GREENSBORO — Aaron Clay has played bass guitar on tours with such artists as Johnny Gill, Jill Scott, CeeLo Green and Parliament-Funkadelic.
He has played in Madison Square Garden in New York, the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and the Greensboro Coliseum. He has toured Australia, Japan and Africa.
On Oct. 25, the Greensboro native will relish another career high point.
He will play bass with R&B singer Gill at the alumni homecoming concert for his alma mater, N.C. A&T, at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro.
“That’s truly amazing, to be able to play at my own homecoming, in the city where I’m from,” Clay said.
Now 45, Clay has toured as part of Gill’s band for a decade.
Before that, he subbed for five years as bass player with New Edition when Gill performed with that R&B-pop group.
It’s a gig that Clay loves.
“I used to listen to his stuff all the time,” he said of Gill. “I was a huge New Edition fan, a huge Johnny Gill fan.”
Clay spoke from Atlanta, where he moved in 1994. When he isn’t on the road, he returns there to direct music at his church and to perform locally.
He comes to the Triad on holidays to visit parents James and Lynn Clay in Staley, brother Artis Jude Clay in Greensboro and sister Maria Clay when she visits from Washington. He’ll be sure to see them during A&T’s “Greatest Homecoming on Earth.”
It was his father, a bass guitarist himself, who taught Aaron at age 9 how to play bass.
When his father took him to a Michael Jackson concert at the Greensboro Coliseum, he was hooked.
“When I saw that concert, and I saw that bass player playing, and I could hear the bass all through the coliseum, I told my dad, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to do music for a living,’ ” he said.
By age 13, he was playing paid gigs with 18- to 20-year-olds.
His father insisted that his son also play trumpet in a concert band, so that he could learn to read notes. He joined the concert band at Lincoln Middle School.
“I was so glad my dad did that,” Clay said. “That’s how he helped me get a scholarship to A&T.”
He played first chair trumpet in Dudley High School’s band. Johnny B. Hodge Jr., A&T’s band director, took notice.
Hodge arranged for a scholarship to A&T and recruited Clay to lead trumpets in its marching band.
At the same time, Clay played bass guitar for local artists and church choirs.
He also played keyboard and drums, and performed in A&T’s orchestra, jazz band and gospel band.
“Sometimes those gigs with the jazz band would conflict with band practice with Dr. Hodge,” Clay recalled. “I chose the marching band because he had me on scholarship,” he added with a chuckle.
He planned to teach music as a profession.
But after 2½ years at A&T, Clay decided to try his talent in Atlanta.
“If I fell on my face, I promised my mom and my grandmother that I would come back and finish and teach,” Clay said.
He chose bass over trumpet, aiming to improve his music-reading skills on bass.
“You play with 20 artists, and they don’t have time for you to learn the music by ear,” Clay said. “They hand the sheet music out, and we’re starting right here.”
The Atlanta Institute of Music in Norcross, Ga., accepted him. Gig opportunities blossomed.
He went on his first tour with Parliament-Funkadelic — ironically, playing trumpet.
But the bass player got sick, and Clay finished the tour on bass.
“Doing that major tour like that, I was in demand from that point on,” he said.
Hip-hop group Goodie Mob asked him to go on tour. CeeLo Green led that group, leading Clay to tour with Green. Tours with Jill Scott followed, including a 2001 stop at the coliseum’s Special Events Center.
Clay toured with Green for five years, also performing with such artists as Eric Benét, Chaka Khan and Monica.
When he heard Clay perform with Rachelle Ferrell, Gill’s music director asked him to accompany Gill to Cleveland the next week.
Gill asked Clay to go with New Edition to Amsterdam — the next day.
“I wasn’t going to say ‘no,’” Clay said. That night, back in his hotel, he learned 40 songs for New Edition.
It led to performances with artists including Bel Biv DeVoe.
“I actually got a lot of work from playing with Johnny, because he knows so many people,” Clay said.
Last year, Clay performed with Gill at the Greensboro Coliseum.
At A&T’s homecoming, Clay had hoped to march in its Oct. 26 parade with fraternity brothers in the alumni band, as he did one year.
But not this year. Instead, he will be flying to Texas on parade day for the next show with Gill.
But while he’s here, Clay said, “I’m definitely going to be having some fun.”