Colorful country entertainer Billy ThunderKloud passed away in Florida on June 5 at age 70.
The former Nashvillian enjoyed a string of chart records in the 1970s, but is more often remembered for the beads, turquoise jewelry, feathers, braids and costumes he wore to recognize his Native American ancestry.
ThunderKloud was born Vincent Clifford in British Columbia, Canada. He was a member of the Gitksan tribe, part of the Tsimshian Indian Nation. His tribe dubbed him Chief Dau-Hkansqu. At age 14, he hopped a train from Port Edward, BC to Edmonton, Alberta in order to attend the Indian Residential School there.
At the school, he formed the Chieftones in 1964 with fellow Native American musicians Jack Wolf, Barry Littlestar and Richard Grayowl. They were initially billed as “Canada’s All-Indian Band.”
In 1965-68, the group issued a series of singles on the Claremont, Cuca and Youngstown labels. The William Morris Agency signed the band. Clifford/ThunderKloud appeared on TV’s To Tell the Truth in 1966, and after his identity was revealed, The Chieftones performed on the national telecast.
The star adopted the stage name Billy ThunderKloud in 1972. Now billed as Billy ThunderKloud & The Chieftones, the act landed a Nashville recording contract with Superior Records, which was owned by Oak Ridge Boys member Duane Allen.
ThunderKloud moved to Nashville in 1974 and signed with 20th Century Records. He and the band debuted on the country charts the following year with “What Time of Day.” It rose to #16 on the country charts and briefly crossed over to the pop hit parade.
After this, the group became noted for country remakes of pop oldies such as “Pledging My Love” (1975), “Indian Reservation” (1976) and “Try a Little Tenderness” (1976) as it moved from 20th Century to Polydor Records.
Billy ThunderKloud & The Chieftones’ last appearance on the country charts was with 1979’s “It’s Alright,” written by Jerry Foster and Bill Rice.
Buddy Lee Attractions booked the band, making it a favorite on the fair and festival circuit. On the road, the Chieftones were augmented by the members of Hank Williams Jr.’s band.
The group was chosen to entertain at President Richard Nixon’s second Inaugural Ball in 1973. After an appearance at Walt Disney World the following year, Walt Disney gave his pet mountain lion to ThumderKloud as a gift. It reportedly travelled with the band on its tour bus.
The group’s albums included All Through the Night (1973), Off the Reservation (1974), What Time of Day (1975), Where Do I Begin to Tell a Story (1976) and Some of Nashville’s Finest (1980). In their jacket photos, the band was pictured in feathered headdresses, elaborate silver-and-turquoise belts and necklaces, leather accessories, tunics, long braided-pigtail hairdos and similar regalia.
ThunderKloud was chosen Outstanding Indian of the Year in 1975 by the American Indian Exposition. He continued to tour and make personal appearances until 1991.
He retired to Palm City, FL and died there due to complications from a stroke and pneumonia. He is survived by his wife Bev, daughters Shawnee and Chey Kuzma and by three grandchildren.
At his request, there will be no funeral service. Donations may be made in Billy ThunderKloud’s name to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, to Shriners Hospital for Children, to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, to the American Diabetes Association or to a charity of your choice.
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