Fascinating film finally tells 'Shakespearean' story of 'what the hell happened' to Blood, Sweat & Tears, an 'early victim' of rock 'n' roll cancel culture

"Have I got a story for you. It's a political thriller. It is so far from a music documentary. You have no idea," BS&T's Bobby Colomby says of the stranger-than-fiction bombshell doc.

·15 min read
Blood, Sweat & Tears (Photo: Abramorama Films)
Blood, Sweat & Tears (Photo: Abramorama Films)

“A few months before I met [filmmaker] John [Scheinfeld], a friend of mine, a former executive for EMI, and I had dinner, and he asked me a question. He said, ‘Man, I really loved your band! I used to listen to them all the time! What happened?’” recalls Blood, Sweat & Tears founding bandleader and drummer Bobby Colomby, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom with Scheinfeld.

After Colomby and Scheinfeld were introduced at a screening for Scheinfeld’s John Coltrane documentary, Chasing Trane, Colomby remembered that conversation — and something clicked. He realized it was finally time to go public with the 50-year-old, never-before-told tale of intrigue behind BS&T, one of pop music’s first targets of what is now known as “cancel culture.”

“I said to John, ‘Listen, have I got a story for you. It's a political thriller. It is so far from a music documentary. You have no idea,’” Colomby chuckles.

Colomby wasn’t overselling it. The fascinating result is Scheinfeld’s new feature-length doc, What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? And the question posed by its title is a valid one. After all, before everything fell apart, “Blood, Sweat & Tears were as big as you can be,” Scheinfeld stresses — headlining the Woodstock Festival and even beating the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, and Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled debut to win Album of the Year at the 1970 Grammy Awards. But the answer to that “what happened?” question was something that Scheinfeld, and not even the BS&T members themselves, could have ever imagined.

“In some ways, this story is very Shakespearean: The band is forced to do something that they hope will save them, but in the process of trying to save themselves, they hurt themselves. And that's just great drama,” says Scheinfeld. “It really was irresistible. The story had so many fascinating elements that if you put them into a fictional film, people would say, ‘Oh, that couldn't happen! That a rock band would get all the way to the desk of the president of the United States? There's no way that could happen!’”

But it did happen. Through a bizarre State Department plan, America’s biggest rock band was forced — Colomby says blackmailed — by the Nixon administration into doing a concert tour of communist countries overseas. By the time they returned to the U.S., they had become pariahs — enemies of the right and the left — and nothing was ever the same for the pioneering jazz-rock ensemble.

Years later, Rolling Stone placed “Blood, Sweat & Tears do a tour sponsored by the U.S. government at the height of the Vietnam War” seventh on its list of “The Worst Decisions in Music History,” right in between Ja Rule investing in the Fyre Festival and Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. “You know, it's just great to be on in any top 10 list,” Colomby jokes, but he says he agrees with the magazine’s ranking. “Of course! That's a very easy call. I mean, the No. 1 band gets its career destroyed by making one decision. But even in that article, Rolling Stone couldn't divulge what happened. They didn't know the reason for the decision. There's always a backstory.”

Blood, Sweat & Tears (Photo: Abramorama)
Blood, Sweat & Tears (Photo: Abramorama)

So, here’s the story, although repeat viewings of What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? may be necessary to really grasp it all. As Colomby explains, “Our situation was this: Anyone under 30 — especially out of New York, and we were a New York band — was absolutely hating the war in Vietnam, hating Richard Nixon. And apparently David Clayton-Thomas, our lead singer — who is Canadian — had spoken out, as we all did, against the war, against the insane practices of the president. There are a lot of theories about what could have potentially caused the problem, but my feeling is a right-wing congressman said, ‘Who the hell does this Canadian think he is? Where did this guy come from?’ And David had a jail record, so they pulled his green card, which what enables you to play in the United States if you're an alien. So, all of a sudden we're faced with having a No. 1 album — and no lead singer.”

BS&T had just hired new manager, Larry Goldblatt, who “either went to or received a call from… I'm guessing it was his move, but he got in touch with the State Department. And they said to him, ‘Hey, quid pro quo, you want the green card? Then do us a little favor.’ And the favor was to go behind the Iron Curtain at that time — Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland — and play shows, be goodwill ambassadors on [the U.S. government’s] behalf. The problem is, when the sign says ‘State Department-sponsored,’ we are now linked to the State Department. So, anyone under 30 is saying, ‘What the hell are these guys doing? They're sellouts!’ But we had to do this. We had no choice — otherwise, we’d have no singer.”

