Jimmy “Kid” Clayton was a New Orleans trumpet player during the heyday of traditional jazz.
Known best for his heavily blues-influenced performance style, James “Kid” Clayton was a New Orleans blues, traditional jazz, and brass band trumpeter. Clayton relocated from Mississippi to New Orleans at an early age and went on to become a skilled player of New Orleans-style blues. He was considered to be one of the greatest trumpeters of his time, but his lifelong struggle with alcohol addiction made him a highly inconsistent performer. Despite these troubles, Clayton’s own group, Kid Clayton and His Happy Pals, enjoyed many successful years.
Clayton was born in Jasper County, Mississippi, on March 2, 1902. In 1905, when “Jimmie” was just three years old, his family relocated to New Orleans. While little is known about his early life, it is clear that he received some formal musical training from the highly regarded musician and teacher “Professor” Jim Humphrey, patriarch of a famous family of jazz musicians that included his grandsons, brothers Percy and Willie Humphrey.
From an early age, Clayton began playing with a number of rough neighborhood bands in New Orleans’s Uptown area, including a band with the Humphrey brothers in 1917. In the early 1920s, Clayton joined Jack Carey’s group, an ensemble often credited with originating the band version of “Tiger Rag.” During the remainder of the 1920s, Clayton toured with several bands, including a tour to Chicago with the vaudeville group (Bill and Mary) Mack’s Merrymakers in 1922. Upon returning to New Orleans, Jimmie formed his own group: Kid Clayton and His Happy Pals. From 1925 through the early 1930s, the Happy Pals had a standing gig at the Hummingbird Cabaret, a popular New Orleans nightclub. As the Great Depression dried up many opportunities for musicians, Clayton joined a federally supported band in the Works Progress Administration (WPA). After World War II he played with a number of pick-up bands and served as a replacement player with many ensembles at venues like Happy Landing and Mama Lou’s.
It is with the Happy Pals that Clayton was first recorded as a lead instrumentalist by Alden Ashford and David Wyckoff in 1952, an event widely referred to as the first Kid Clayton session. This recording also featured Joe “Kid” Avery on trombone, Albert Burbank on clarinet, “Sweet” Emma Barrett on piano, George Guesnon on tenor banjo, Sylvester Handy on bass, and Alec Bigard on drums. In the early 1950s, Clayton also performed in a band led by Harold Dejan at Mama Lou’s. Another Happy Pals session—this one recorded by Ken Mills in 1962—was released on Mill’s Icon recording label. The songs “Jimmy’s Blues,” “Shake It and Break It,” and “Sheik of Araby,” a standard that would be recorded by The Beatles in the same year, were all standard numbers in the Happy Pals repertoire.
Kid Clayton’s cover of “Corrine, Corrina” is included in the 2010 Classic Sounds of New Orleans compilation from Smithsonian Folkways.
Clayton died on December 17, 1963.