The Art of Everything By Mary Anne Pankhurst On the Art of Uprighting a Grand Legacy in Jazz: Pianist Bill Clifton


Michael Clifton says that from the moment he first saw the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in ’64 it burned onto his brain like a laser beam.

But for Clifton – who was then just a kid in Cornwall, Ontario, and who, with brother Dave would eventually form a rock band called The Clifton Brothers – he’s not talking nostalgia.  He’s giving me context for the greatest seismic shift that ever rocked the world, and how it not only transformed the terrain of modern music but left his cousin – jazz piano great, Bill Clifton – in a pop culture wasteland.


Yet, to suggest Bill Clifton’s story is “sad” would be far too blue a note.

The man was talented, classically educated, and in the span of his professional career throughout the 1940s and 50s, he knew both fame and fortune.

Perhaps more importantly, Bill Clifton earned the respect of jazz legends including pianists Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson; singers, including Sinatra; his label, Columbia Records; as well as the big networks – CBS and NBC – for his person, artistry, modernism, recording innovations, influence, and even his moniker “Canada Bill.”

As a side bar, Clifton was among the first musicians ever to make a long-playing record, which when seized upon by a Columbia Records visionary, revolutionized the industry by un-slaving the listener from having to get up and restart a single track every couple of minutes.

But Bill Clifton’s life ended tragically at age 51 in 1967; facts Michael Clifton only learned as an adult:

“We grew up on stories about our famous cousin but people didn’t talk about suicide back then.”

I’m curious: What made Bill Clifton’s work unique from Big Band contemporaries like Benny Goodman, Glen Miller or Duke Ellington?

“Bill’s response to the big, showy, hyper-theatrical jazz of that era was: ‘Whoa! Slow it down.’ He made jazz ‘deep,’ cut away the noise and gave it a streamlined sophistication that moved jazz from the realm of dance music to introspective listening.”

Then what?

“After the Beatles, and maybe with the exception of emerging artists like Brubeck, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Bill’s style of melodic, accessible jazz just wasn’t cool anymore.”

Not “cool” or worse – square – were the death knells of the 60s.  So certain kinds of gigs just dried up.  As a result, Clifton was forced to accept work on cruise ships.  And one night after a performance, he took a fatal drug overdose. But not before leaving a note requesting he be buried at sea.

Ship authorities on the SS Stockholm honoured Bill’s request.

Thankfully, Oscar Peterson’s autobiography A Jazz Odyssey puts the spotlight on Bill Clifton’s contributions. And Toronto-based Michael Clifton is doing his part to keep Bill’s legacy alive with a biography, a Clifton record label, a CD compilation of jazz solos and a website soon to be live at:

But before all this, you can have a little listen at LINK


A few final notes about Michael Clifton from the Cornwall years…

Michael told me about growing up in Riverdale and how – at age 11 or 12 – he traded up his acoustic-folk for an electric guitar and amp at a thrift shop at First and Pitt. But something told Michael that he and the guitar weren’t a perfect fit so he handed it over to brother Dave.

Meanwhile, Michael discovers his buddy Rick Shaver has a drum kit at his house. It’s his Dad’s kit but Rick agrees to let Michael try it, and moment the sticks sizzle on the hi-hat Michael “knows.”

Yes, he’s a drummer.  And I imagine the hi-hat moment must surely rival the mop tops in Michael’s memory.

But if the early Beatles were the template for thousands of garage and professional bands alike, The Clifton Brothers did its part push the format’s limits.

Anti-pop, “FM” and leaning to the avante garde, the Clifton Brothers had the additional sound of an electric fiddle that Michael says “blew peoples’ minds” at gigs like The Townline, The Parkway, The Cornwallis and The Royal.

By the way, if there are any CFN readers out there who have photos of The Clifton Brothers’ performances, maybe you’d let Michael know (?)

I’m sure he’d dig it.

And remember, if there’s art in what you do, I want to hear from you via

alpins aoe


  1. This is a great set of music. I have listened to it all repeatedly and I can honestly say it is now one of my favorites.

  2. Cool story. Almost missed it amid the clutter.
    For sure the Beatles and the “British Invasion” changed the face of popular music, generally for the better. Interesting too is that most of the big British groups were heavily influenced by earlier American blues guys and rock n’ rollers.

  3. @Furtz
    Thanks for your interest Furtz.
    I’d like to recommend this article:

    Bill Clifton was also an auto-didact intellectual and a world class athlete. The year these recordings were made Bill competed in th U.S. National Singles Indoor Championships and survived a few rounds
    He was also a “scratch golfer and a strong swimmer.

  4. @ Michael. Your cousin was quite something for sure.
    So sad his life had to end that way.

  5. @Furtz
    He liked to live life BIG. When the resorces to do so ran out, he couldn’t see another way.. Yes, so developed a human being but like so many, or all of us, he possessed an achilles heel.

