Pianist Sonny Clay was born William Roger Campbell “Sonny” Clay in Chapell Hill, Texas, on May 15, 1899. He was the son of William H. Clay and Elizabeth “Lizzie” L. (Carter) Clay. The family was listed in the 1900 census as living in Houston. His family moved to Phoenix in 1908. Clay, who was known professionally by “Sonny,” performed with various groups in Arizona before leaving for California around 1916. On May 25, 1918, he married Verbena Graves; they had two children. 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 enlisted in the United States Army in 1942 and served as a private through the duration of World War II as a bandleader. His enlistment records also listed three years of college for his previous education. Clay 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 10, 1973, in Los Angeles and was buried in Lincoln Memorial Park.