Andy Kirk was never a major musician (in fact he never really soloed), arranger, or personality yet he was a successful big bandleader in the 1930s and ’40s. He started playing bass sax and tuba in Denver with George Morrison’s band in 1918. In 1925, he moved to Dallas where he played with Terrence Holder’s Dark Clouds of Joy. In 1929 he took over leadership of the band (which was renamed Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy) and moved to Kansas City.
During 1929-1930, they recorded some excellent hot performances with such players as pianist/arranger Mary Lou Williams, violinist Claude Williams, and trumpeter Edgar “Puddinghead” Battle. Surprisingly, Kirk’s Orchestra was off records entirely during 1931-1935, but in 1936 (the year it relocated to New York) it immediately had a pop hit in “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” featuring the high voice of singer Pha Terrell. In future years, such fine soloists as tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson, the early electric guitarist Floyd Smith, Don Byas, Harold “Shorty” Baker, Howard McGhee, (1942-1943), Jimmy Forrest, and even Fats Navarro and (briefly) Charlie Parker would be among Kirk’s sidemen.
However, Mary Lou Williams was the most important musician in the band, both as a soloist and as an arranger. In 1948, Andy Kirk broke up the band (which had recorded mostly for Decca) and in later years ran a hotel and served as an official in the Musicians’ Union. A lone “reunion” date in 1956 featured the classic charts but almost none of the original sidemen.