“From [the U.S. government’s] point of view, it was a win-win,” Scheinfeld explains. “A win for the band, because ‘we'll fix that immigration issue for you,’ and ‘a win for us because we can have someone out there representing America and everything that it stands for.’ And it was one of the biggest bands in the world. They weren't going to get Blood, Sweat & Tears to do this just by calling them up. So, it was an unusual set of circumstances.”

Colomby theorizes that BS&T were “a likely choice” for this historic tour “actually because we were not political,” and Scheinfeld elaborates: “It was quite simple. The Nixon administration wanted to open up relationships with communist countries that they felt perhaps they could pull a little bit away from the Russian orbit. There were three countries that had fairly independent leaders that might be willing to take a step towards America and away from Russia. And those three countries were Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland. In fact, the very first country that Nixon visited after he got elected was Romania. They felt that the dictator there was open to receiving some U.S. financial aid, and in return maybe wouldn't be so supportive of what the Russians were doing. It was all that kind of Cold War, global politics. And so it wasn't by accident that Blood, Sweat & Tears went to these three countries. Those three were chosen specifically because they seemed like prime targets for beginning such a relationship. And so what the government got out of this deal was sending one of the biggest bands in the world to be not spokespeople for America, but to represent the best of what America is. It was a ‘gift.’”

The crowd at Blood, Sweat & Tears' show in Bucharest, Romania, !970. (Photo: Abramorama)
The crowd at Blood, Sweat & Tears' show in Bucharest, Romania, !970. (Photo: Abramorama)

In June 1970, just three months after winning that Album of the Year Grammy, BS&T became the first American rock band to perform behind the Iron Curtain. Colomby has some fond memories of the surreal, controversial tour. “Seeing the passionate responses of these people, some of whom had traveled 300 miles to come to this concert… they suspected that maybe allowing this band to play in their country was a sign of good things to come. A sign of ‘We finally are going to get our freedom!’ To be sitting on a drum stool and watching that, I saw how the faces of the audience were so different from audiences in the United States. They had a look of, like, ‘Thank you for being here.’”

However, it was mostly a harrowing experience for the group. “We saw communism right in front of our faces. We saw different versions of it, but we saw in Romania a deep, disgusting, horrible enslavement of people by the Russians,” says Colomby. “Of the three countries, Romania was the one that had the tightest grip by the Russians. They were unable to speak their mind. They were afraid to be seen with an American or anyone with long hair. It was really nuts. It was like the old Spy vs. Spy thing. I don't think one person in the audience, or many people in the audience, even knew who we were; they just knew it was an American band. So, when we were playing, some of the responses, besides cheering and clapping, was: ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ They were chanting and it got bigger and bigger, and the authorities thought that was a going too far. They started bringing dogs and giving us restrictions, if we're going to be allowed to play the next night. It was crazy. What Blood, Sweat & Tears learned is that those dictators are not nice people. They do not do nice things. In fact, the repression and the lack of freedom was palpable. That’s what we discovered once they were over there.”

The crowd at Blood, Sweat & Tears' show in Bucharest, Romania, !970. (Photo: Abramorama)
The crowd at Blood, Sweat & Tears' show in Bucharest, Romania, !970. (Photo: Abramorama)

Upon touching back down in the States, the tired and traumatized band was ambushed by a press conference, and “we knew that second, right after getting off the plane, that they hated us,” says Colomby. “We were not prepared for a press conference and for the venom that we were getting. … And we were getting it from both sides. The extreme left now was weighing in and saying, ‘You guys are tools of the government,’ because we’d seen communism up-close and were coming back saying, ‘Hey, it may be pretty screwed-up in the U.S. and we gotta fix things here, there’s no doubt about that, but seriously, you do not want communism in this country whatsoever. It's horrible.’ Of course that made the extreme left get really pissed-off at us! And the extreme right was already pissed-off at us!”

The backlash was swift and vicious. “Some of the stuff was unbelievable,” says Colomby. “For example, we're playing Madison Square Garden with Miles Davis as the opening act. Completely sold-out. Abbie Hoffman is outside protesting with signs saying ‘Blood, Sweat & Bullshit’ — handing out flyers, instructing people to disrupt our concerts, to not buy our records because we're pigs and we're collaborators. And my mother's with me and I'm hiding her eyes as we're walking in, because I don't want her to see ‘Blood, Sweat & Bullshit’ signs. And we're playing in the round and in the middle of a song, someone throws a bag. … There ended up being a disruption of the concert that I don't want to say too much about, but the thing is, after I die, someone can say, ‘Bobby Colomby is a very unique drummer. He's the only drummer that was ever hit with a bag of horse’s shit in concert.’”

