Coogee Media


Sonny Clay: 1928 Tour
Shameful Treatment of Jazz Stars

White Australia Policy
For over hundred years up until the mid-1970s, Australia (including pre-Federation colonial governments) had policies that restricted non-European immigration to Australia with the aim of creating a homogeneous society composed solely of European "whites". The first Act of the newly created Commonwealth government in 1901, was the Immigration Restriction Act, the cornerstone of the White Australia Policy. The Policy was seen as a panacea for creating a wealthy and harmonious society. Non-Europeans, including black Americans, were not welcome and every effort was made to ensure they could not settle permanently in Australia. It was against the backdrop of the White Australia Policy, that Sonny Clay led a group of 22 black American musicians on a tour of eastern Australia in 1928.

Sonny Clay - Bandleader
William Rogers Campbell "Sonny" Clay (May 15, 1899, Chapel Hill, Texas - April 13, 1973, Los Angeles) was a pianist, drummer and bandleader. According to online cemetery records, his father was William Henry Clay (1867 to 1927) and his mother was Elizabeth L. "Lizzie" Carter Clay (1880 to 1932). His parents married in 1898.

Clay's family moved to Phoenix Arizona when he was eight years old; he played drums and xylophone early in life. From 1915, he studied piano, playing with Charlie Green and Jelly Roll Morton in Mexico around 1920. He was a drummer for Reb Spikes in California in 1921, and had his first recording experience backing Camille Allen in 1922. Later that year he played with Kid Ory at the Hiawatha Dancing Academy in Los Angeles. On May 25, 1918, he married Verbena Graves; they had two children. Verbena, born in Stephenville, Texas in 1885, was only 28 when she died on 16 Apr 1924.

In 1923 he formed his own band, the Eccentric Harmony Six; this ensemble recorded on Vocalion Records as the California Poppies in 1923 and the Stompin' Six in 1925. He also performed under the band names Plantation Orchestra and Hartford Ballroom Orchestra. His band scored a regular gig broadcasting on radio stations KNX in 1925 and KFI in 1926.

Sonny Clay & his band arrive in Sydney
Sonny Clay's band on its arrival Sydney
Sonny Clay is in the centre in the light coloured suit.
Notable Jazz pioneer, Ernest Coycault (1884-1940) stands at the top.
Ivie Anderson, who would later became famous as a singer with Duke
Ellington's Orchestra, stands next to tuba player Herman Hoy, watching
her dancing colleagues, members of The Four Covans.

In 1928 Clay took his band (billed as Sonny Clay's Colored Idea) on a tour of Australia, with Ivie Anderson (later a vocalist with Duke Ellington) as one of the singers accompanying the orchestra. This was not just a group of journeymen musicians clubbed together for the tour, but groups of professional musicians at their top of their field. In the days before modern communications when the 78rpm vinyl record was the most likely media to hear music, followers of the new music genres like Jazz and the Blues, were eager to hear top musicians, the stars, in live performances, unconcerned if they were black or white.

The group arrived in Sydney on the Sierra one the 31st January 1928 and played in Sydney and Melbourne to popular success. They were very well received by music fans, and received great reviews. The Daily Telegraph for instance said:

Sonny Clay's Coloured Plantation Band on Saturday night, at the Tivoli, proved itself to be just as brilliant and melodious as the others. Every young and old boy will be whistling "Blue Heaven," a catchy fox-trot, this week; The Four Covans, amazingly quick dancers, were the most successful of Sonny Clay's Colored Idea, and the Four Emperors of Harmony received a flattering reception from a capacity house. Ivy Anderson and Dick Saunders were always cheerful and bright.

Poster for Sonny Clay Concert at Tivioli
Poster for Sonny Clay Concert at Tivioli
Today, it would be seen as tasteless and racist
but in 1927, audiences loved the performances.

No matter that Jazz fans loved their performances, their progress was dogged, as Sonny Clay would later complain, by police detectives snooping around looking for any signs of scandal. Local musicians complained about imported artists taking work from them; all the more worse because they were black.

