Clay Boland Jr. C’53 is usually skeptical about such things. Yet even as he was recording his improvised versions of the songs for The Gypsy in My Soul: Romantic Songs from the Big Band Years, he couldn’t shake the strange feeling that they were being channeled through him.
On one level, that’s not too surprising. After all, the songs were all written by his father, Clay Boland D’26, and many of them had been written for Mask and Wig shows of the 1930s and ’40s. The younger Boland had been brought up hearing them as they were being written and performed; by the time he was five he was accompanying his father to Mask and Wig rehearsals. “I can safely say I knew them by heart before I ever learned how to play them,” he says.
The senior Boland was a self-taught pianist from Olyphant, Pennsylvania, who worked his way through college and wrote his first hit—“Dreary Weather,” which is on The Gypsy in My Soul—while still a student in the School of Dental Medicine. Despite his obvious talent, the younger Boland notes, “he decided to establish a dental practice in Philadelphia rather than risk the insecurity of a songwriting career”—a decision whose practical wisdom looked even wiser when the Great Depression started. Despite that choice, he still managed to write more than 500 songs, of which roughly 125 were published.
A number of the songs he wrote for Mask and Wig shows during the late 1930s and early ’40s—with Bickley Reichner or Moe Jaffe W’23 L’26 usually penning the lyrics—were performed and recorded by such Big Band giants as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller. Boland continued his songwriting during World War II and the Korean War while serving as an officer in the Navy Dental Reserve, and spent his last years in New York, writing music for a Cotton Club Revue and for musicals that he hoped would be produced on Broadway. He died in 1963.
“My father was also my jazz piano teacher and songwriting mentor,” says Clay Jr., whose own songwriting career began at age 13 when he penned the theme song for a Philadelphia radio station. At Penn he contributed songs to the fall and freshman shows of Mask and Wig, where he was in the dancing chorus. But after graduating from the College in 1953, he decided not to follow the practical career path his father had chosen. Instead, he says, “I went to New York City to follow my bliss and write the Great American Musical.”
He may not have achieved that, but during his 15 years in New York he wrote the words and music for two summer stock productions—Clarence and New Bridge A-Coming—and wrote review material for Tamiment Playhouse, as well as the words and music for a number of other musicals.
After getting married and starting a family, the Boland practical streak kicked in. He went back to school, did all his master’s and doctoral work but the dissertation at City College and City University of New York, began teaching in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and later joined the faculty of Colorado Mountain College, where he played for many of its musical-theater productions and in numerous jazz and classical concerts.
Since retiring, in addition to The Gypsy in My Soul, Boland has recorded 10 solo piano CDs, including a pair of Gershwin compilations (Our Love Is Here to Stay and Love Walked In) and two albums of well-known love songs, As Time Goes By and It Had to Be You. To paraphrase the title of one of the tracks from The Gypsy in My Soul, he has lived the life he loves. —S.H.