Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School homecoming king
Blues singer Tom Clifford has been told he “looks better than in high school,” a particularly nice compliment for a former homecoming king.
Crowned king in the fall of 1980, he used the opportunity “to dip-kiss” assistant principal Bonnie Fox. She had implemented stricter attendance policies for a class that previously had enjoyed “optional attendance.” But after the kiss, Clifford “never had problems with her again.”
Clifford started singing and playing blues harmonica at Leland Junior High School “with anybody who would let [me] play along,” he says. Two former B-CC students inspired him: Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks, a popular blues group, and rockabilly singer Robert Gordon.
After high school, Clifford attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where, he says, “I found other people interested in forming a band. The band was a conduit to being part of the culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, not just being a college kid.” The Mistreaters played all over the state, even opening for the Nighthawks. Clifford moved to Austin, Texas, where he performed before returning to the Bethesda area in 1999.
Today, his R&B band, King Soul, plays local clubs such as Iota in Arlington, Va., and the Surf Club in Hyattsville, and events such as the Columbia Festival of the Arts and the Takoma Park Street Festival, where he frequently sees former B-CC classmates.
Sam Palmer of Smithsburg was in the junior high band with Clifford. “I knew he’d be a performer,” Palmer says. “I could recognize how passionate he was about playing music…. Real life sort of crept up on him. But he found a way to balance both—he spends as much time as he can finding ways to express himself musically.”
While pursuing his music, Clifford worked in public relations and was in marketing for the building industry. He’s now director of development for the National Sleep Foundation. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Washington Grove and stays in contact with high school friends.
“I don’t know that anyone’s life turns out the way they think it is going to be when they are in high school, but I have to say that I’ve been very blessed,” Clifford says. “Family has always defined my life, and my greatest dream was to have a loving family of my own. In that sense, I’m the richest man in the world…. I wake up every day happy to be alive.”