Clay Smith was born in 1878 in Greencastle, Indiana. His first documented musical activity involved playing E-flat cornet solos for exhibits at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At some point he became proficient on the saxophone and trombone, which seems to have been his primary instrument for most of his career. His teachers included Alfred F. Weldon, Gardell Simons, and Hale A. VanderCook. He performed with several famous bands, such as the bands of Hi Henry’s Minstrels, Wallace Brothers Circus, the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and the Ringling Brothers Circus. He was also featured trombone soloist at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair with Phinney’s Band.
With Guy E. Holmes, Smith formed the Apollo Concert Company, which toured on a vaudeville circuit. About 1914, he organized the Smith, Spring, and Holmes Concert Company, which made several recordings and toured Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits. Smith and Holmes collaborated on many compositions and arrangements for various instruments.
From all accounts, Smith was an accomplished and virtuoso trombone soloist. Many of his works reflect a need for technical and lyrical proficiency. Unlike Arthur Pryor, Leo Zimmerman, and other contemporaries who “headlined” as soloists with the major touring concert bands of the day, Smith spent most of his career on the Chautauqua and theatre circuits. It would appear that Chicago served as his home for at least the latter part of his life. He died there in 1930.