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Jack McVea: Age 86
December 27, 2000




 

 
Jack McVea
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NY TIMES

       
Jack McVea, Bandleader With a Noteworthy Novelty Hit, Dies at 86

By BEN RATLIFF

 

Jack McVea, a tenor saxophonist and bandleader who was a writer of the 1947 novelty hit "Open the Door, Richard," died on Dec. 27 in Los Angeles. He was 86.

Mr. McVea started out playing ukulele in a band led by his father, the banjoist Isaac (Satchel) McVea, who was the first black radio host in Los Angeles, with an early-1920's show on KNX called "The Optimistic Doughnut."

Jack McVea graduated from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, which at the time was producing a number of important jazz musicians, including Dexter Gordon, Melba Liston and Ernie Royal.

He worked in the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue in Los Angeles, where jazz sizzled in the 1940's, played with Eddie Barefield's big band, and by 1940 had begun a three-year stint with Lionel Hampton as a baritone saxophonist. In 1944 he took part in the first presentation of Jazz at the Philharmonic, the popular touring revue produced by the impresario Norman Granz.

Mr. McVea's place in the history of American music was determined largely by two events, one popular and one obscure. One was his role in creating "Open the Door, Richard," a song based on a comedy routine by the entertainers Dusty Fletcher and John Mason, who performed it in black theaters in the 1930's. Mr. McVea, along with Fletcher, Mason and Dan Howell, changed the words of the routine to eliminate racial stereotyping and set them to a rhythm-and-blues melody.

Mr. McVea had the first hit version of the song in 1947. Other recordings followed almost immediately: by Fletcher, by Count Basie and finally by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five.

The success of the song ensured Mr. McVea work with his band around the country for the next several years, after which he became a sideman for hire, working briefly for MGM and leading a band in Las Vegas.

The other milestone in his career was his participation in a slight but memorable studio jam-session track, "Slim's Jam," recorded with Slim Gaillard and Charlie Parker, when Parker was playing on the West Coast in 1945.

In the record's jokey routine — released under Gaillard's name on the small Bel-Tone label but reissued regularly since because of the evergreen interest in Parker — Gaillard, with his loopy sense of humor, introduced Mr. McVea as "Jack MacVouty," and Mr. McVea proceeded to play a sweet, economical and archetypal rhythm-and-blues solo.

In 1966 he started working at Disneyland, hired by Walt Disney himself, playing clarinet with the Royal Street Bachelors band in the theme park's New Orleans Square. He kept the job for 27 years, retiring in 1992.

Mr. McVea is survived by two daughters, Lyta McVea-Abdullah of Los Angeles and Jacqueline Grant of Rolling Hills, Calif.; a son, Robert L. McVea of Hawthorne, Calif.; 10 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

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All-Music Guide

Jack McVea will always be most famous for his big hit "Open the Door, Richard." Although associated with the R&B world due to that 1946 bestseller, McVea was actually a swing stylist whose fairly mellow sound was a major contrast to the honking tenors of the time. He started out playing banjo as a youth (1925-27) before switching to alto. McVea began playing professionally with his father (banjoist Satchel McVea), Dootise Williams' Harlem Dukes (1932), Charlie Echols (1934-35), Claude Kennedy, Edyth Turnham, Cee Pee Johnson and Eddie Barefield (1936). McVea mostly gigged in the Los Angeles area until joining Lionel Hampton in 1940 as a baritonist. He was with Hamp for three years and played with Snub Mosley, but McVea made a much stronger impression when he played on the first Jazz at the Philharmonic Concert. From 1944 on, McVea led his own group most of the time. He appeared on a Slim Gaillard record date in 1945 that included Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and was quite popular from 1946-48 after "Open the Door, Richard" became a novelty hit. In the 1950s McVea had a lower profile, continuing to lead his own combo in the Los Angeles area and gigging with Benny Carter in 1956. McVea recorded as a leader for Rhythm, Melodisc, Apollo, Black & White and Exclusive from 1945-47 and for Combo and Ace from 1953-55. He also recorded a jazz album for 77 in 1962. From 1966 until the mid-1980s, McVea led a Dixieland-oriented trio at Disneyland, playing clarinet exclusively. When the Disneyland job ended, he retired from music. Jack McVea died in Los Angeles on December 27, 2000.Scott Yanow

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