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CLAY, WILLIAM SONNY (1899–1973). Pianist William Sonny Clay was born in Chapell Hill, Texas, on May 15, 1899. His family moved to Phoenix in 1908. Clay, who was known professionally by his middle name, performed with various groups in Arizona before leaving for California around 1916. Sonny Clay is credited with being one of the first important jazz musicians in California during the second decade of the twentieth century.

Around 1920 Clay met Jelly Roll Morton in Tijuana, and by 1922 he was leading one of the earliest jazz bands in Los Angeles, the Eccentric Harmony Six. In 1923 he recorded two titles for the Sunset record label, and in 1925 he recorded four more titles for Sunset with a group called the Stompin' Six. In 1925 he also made recordings for Vocalion, and in 1926 he recorded with his Plantation Orchestra, performing a fine piano solo on "California Stomp."

Clay also is credited with taking "probably the first black jazz group" to Australia, in January 1928. Their tour ended in controversy when they were expelled from the country for allegedly hosting wild, interracial parties. Consequently, the Australian government barred all black musicians from entering the country, and the ban was not lifted until Louis Armstrong performed there in 1954.

On his return to Los Angeles Clay organized the Dixie Serenaders. His band broke up around 1933, and he worked as a solo piano player. He served in World War II as a bandleader and resumed his career playing piano in clubs in 1945. He worked in the post office and as a piano tuner for a time, but resumed playing in clubs in the 1950s. He died on April 13, 1973, in Los Angeles.


Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1974). John Chilton, Who's Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street (London: Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1970; American ed., New York and Philadelphia: Chilton, 1972; 4th ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1985).

Dave Oliphant


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Dave Oliphant, "CLAY, WILLIAM SONNY," Handbook of Texas Online (, accessed October 08, 2015. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on October 1, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.