stars getting their starts there. In addition to Young and Mitchell, you could find The Paupers, with Skip Prokop who later formed Lighthouse. There was The Sparrow, which became Steppenwolf. Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan arrived. Dominic Troiano had The Mandala. Buffy Sainte-Marie was a regular, already a star in the U.S., and Gordon Lightfoot was the biggest name of them all in the Village. But the small area, just a couple of blocks really, had become too popular, with much of young Toronto trying heading there for shows, or just to drive past and watch the hippies. Bike gangs had moved in to sell dope, and the best times were over.

"Along about 1967, the fathers of the city of Toronto decided Yorkville was full of junkies, was full of sex, drugs and rock n' roll, and they better close it down. And they did, it was amazing. They closed it down in about a week. They would come in, set up a paddy wagon at each end of Yorkville, and then about 50 cops would just sweep the streets and pick up anybody who wasn't moving along fast enough. And after about a week of that harassment, the Yorkville era ended."

"It was obvious that Yorkville was no longer an option. I had three #1 records in a row, and I was still working for $200 a week, because there was no music industry in Canada. My only option was to go back to the bars on Yonge Street where there were beer fights every other night, or strike out and do something different."

"I was a big fan of the Delta blues style, and whenever Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee or John Lee Hooker or Lonnie Johnson would come and play, they usually played at The Riverboat, when I was playing one of the other little clubs. So between sets, I used to take my guitar and run over, and go sit in with them. One of those gigs was with John Lee Hooker, and he told me he was opening in the Cafe au Go Go in New York City the following week, and I said, 'Take me with you, I'll go with you.' And he did. He actually had an ulterior motive, because John was functially illiterate, he grew up uneducated, a very wise man, very smart, but he couldn't get a drivers' license. His driver had been busted at the border on the way up and he left his Cadillac in Niagara Falls, New York. So I made a deal with him. He said 'You go down to Niagara Falls and drive my Cadillac back down to New York, and I'll have a gig for you when you get there.' I said okay, and two weeks later, I did that. I went down to do the gig with John, and apparently he had been booked to do something called the American Blues Tour of Europe, and wasn't going to do the gig that week. So there I was in New York with $40 in my pocket and my Telecaster, and no gig. Howie Solomon, who was the owner of the Cafe au Go Go, said 'Well I'm in a bind too, I was supposed to open John Lee Hooker tonight and he's not going to make it, do you have a band?' Now, I'd been in town maybe 40 minutes, but I said, 'Sure, no problem. I'll be back at 5 for rehearsal.' I went out looking for anybody with a guitar or who looked like a musician, and we put together a little blues band and opened at the Cafe au Go Go, and that was my first gig in New York. It lead to me meeting the guys in Blood, Sweat and Tears."

It wasn't just a stroke of luck for Clayton-Thomas. Blood, Sweat and Tears featured some of the best jazz-rock players in New York, and they knew a talented singer when they heard one. Plus, Clayton-Thomas came with material too. His song Spinning Wheel was a huge hit for the band, the album went to number one, and Blood, Sweat and Tears were one of the headline acts at Woodstock. Clayton-Thomas can justifiably say that the Yonge-Yorkville musicians were easily some of the world's best.

"We (Yorkville's musicians) were that great, absolutely. Maybe even better than the Greenwich or L.A. scenes because we had struggled for so long up here without a real music industry. We spent the time, seven years or more, on Yonge Street and Yorkville, learning the trade. So when the artists did go to New York they were very well seasoned."

When music historians talk about the 1960's, it is often with an image of the U.S., perhaps Haight-Asbury in San Francisco, or Greenwich Village in New York, perhaps Liverpool and London in England. David Clayton-Thomas is one of the witnesses who can say with authority that Canada had an equal scene, which should be celebrated as well.

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About Bob Mersereau

Rockin' BobBob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).

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