Party Raided
As rumours of drug use and miscegenation between the black band members and white women flew, the group attracted the attention of the Victorian Police, who spent several days staking out two flats occupied by members of the band at the Rowena Mansions, East Melbourne. At 3am on Sunday 25 March 1928, they felt that they had seen enough, and plainclothes Constables Leslie Saker and William Dunn raided the apartments. Once inside, they found several members of the band with five women "in compromising situations", some in their underwear. (Sonny Clay and other leaders of the band had stayed elsewhere and so were not involved). It was early in the morning, they had been drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, and perhaps hanky-panky. They had been doing no more than thousands of other couples had been, no doubt, doing in Melbourne that night; the difference here was that white women were mixing with and enjoying the company of black musicians.

Trumped Up Charges?
Parts of the populace and the press may have been outraged by this mixing of the "races", but they were not doing anything illegal. One of the women was an employee of one of the musicians, anyway, so could be expected to be in his company. The police used the ruse of charging the women with "Vagrancy". They may have been good time girls, but they were all gainfully employed and certainly not vagrants. Some newspapers invented a sixth young woman who was supposed to have escaped police detection by climbing out of a woman. To the embarrassment of the police, they were found not guilty, and the case thrown out of court!

However, reason could not get in the way of confected moral outrage, and because the controversy came to the notice of political authorities, Clay and the band had their permits to stay in Australia cancelled by the Federal Government, effectively deporting him and his band and the Australian government resolved to bar the entry of all black musicians into the country.

Sonny Clay Evie Anderson

Shameful Treatment
Once the band returned to Sydney by train on 28th March 1928, their treatment can only be described as shameful. The Age reported that they received a "frigid reception". A large crowd gathered to see them arrive, and they were forced to trudge around the City for four hours carrying their bags in search of accommodation. Hotel doors were slammed in their face and it was not until 8pm before all had found a room. The American consul, Mr Lawton, had to intervene to defend them. "These are not bad people" he said, and that one of them had served with him in his regiment during World War One.

We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances ....
That night at a conference of the ruling Nationalist Party, former Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, seemed to endorse the practice of lynching black Americans who were perceived to have broken the colour bar when he told a cheering crowd:

Something had been said about the negroes leaving this country compulsorily on Saturday. Why, if they were in America and did the things they had done here, they would never be able to leave the country, the citizens would see to that! This bit of the world belonged to Australians. It was for them to say who should enter and who should not, ... He appealed to the party to stand for something very definite. Britons colonised Australia, and it was the right of Australians as their descendants of that stock to govern the country and develop it in the way they thought fit ... Unless the door were closed against undesirables now, it would never be closed, and Australia would experience the race problems which America had before her today.

Clay and the band left Sydney on the Sierra on Saturday 31st March 1928, never to return. Australia settled back into the cultural doldrums.

Clay's Later Years
Upon Clay's return to the United States, he held a residency at the Vernon County Club in Los Angeles, then broke up this band and formed a new one, which counted Teddy Buckner and Les Hite among its members. Clay played solo and led bands until 1941, when he enlisted in the US Army and was assigned as a member of the Special Services Division as a bandleader with the rank of Private. After the War, he returned to solo club work and then worked for the US Post Office as a piano tuner. (Apparently the US Post had enough pianos to attract a top musician piano tuner!) He resumed playing in clubs in the 1950s.

He died on April 10, 1973, in Los Angeles and was buried in Lincoln Memorial Park (Carson) memorial 122706922.

Clay's Children
Sonny Clay's son, William Roger Clay, was born 16th October 1919 in Phoenix, Arizona. Sonny Clay's daughter, Dorothy Clay, was born 12 February 1921 in Morenci, Arizona and tragically died a couple of months later on 29th April 1921. Her mother, and Sonny's wife, Verbena, died a few years later in 1924. So Sonny Clay was presumably left to raise his surviving young son. An obituary said that Clay "came to Los Angeles in the 1930s" so whether he was raised by Sonny or other relatives, or had further contact with his father is not stated. But William Clay had a successful life. After graduating from high school and junior college, he joined the US Army in 1940, served in the Southwest Pacific Theater in World War II and earned several medals, including the Bronze Star. Returning to Los Angeles after the war, he joined the LAPD in 1946 and rose to the rank of sergeant. He graduated from Southwestern University School of Law in 1956, was admitted to the State Bar in 1960, and practiced part-time before retiring from the police department in 1966. There followed a legal career in which he advanced through the law profession to become a Supreme Court Judge of California. When he died on 22 July 2005, twice married and widowed once , William Clay was survived by his second wife and two children.

