Biography
Despite the femme-sounding name and credits backing up the decidedly female Boswell Sisters, this swing-era jazz trumpeter is not a long-lost number to be added to the miniscule ranks of female players from this period. Shirley Clay was a Midwestern man who started working with bands from the St. Louis area around 1920, when he was still a teenager. Although not a name that pops up in the first or even second list of famous swingtime jazz hornmen, he nonetheless amassed an impressive set of discographical credits as well as opportunities to add his own touches to various acknowledged jazz masterworks, not all of which were taken by this understated, cautious, and unobtrusive player. His first touring outfit, the Synco Jazzers, was led by St. Louis-based John Williams, a job that lasted for two years before Clay relocated to Chicago. He played with Louis Armstrong "for a minute" as the jazz expression goes in 1927, but even a second with Satch would have been an unforgettable experience for any trumpeter. His more regular collaborators then included Carroll Dickerson and a big band led by clarinetist Clifford King. From the late '20s into the early '30s, Clay began seeping into the recording studio scene as a freelance trumpeter, and from the looks of his discography, one can safely assume he made good at it. He recorded with Earl Hines, including a 1929 date for Victor, and also got in on the classic blues sounds of Ma Rainey, as well as recording with popular vocal talents the Boswell Sisters. Speaking of vocals, Clay is one of the group of top-flight hornmen who were the flower girls to Billie Holiday's bride on her landmark mid-'30s recordings. He began an association with Don Redman that endured until 1936, but also allowed him enough time to undertake several projects with fussy bandleader Benny Goodman, who is said to have tried to unnerve the solid Clay by loosening the light bulb on his music stand to the point where vibrations from the bass drum would make it go out. He also worked with the kinder and gentler Ben Pollack and finished out the decade alongside classic swing veteran Claude Hopkins. In the early '40s, he was back with Hines, then in groups led by Horace Anderson, Leon Abbey, and a particularly well-received combo fronted by trumpeter Cootie Williams. He also recorded and performed the hi-de-ho sound of Cab Calloway in the mid-'40s. Clay went out as a bandleader from 1944 until his death, but also played as a sideman with Hopkins, a band led by Manzie Johnson, and the quartet of Harry Dial, who mentions Clay in his 1984 autobiography -All That Jazz About Jazz. He was also featured on some sessions by the Mills Brothers. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi



 
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