Blood, Sweat & Tears - Biography
The history of rock and roll is strewn with the wreckage of bands that started for all the wrong reasons: music formulas, market targeting and artist packaging. On paper, they looked as if they couldn’t miss, yet once formed couldn’t find the empirical magic that mists its way into the hearts — and ears — of radio programmers and the record-buying public. Often, it was record company reaction to shifts in public taste and/or the chase of a new style or sub-genre of rock music. Sometimes it was simply the desire to uncover (or manufacture) the Next Big Thing.
The history of Blood, Sweat & Tears is also strewn with all sorts of wreckage, but they can never be accused of having been manufactured for mass consumption. They began virtually by accident, and it wasn’t long before their career path seemed to take every wrong turn imaginable, yet despite it all, they managed to build a bridge linking two seemingly disparate musical styles, jazz and rock, forging a sound that would launch new genres in each stream.
The genesis of this new music sprung from the mind of Al Kooper, a self-described musical sponge who had the ability to borrow ideas from virtually any kind of source — jazz, folk, classical, blues, rock, soul, etc. — and then recast them in his own new unique way. Rather than taking his cue from R&B bands that used horns to lay out riffs, Kooper, enamored with the music of jazz bandleader Maynard Ferguson, instead envisioned the merging of jazz horns with an electric rock rhythm section, blending elements of each into an organic aural stew where guitars and saxophones and trumpets would have an equal share of the spotlight.
The Brooklyn-born singer/keyboardist had been playing music professionally since the age of 15, when he joined the Royal Teens, who had a novelty hit in 1958 with “Short Shorts.” Turning to songwriting and session work, he scored notoriety in both arenas, co-writing “This Diamond Ring,” a number one hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1965, then playing organ on Bob Dylan’s seminal single “Like a Rolling Stone” (he also performed on Highway 61 Revisited). That year also saw the formation of the Blues Project, which Kooper co-founded with guitarist Steve Katz, a group that would help launch (along with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) the blues revival that continued through the end of the decade, which helped to introduce the mainstream rock audience to that most American of musical forms. It was also a collectively-run group, and Kooper soon grew tired of the leaderless nature of the band; after two years, he left. By July of 1967, Kooper was ready to set his jazz-rock vision in motion.
Kooper decided that London provided the right scene to pursue his new direction, but he needed to make some money first to pay for the relocation. He booked some local New York club dates to raise funds for the trip, and went about gathering together a rhythm section for the shows. Katz, who had also quit the Blues Project, joined up on guitar; the group was soon rounded out with bassist Jim Fielder (ex-Mothers of Invention) and drummer Bobby Colomby, a friend of Katz’s who had played with Odetta, among others. By the time they finished playing the shows that Kooper had booked, the keyboardist hadn’t made enough to buy a ticket to the UK, but he had found the core unit for his new group. He only had one condition — that he be the sole musical leader of the band. Democracy would not be a part of this new venture.
It was now time to find the right horn players. The first enlistee was alto saxophonist Fred Lipsius, brought in by Colomby, and he was soon followed by trumpeters Randy Brecker and Jerry Weiss and trombonist Dick Halligan. Finally, Kooper had the players to interpret his vision, and after two months of rehearsing, the newly completed band made their debut at Café au Go Go in New York, opening for Moby Grape. By the time the engagement ended they had signed with Columbia Records. Kooper christened the band Blood, Sweat & Tears; the name had come to him after having bled somewhat profusely all over his keyboards while playing with a cut on his hand at an after-hours jam session.
Kooper finally had the physical embodiment of the sound he had heard in his head, and it proved to be a winner with live audiences and especially music critics, who rapturously began singing the group’s praises right from the beginning. Blood, Sweat & Tears (or, as they were soon simplified to, BS&T) wasn’t the first rock band to incorporate horns in their make-up (Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield were also exploring the use of horns, though they both came from a blues direction, and the Buckinghams had added horn embellishments to many of their songs), but they were the first to integrate them into the totality of the sound, not just as filigree or riff-setters but in a truly jazz-based way; in fact much of their initial repertoire wasn’t written down — it was fleshed out and cemented through live playing. As Kooper began writing for the coming album, the songs and arrangements included plenty of space for the horn players to take off on improvisational flights.
Finally, the group entered the studio late in 1967 with producer John Simon, and two weeks later they had their debut record in the can. Child Is Father to the Man came out in February 1968 on Columbia Records, and the critical acclaim it was met with was astounding. Many rock journalists considered it to be one of the decade’s landmark albums. A mixture of Kooper originals (“I Can’t Quit Her,” “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know”) and covers (Harry Nilsson’s “Without Her,” Tim Buckley’s “Morning Glory”), it was fresh, brand new territory perfectly played by a seamlessly tuned-in band.
Or so it seemed. Without any hit singles and virtually no AM radio airplay, the album had to rely on press and word-of-mouth to build sales momentum. A tour to promote it was slow to develop. But the biggest problem lay in the fissures that began to open while the group was still in the studio.
Kooper’s control over the band began being called into question, and doubts began to surface among the other members about whether his vocal abilities were enough to carry the band. Katz and Colomby floated the idea of possibly hiring a new singer to take over the lead vocals with Kooper sticking strictly to keyboards and composing. By the end of March, with Child Is Father to the Man finally in sight of a chart position and sales inching towards the 100,000 mark, it all came apart. First Kooper left, joining Columbia’s production staff, and then the trumpeters, Brecker and Weiss, announced that they too were leaving.