Black Ban Continues until 1954 - Cultural Backwater
The ban on black musician performing in Australia kept the country in a back-water of musical innovation for a generation. The ban officially barred other black musicians from entering Australia until Louis Armstrong and the All Stars toured October 1954.

During World War Two, U.S. military authorities segregated American service personnel into black and white units, and Australians sometimes saw examples of American discrimatory practices that made Australian efforts seem mild. At the popular Stones' Milk Bar and Cafe caberet in Dolphin Street Coogee, for instance, white American servicemen objected to the arrival of black U.S. servicemen and a wild fight broke out between the two groups. The American Coloured Services Club was opened by the US Army in 1942 in historic Durham Hall at 207 Albion Street, Surry Hills for the entertainment of African American soldiers based in Sydney during WWII. It had a library, dining room, games room, writing room and dance floor. It was also patronised by aboriginal men and women as well as young white women. Some Australians found the atmosphere at the clube much more entertaining than elsewhere. There was no segregation at the Club which scandalised many and there were many protests held by locals to try to close down the club. It was initially run by an African American US Army sergeant and then taken over by African American Red Cross workers and they renamed it to the Booker T. Washington Club on 11 December 1943. Ironically, in a reversal of then normal roles , one of the bands that played there was called the Booker T's a group of white Australian jazz musicians.

However, as music historian Bruce Johnson noted, some black musicians did slip past the ban simply by not describing themselves as "Jazz" musicians and not mentioning their race. During World War Two, Australian jazz musicians made musical contact with musicians among black US servicemen stationed in Australia. In 1949, noted Australian Jazz bandleader, Graeme Bell (who, by the way, later became a Coogee resident) managed to sneak Duke Ellington's cornetist, Rex Jackson, into the country by simply not disclosing that he was black on communications with the government and the musicians' union. Nonetheless, Jackson was forced to perform as a soloist, near the band, and not part of it. He had to stand at least 60 centremetres in front of the band.

Ella Fitzgerald
In July 1954, Ella Fitzgerald (1917 - 1996), the "Queen of Jazz", was part of Australian-based American promoter Lee Gordon's first of his famous Big Show promotions. The tour also included Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw and comedian Jerry Colonna. Although the tour was a big hit with audiences and set a new box office record for Australia, it was marred by an incident of racial discrimination that caused Fitzgerald to miss the first two concerts in Sydney, and Gordon had to arrange two later free concerts to compensate ticket holders. Although the four members of Fitzgerald's entourage, Fitzgerald, her pianist John Lewis, her assistant (and cousin) Georgina Henry, and manager Norman Granz , all had first-class tickets on their scheduled Pan-American Airlines flight from Honolulu to Australia, they were ordered to leave the aircraft after they had already boarded and were refused permission to re-board the aircraft to retrieve their luggage and clothing. Left searching for hotel accommodation at midnight (shades of Sonny Clay's treatment in Sydney in 1928), they were stranded in Honolulu for three days before they could get another flight to Sydney. Although an Australian Pan-Am spokesperson denied that the incident was racially based, Fitzgerald, Henry, Lewis and Granz sued Pan-Am in Australia for $50,000 for racial discrimination in December 1954. In a 1970 television interview Fitzgerald confirmed that they had won the suit and received what she described as a "nice settlement".

End of the White Australia Policy
In 1966, the Harold Holt government effectively dismantled the White Australia policy and which allowed an increase in the numbers of non-European migrants. In 1973 the government of Gough Whitlam officially scrapped the racial discrimination aspects of immigration law. The 1975 Racial Discrimination Act made the use of racial criteria for any official purpose illegal. Since then, the history of Australian society has been one of ever-increasing ethnic and cultural diversity. But it is hard to escape history and a few mourn rather than celebrate the end of the policy. Over the decades, Australia has had a difficult relationship with musicians and artists from overseas who come with new ideas and who rock the cultural boat. A number of them, black and white, have been sent packing. Maybe that has been the point all along: fear of the new.


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  • Cassells, Kyla, 'Sex, scandal and speculation: White women, race and sexual desire in the colored idea scandal, 1928' [online]. Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, No. 19, 2013: 4-17.
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  • 'Ella Fitzgerald to Sing Here', The Newcastle Sun (NSW) Thu 29 Jul 1954, Page 23
  • 'Negress to claim £50,000' The Sun (Sydney) Mon 26 Jul 1954 Page 1
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