The Count Basie Orchestra wasn’t the only band to emerge from the Kansas City scene in 1936. Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy, featuring arrangements by Mary Lou Williams, reached national prominence at that time as well.
Kirk grew up in Denver and studied music with Wilberforce Whiteman, father of famed bandleader Paul Whiteman. When he was old enough he began working in local bands most notably the George Morrison Orchestra. In 1926 he moved to Chicago where he regularly heard Earl Fatha Hines and Louis Armstrong with Erskine Tate’s Orchestra at the Vendome. That experience had a big impact on him.
After that he moved to Dallas and joined Terrance “T” Holder and his Dark Clouds of Joy.
In 1927 Holder re-located the band to Tulsa and began adding stronger arrangements and added two musicians who would become key figures in the bands success. Claude Williams, who played both violin and guitar and saxophonist John Williams out of Memphis. The following year Holder was voted out of his own band for shady dealings with the finances.
Andy Kirk was elected leader. One of the first things he did was drop the “dark” from the Clouds of Joy name making it Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy. In 1929 Kirk moved the band to Kansas City and played the entire summer at the Pla-Mor Ballroom. The Kirk band also took part in the 1929 Brunswick recording sessions that happened in the fall. It was at the audition and subsequent sessions that Mary Lou Williams took on a significant role with the band playing piano and writing new arrangements.
Although several bands were recorded by Brunswick at those sessions, Kapp was most impressed with Kirk and especially Mary Lou Williams. They ended up recording 8 titles with the band. 6 as Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy and 2 as John Williams and His Memphis Stompers.
Kapp liked what they did so much that he signed them to a two year contract with Brunswick. They recorded several times over the next two years and established somewhat of a reputation. They also began touring regularly including a long stint at the Roseland Ballroom in New York.
After the contract ran out in 1931 the band continued to work out of Kansas City as their home base.
In 1935 Kirk added tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson to the band which adds an important solo voice. Wilson was in the league of the other Kansas City tenor greats but never really got the recognition that he deserved. Also at that time Kirk wanted to regain the national reputation that they had enjoyed earlier in the decade and contacted Jack Kapp who had just started Decca Records.
Kapp signed them to Decca and brought them to New York to begin recording. Once again, Mary Lou Williams started adding new material to the book and the band starts to really take on a new swinging identity. This includes classics such as "Walkin and Swingin," "The Lady Who Swings the Band," "Keep it in the Groove" and "A Mellow Bit of Rhythm."
At first, Kapp and Kirk clashed in the studio because Kapp wanted to do more ballads and novelties and Kirk wanted to swing. One compromise was the recording of “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” with vocalist Pha Terrell. The recording became a huge hit and launched them into stardom.
It was time for them to leave Kansas City and hit the big time but they had several previous engagements locally. Kirk made sure they stayed in town until all the contracts were fulfilled. After that, they followed the Basie band out of Kansas City and into the national spotlight.