Clyde Doerr--Saxophone Pioneer & Leader of Club Royal Orchestra

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries


Doerr, Clyde (24 June 1894 - 2 August 1973)

In the 1920s this skilled musician helped popularize the saxophone through records, radio work, and public performances.

On July 28, 1970 he was interviewed by Cecil Leeson (1902-1989), a concert saxophonist who in the 1970s taped conversations with musicians who had been active a half century earlier.

Doerr recalled growing up in the small town of Coldwater, Michigan, and studying violin when he was eight. He took up saxophone in high school because a local Elks organization sponsored a minstrel show that included a saxophone artist who impressed Doerr. After playing in the Detroit area in a dance band, he attended the King Conservatory in San Jose, California, training as a concert violinist. An advertisement for Buescher band instruments on page 23 of the October 1921 issue of Metronome states that Doerr directed "a 32-piece Symphony Orchestra [in] San Jose, California."

Upon receiving his bachelor of music, he settled 60 miles north, in San Francisco. He was hired to play saxophone as part of a group in Techau's Tavern, "one of the show-places of San Francisco," according to the Buescher advertisement. Art Hickman heard Doerr here and invited him, in February 1919, to play alto saxophone in Hickman's outfit.

Doerr formed with fellow Hickman musician Bert Ralton perhaps the first saxophone section in a dance band. After establishing a following at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, the band traveled to New York in 1919 and enjoyed great success at the Biltmore Hotel. Doerr and Ralton play on Hickman's early Columbia records, including "Dance It Again With Me" (A2899) and "Rose of Mandalay," made on September 15, 1919 (A2917). Doerr made records with Hickman's band until early 1921 but received too many tempting offers from New York to remain on the West Coast. "I wasn't going to turn down any $400 a week," he told Leeson. According to Buescher advertisement, by October 1921 this "saxophone super-specialist" had "a contract with the Columbia Graphophone Company calling for his performance with every orchestra recording popular vocal or dance music for Columbia records." A photograph shows him standing with musicians in "one of the recording salons of the Columbia Graphophone Co. in the Gotham Bank Bldg., Broadway at 59th St., New York." He also began making records as a soloist.

The Buescher advertisement in Metronome states, "His technique is superb. He is a master of every feat of the tongue, and his records are absolutely free from the reed-smacks that mar the records of many saxophone artists. His vibrato records perfectly--not too fast for the recording needle, nor yet too slow, but just precisely perfect." It also establishes that his studio work was guided by E.N. Burns, identified as Columbia's vice president and recording chief at that time.

With Paul Whiteman's help, Doerr soon directed the Club Royal Orchestra, which entertained at New York City's Grand Central Theatre and elsewhere. Page 123 of the September 1922 issue of Talking Machine World actually uses the name Paul Whiteman's Club Royal Orchestra when referring to the dance band. The Club Royal was a nightclub owned by the Thompson brothers, who also operated the Palais Royal. When Whiteman toured England in 1923, Doerr's outfit substituted for Whiteman's at the Palais Royal though by this time the two orchestra leaders were no longer friendly.

His Club Royal Orchestra enjoyed success with its first record, Victor 18831, which features Albert Von Tilzer's "Dapper Dan" backed by Ted Snyder's "The Sheik." Both numbers were cut on November 2, 1921. "The Sheik," often known as "The Sheik of Araby" (it followed the success of Rudolph Valentino's movie The Sheik), became popular. Doerr told Leeson his relationship with Whiteman soon soured because Whiteman resented the success of that record. Doerr recalled in the 1970 interview that he, in turn, resented Whiteman's interference with Doerr's attempts to establish himself as a bandleader at the Congress Hotel in Chicago.

The Club Royal Orchestra recorded a couple dozen numbers for Victor in the next few months, the last session in July 1922. One of the last numbers was Nacio Herb Brown's "The Sneak!" (18921), possibly cut because the title is so similar to that of the band's biggest hit, "The Sheik." Around this time he was also making Victor and Columbia records under the name Clyde Doerr and His Orchestra.

Doerr was constantly engaged as a session man, playing most often for Victor groups led by Nat Shilkret, Rosario Bourdon, and others. He also played in groups assembled for radio work.

Beginning in late 1922 he led musicians in Chicago for two years at the Congress Hotel, owned by Harry Kaufman. Page 74 of the October 1922 issue of Metronome states that Doerr's orchestra "opens at the Hotel Congress, in Chicago, for the coming season. Clyde Doerr has severed all connections with the Club Royal, in New York, and will now take his own nine-piece orchestra into St. Louis for a week's vaudeville engagement...and from there to the Hotel Congress..."

Dissolving this band, he returned to New York to work mainly as a session man but he occasionally led groups at record sessions. Clyde Doerr's Saxophone Orchestra made its first record on November 5, 1925, for Columbia 507-D. He continued recording into the late 1920s for various labels--Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo, Edison. According to an obituary published in the San Mateo Times on August 7, 1973, he "wrote much music, including background music for early talkies."

He told Leeson, "I was lucky if I got 2 or 3 hours sleep a night sometimes. Get up in the morning, get in town for a 9 a.m. studio [session],...get out about 12:30 and grab a little sandwich, a little milk, take a taxi cab and hop over to the next studio...and then go up for an evening rehearsal in the studios and then the late broadcasts and then a lot of time go out and play all night at the Ritz or the Biltmore or somewhere like that....My heart finally gave out on me after 10 years. I had to knock it off. I quit for awhile. I had to take it easy." He also told Leeson that he lost $50,000 in the 1929 stock market crash.

Announcing the release of Doerr numbers on Diamond Disc 51989, promotional literature dated April 23, 1927, states, "Clyde Doerr is one of the finest saxophonists before the American public to-day. Always featured by the 'Goodrich Silvertown Cord Orchestra,' he is a strong favorite with radio audiences everywhere."

He left New York City in 1934 to conduct for the National Broadcasting Company in San Francisco but that work ended with a strike. He returned to New York City, worked as a musician, taught music to aspiring saxophonists, and went through four years of chiropractic school, eventually opening a chiropractic office (he did not pursue this career seriously, he later recalled). He left the city in 1943 to return to California. He lived with his sister in San Jose at first, unable to find housing, and worked for Schlage, the lock company. He took up precision tool room training to help in the war effort, eventually becoming chief inspection for precision grinding in an Oakland plant, doing that work into the 1970s. He also sold real estate, working for Butterfield and Butterfield Realtors in Foster City. Late in life he lived at 3050 Los Prados, San Mateo, California. He was survived by his wife Winifred.