  6. I just read this article now and WOW! I do know that when the Beatles came over they took over many good bands and there were some American bands who were great and couldn’t make it in the US at all on the charts until they left for England and then became on the top charts. I personally have never liked the Beatles at all and there were other groups that I liked much better like Peter and Gordon and others. If you look at Elvis Presley he was the first one who made “rock n’ roll” and he never gave up even though the rock was different to the one of his day. Elvis was always one of my best singers and even till this day that he is no longer with us we still have his music to remember him by. There is no reason for suicide and life evolves. If I could turn back the clock to the good days in Cornwall and the good days of Ottawa. Today’s music is crap – literal crap just like the programs on the boob tube that you call a TV. When Rogers TV calls us up about wanting to sell us stuff I tell them no thanks we are paying for enough garbage that you dish out to us that we don’t want at all. The same thing with the toilet paper of record – all newspapers and they are going down the drain like so many other things. I don’t want it and I can put my money towards better things and that is the necessities of life. You do not go in despair just because you are good at something and that your music or whatever it may be is the best but you have to go on in life. I don’t like the way life is today believe me people I don’t but I have to go along anyway. Life changes and like I said if I could turn back the clock I sure would do that in a snap.

  7. So Jules, you aren’t a Justin Bieber fan?

  8. @Jules…Hi there! Thanks for your enthusiasm on the great Canadian-born talent, Bill Clifton. We wouldn’t know about him if it weren’t for Michael Clifton contacting CFN. I personally find Bill Clifton’s work beautiful. And like Reg’s comment (above) I’ve been listening to the full CD, over and over. Have to say I did like the Beatles though. Rubber Soul was the first album I ever bought. A Christmas present for my sister. And I likewise remember the Sullivan show. But music evolves. And Bill Clifton understood that. That’s what he was about. He may have been the Van Gogh of the piano. I keep imagining he understood and appreciated many of the Beatles’ introspective compositions…Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, and the entire White Album, including Revolution 9. (Who of us understood that?) The man was an artist. He made a decision we can’t understand or judge. So sad.

  9. Thank you to everyone who commented about Bill Clifton.

    Bill’s choice to end his life by suicide is truly puzzling in light of his incredile talents and intellectual insights. Sadly, there is a long list of jazz musicians that have ended their lives this way. Bill Clifton devoted his entire life to being a professional musician. He, like many dedicated professional jazzmen of the time turned his back on a conventional career in business, the trades etc.. For many a jazz musician of the time, there was no turning back.

    I often think of Bill Clifton’s influence on and friendship with the late, great Bill Evans (the most important pianist in modern jazz history). Like Bill Clifton, the much younger Bill Evans was a quiet, introspective, intellectually inclined master musician and also a very gifted athlete ( the bookish looking Evans had played university football on a scholarship and was also reputed to be an excellent golfer and poolshark). Evans life was tortured with drug addiction to both heroin and cocaine. When you hear the beautiful music these great musicians made, it’s hard to imagine the personal anguish – it’s not in the art.

    I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the very cool Mary Anne Pankhurst for her empathy and knowledge in preparing the article.

  10. I will also admit to being a Beatles fan. I grew up in that era and enjoy classic rock and roll but I also expanded my appreciation of music to include many genres. Some of my favorite albums include the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Willie Nelson’s Stardust Memories, Coltrane’s Night Train, Rob McConnell’s Even Canadians Get The Blues, Beethoven’s 6th and 9th symphony, any of Gordon Lightfoot’s early albums, Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage, Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Israel Kamakawiwo`ole’s Facing Future, etc….. and now Bill Clifton’s Red Shadows.

    Damn, now I’m going to have to break out a bunch of those CD’s and kick back and just listen. What ever work I have to do will just have to wait.

  11. @Reg Coffey
    Reg I want to voice solidarity with: you, Jules and Furtz.. The British Invasion was a good thing, even if you didn’t like the Beatles (and Jules, I’ve gotta love your honesty on that one) there was so much to love. So much great music.

    I’m particularly fond of the songwriting of Gerry Marsden of Gerry And The Pacemakers. A few of his compositions including “Ferry Cross The Mersey” and “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin'” still reduce me to a puddle of nostalgiac goo. They truly rivaled the Lennnon/McCartney songs of the same period.

    I could go on and on and on… One of the things that the British Invasion did that is important here in North its crushing of the “Bobby” craze in ‘Stateside pop of the time: Bobby Vinton, Bobby Curtola, Bob. B Soxx etc. A flacid form of pretty boy crooning bereft of any humanity or pulse that had taken over popular music of the time. Thanks to the Beatles, The Stones ,The Animals and other UK bands, a new level of primal energy returned to pop. Like it has always been in the theatre of popular culture “The scene changes”

  12. Thank you Mary Anne and I was deeply touched by this story and felt that this man should have gone on in life and that there is always hope. I was never a Beatles fan but I do agree that there were the odd tunes that I like. Yesterday was not bad as a song. I much prefer the oldies of the 50’s and the 60’s but good tunes. The gentleman in question Bill Clifton was a real artist and artists are very sensitive towards their work. I have all oldies at home and love to listen to good music but not the hard rock n’ roll at all.

    Furtz no I don’t listen to Justin Bieber and I can honestly tell you and all that I never listened to him at all and cannot stand him. He is a spoiled brat that never grew up and has absolutely no manners at all. I heard a while ago that he was arrested for drunk and roudy driving and has that weird smirk on his face in that picture that they took of him. The Yanks would love to deport him and he told the Yanks that he has no interest in taking their citizenship. He has stomped on the Argentinian flag, wrote on walls of other countries and so on. It makes me long so much for the past that it aches.

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