It looked as if Blood, Sweat & Tears would flame out as quickly as they came together, leaving behind a single album that would forever cause critics to pine for ‘what if only’ scenarios. The odds of a band surviving the loss of their visionary founding force and nearly half their members seemed insurmountable, except for one thing: Katz and Colomby viewed the situation as a chance to reinvent the group to their own sound template. The record company decided to give them that chance.
They immediately started the search for a new lead vocalist. Among those considered for the job were Stephen Stills and Laura Nyro, but following a tip from Judy Collins, who raved about a little-known blues/rock singer from Canada that she had caught in a small club, they checked out David Clayton-Thomas and immediately signed him up. Soon after, they enlisted trumpeters Lew Soloff and Chuck Winfield and trombonist Jerry Hyman (Halligan moved over to keyboards to replace Kooper), thus giving birth to a reborn and revamped Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Born in England during World War II, Clayton-Thomas immigrated to Canada with his family at the age of five. His teenage years found him bouncing between reformatories, jails and the streets, before he finally turned to music to break the pattern of petty thefts, vagrancy and street brawling that had him headed down a road of trouble with no end in sight. Blessed with a deep bluesy voice that had a natural swagger, he absorbed the R&B sounds that floated up from Detroit and Chicago. He also had a natural affinity for blues and jazz that fit perfectly with the direction that Colomby and Katz were headed.
The newly reconstituted nine-piece band convened in the studio to record the follow-up to Child Is Father to the Man. It would be a more commercial direction this time around, though jazz would still make up a large segment of their sound. Katz and Colomby were looking towards the style that the Buckinghams utilized, and they were able to bring James William Guercio, their producer (he would coincidentally go on to shape and forge the sound of BS&T’s main competitor in the jazz-rock world, Chicago), in to sit behind the switches and dials.
Material for the album, which would simply be titled Blood, Sweat & Tears, came from a variety of sources — Nyro, Traffic, Motown, even Billie Holiday — along with an original each from Katz and Clayton-Thomas. To open and close the record, the group turned to an unusual choice — French expressionist composer Erik Satie.
Blood, Sweat & Tears was released in January 1969, 11 months after the band’s Kooper-shaped debut, and it featured a totally different sound and feel. It immediately began spawning hit singles, first with “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” (which ironically featured an arrangement by Kooper), then Clayton-Thomas’s “Spinning Wheel” followed by Nyro’s “And When I Die.” The album would go on to sell three million copies while winning the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It even caused their previous album to re-enter the charts, and by the end of the year it attained a gold record of its own.
Like so many other groups and artists who reached atmospheric heights early in their histories, Blood, Sweat & Tears was now faced with a dilemma: how do you go up from up? Columbia Records, looking to further bank on the group’s success, was anxious for a follow-up album, and while the current record was still selling extremely well, the group reentered the studio in the fall of 1969 to begin work on Blood, Sweat & Tears 3. Because of their new status as hit makers, the group was able to broker a deal where they would be allowed to produce themselves. Before they finished the recording, though, they would take off on a fateful tour that would cause much consternation among critics and fans alike, causing a blow to their image that would be hard to overcome.
In early 1970, the group agreed to go on a US State Department-sanctioned and sponsored tour of Eastern Europe. With the war in Vietnam going on, and the Kent State shootings just over the horizon, their decision to represent a most unpopular government (especially with the younger generation that made up their fan base) behind the Iron Curtain alienated many of those very fans who had recently bought their albums. Only later did it come to light that one of the main reasons they agreed to the tour was a promise to ‘iron out’ any difficulties with Clayton-Thomas’s visa.
On their return to the US, the third album was released, and though it did ship gold, it never reached the levels of its predecessor. Another Nyro-penned tune, “Hi-De-Ho,” was released as a single, topping out at number 14 on the chart (the album initially spent two weeks at the top of the album chart). The wind began to disappear from their sails, especially when they decided to play a show at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, once again damaging their image among a restless record-buying public. Compounded with the success of Guercio’s latest entry into the jazz-rock sweepstakes, Chicago, the glory days of Blood, Sweat & Tears had pretty much come to a close.
By the time they adjourned to the recording studio to work on their fourth album in early 1971, the band had basically split into three camps: the rock rhythm section, the jazz horn section and the singer, caught in the middle between the two. After the fourth record, Blood, Sweat & Tears 4, came out in June 1971, peaking at number 10, the defections began, with Clayton-Thomas leading the charge. Though they continued recording albums with a succession of new vocalists before Clayton-Thomas returned to the fold in 1975, the group began adding and shedding players through the rest of the decade and beyond, with the last original member, Colomby, who happened to own a copyright on the group’s name, leaving by 1976. Since the drummer owned the name, Clayton-Thomas had to negotiate a deal to be able to front an ever-changing roster of players under the Blood, Sweat & Tears banner. In 2004, Clayton-Thomas went back to his solo career, yet today, some 130 musicians later, Blood, Sweat & Tears still soldiers on, and in 2008 they celebrated both their 40th anniversary (at least in name) and the return to the fold of one of its founding members, Steve Katz. Who says you can’t go home again?