More than one genre of music was responsible for making the saxophone one of the most popular instruments in America, a fact that the fans of jazz heavyweights often overlook. Clyde Doerr's tireless performing in the '20s, live as well as on radio and records, was a gush of hot water into the relaxing bath of popular music associated with this family of instruments. Coldwater was the name of the town he grew up in, appropriately located in Michigan. The musical Doerr opened with violin at the age of eight but he switched to saxophone in high school. The stimulus was, as would be the case with many a budding reedman, seeing someone else playing the instrument live. In Doerr's case this was a sax soloist in a minstrel show.
He began working professionally in a Detroit dance band, then continued his formal studies on violin at King Conservatory in San Jose. He was soon written up in Metronome for his work conducting a 32-piece ensemble. His was a career that lurched between academia and the swinging night life, a bit like a cable car going up and down a steep hill in Doerr's new home of San Francisco. His Bachelor of Music degree and violin were collecting dust by 1919 while he blew saxophone in a combo at Techau's Tavern. This was where the superb bandleader Art Hickman heard Doerr one night, leading to an invitation to join Hickman's outfit. Doerr met Bert Ralton in this band and the two playing partners established an historic saxophone section.
Hickman took the group to New York City after conquering the Bay Area music scene. The Biltmore Hotel was happy to host this ensemble phenomenon and recording began at Columbia; the team of Doerr and Ralton are featured on sides such as the repetitive "Dance It Again with Me" and the attractive "Rose of Mandalay." "I wasn't going to turn down any $400 a week," Doerr later told the writer Clyde Leeson, also a saxophonist, about the decision to quit Hickman and stick in New York City. The salary had apparently been offered to Doerr by Columbia if he agreed to play a saxophone solo on "every orchestra recording popular vocal or dance music" for the label. He also began making records as a soloist, apparently not mindful that his discography was swelling like a bloated lung.
Commended in the music press for his stellar vibrato as well as the blissful lack of something referred to as "reed-smacks," the saxophonist began directing the prestigious Club Royal Orchestra thanks to an assist from Paul Whiteman. The Victor label catalog number 18831 was apparently the one to get from this outfit, coupling "Dapper Dan" with "The Sheik of Araby" to cash in on the success of the Rudolph Valentino movie hit of the era. This record was such a smash that former booster Whiteman lost interest in the friendship and a nasty rivalry began. Other superb records followed in the Victor contract including "The Sneak!," meanwhile Doerr also cooked up Clyde Doerr & His Orchestra sides for both Victor and Columbia. Bandleaders such as Nat Shilkret and Rosario Bourdon were also throwing sessions his way, providing they could find him.
By the mid-'20s, Doerr had tried basing his band in the Midwest, then returned to New York City to continue playing at sessions, with a somewhat slower cycle of solo releases. The first record by Clyde Doerr's Saxophone Orchestra was released in late 1925. Doerr continued recording through the decade for the Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo, and Edison labels. Out of this period came a good deal of music written for early sound films.
In the '30s he worked as a conductor for the San Francisco NBC affiliate, eventually returning east. Complaining of two many nights with only two hours of sleep, Doerr lightened his freelance load and also began teaching music. His activities in the following decades represent more of a struggle. He went through four years of chiropractic school, opened his own chiropractic office, but apparently could not focus on this type of business. In 1943 he was crashing with his sister in San Jose and working for a lock company. A new career loomed ahead, coinciding with the ongoing war. He went through precision tool room training and rose to chief inspector for precision grinding in an Oakland plant. While that might not sound as much fun as playing on alto obbligato on "The Sneak!," it did keep him employed into the '70s. Perhaps inspired by Col. Bruce Hampton, Doerr also began a new career selling real estate.