Clay was born in Waxhaw, Mississippi to a musical family, who moved in 1953 to Muncie, Indiana. After singing with local gospel group, the Voices of Hope, he returned to Mississippi to sing with the Christian Travelers, before settling in Chicago in 1957. There, he joined a series of gospel vocal groups including the Golden Jubilaires, the Famous Blue Jay Singers, the Holy Wonders, and the Pilgrim Harmonizers, before making his first solo secular recordings in 1962. They were unissued, and Clay joined the Gospel Songbirds, who recorded in Nashville in 1964 and who also included Maurice Dollison who sang R&B under the name Cash McCall, and then the Sensational Nightingales.
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