The scene at Blood, Sweat & Tears' show in Bucharest, Romania, !970. (Photo: Abramorama)
The scene at Blood, Sweat & Tears' show in Bucharest, Romania, !970. (Photo: Abramorama)

“This was cancel culture before that really was a thing,” says Scheinfeld. “Blood, Sweat & Tears were an early victim of that. Incidents of that cancel-type behavior were not as prevalent as they are today. I think that's because we are so polarized and so intolerant now of different viewpoints, where everyone's afraid to say anything because someone will come after them, from the right or from the left. That’s a concern now, but back then it was more of a surprise. When the band came back, it was like, ‘Whoa, what's all this?’”

Colomby theorizes that a BS&T backlash was unavoidable no matter what; for instance, they were already catching flak for playing Las Vegas, something that mega-bands like U2 and Aerosmith readily sign up for now, but “no rock band would ever think of doing at that time.” The drummer says, “I believe any band that goes from zero to a hundred overnight is at the end of every sight of every rifle of any writer, any critic, anyone that's trying to knock 'em down. Because [journalists] will get more attention when they say something nasty about a band everyone likes. And that was inevitable for any artist that would have that kind of rise.

“But the level of it was different,” Colomby continues. “For example, I'm home after the tour and I got a call from a woman who was a writer for the New York Post. And she said, ‘I want to interview you about the tour.’ I said, ‘Do you have a travel budget with The Post? It’s not expensive to go [behind the Iron Curtain]. Go there, spend a week, come back, and then you and I will sit down, have lunch, and we can really talk about it and compare notes. And it'll be an interesting article.’ She said, ‘Great idea,’ and hung up. And the next day there's an article with quotes from me — none of which I gave her!”

When it finally was time for Colomby and his bandmates to come forward with the whole truth in What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?, Scheinfeld says with laugh, “I'll tell you, we could make a movie about the making of the movie!” The director desperately searched for 65 hours of raw footage that a film crew had shot during the disastrous 1970 tour — footage that was initially intended for a two-hour theatrical documentary that never got made, and was then used for a shorter television version that never aired and ended up “lying in a vault in Hollywood” for 50 years. (“They didn't want us to be political. They certainly didn't want us to come back and say, ‘Romania is a nightmare.’ That’s what made them pull the footage, because it didn't turn out the way they expected,” says Colomby.) Both the film company and post-production house associated with the original documentary project had gone bankrupt years earlier, and Scheinfeld never found all 65 hours — but through “an interesting set of circumstances,” he was able to get his hands on the lost TV edit.

“We checked every storage facility that we knew that handled film in Los Angeles and New York. We looked at government storage facilities in D.C. and Virginia. Nothing, nothing, nothing. And then one day we got a call from a woman that ran a vault in Hollywood. She had checked her computer database, which had nothing, but then a few months later she was home because of COVID and was going through a loose-leaf binder with handwritten stuff in it. And she saw some reference to ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears.’ So, she went back into the vault and in a far corner, in a stack of stuff that was marked for destruction, she finds two pristine prints of this short version. Armed with that, we were able to make this film.”

Scheinfeld also tracked down “a lot of declassified government documents” that were of “immense value,” his biggest discovery being “this memo that Kissinger wrote to Nixon about the Blood, Sweat & Tears tour. And at the bottom of the memo, Nixon writes his comments as what might be able to be done. Bobby didn't know anything about this. Most of the band members didn't know anything about this. … And this whole story of the Romanian government trying to confiscate and burn the film that was shot in the country by the documentary crew — that was a big revelation for us as well.”

Watching What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? now is still emotional for Colomby. “Each time I’ve seen it, I’ve had a tear in my eye. I felt sorry for those poor guys — and I was one of those 'poor guys'!” he says. But while he claims he is not bitter and doesn’t wonder what might have been, he's pleased to see BS&T garnering critical respect again as a result of this film’s buzz. (The film’s just-released soundtrack features 10 recently discovered and remastered live performances from BS&T’s Iron Curtain concert tour, showcasing a band at the peak of its powers.)

“We never imagined we would be a pop success, ever. We were a band of musicians first. I wanted to put a band together that incorporated jazz, a little classical, a little Latin, all different kinds of music so that we would sneak into these nice pop songs, but with arrangements that are a little more complex. I was so proud of the accomplishments of this band, not in terms of how big we were, but how we affected other musicians. That was the accomplishment I’d hoped for,” says Colomby. “And now, to realize that the band was stepped on for idiotic reasons, it's a shame. So, I'm glad there is some vindication here. I don't want people to say, ‘God, they were so big, and then they were forgotten!’ I want people to say, ‘Wow, they were really good. I would enjoy that band now, for sure.’”

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