Born John Vivian McVea, 5 November 1914, Los Angeles, California
Died 27 December 2000, Los Angeles, California

Saxophonist, clarinettist, vocalist, bandleader.

Jack McVea will always be famous for his big hit "Open the Door, Richard", which he co-wrote and turned into a craze that swept the USA in 1947.

Born into a musical family, McVea started out playing banjo as a youth (1925-1927) before switching to the saxophone in high school. He played in his father's dance band, went on his own in 1932 and played in various L.A. bands. During a three-year stint as a baritone saxophonist in Lionel Hampton's band, he was present on Hampton's seminal 1941 recording of "Flying Home", now considered to be the first rhythm and blues hit. McVea also led the combo, including Nat 'King' Cole and Les Paul, that performed at the first Jazz At The Philharmonic concert in downtown Los Angeles in 1944. The next year he recorded with Slim Gaillard in a lineup that included Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

McVea picked up "Open the Door, Richard" from comedian Dusty Fletcher when the two were touring together on the chitlin circuit. It was a well-known vaudeville routine in black theatres, which McVea developed into a song. Writing credit went to four people : Dusty Fletcher and John Mason (words), Jack McVea and Don Howell (music). [Actually, Don Howell didn't exist, the publisher got an extra slice.] The version by McVea (Black and White 792) is the original one, but he faced competition from countless other versions, seven of which charted:

Count Basie : # 1 pop, # 2 R&B
The Three Flames : # 1 pop, # 3 R&B
Dusty Fletcher : # 3 pop, # 2 R&B
Jack McVea : # 3 pop, # 2 R&B
Louis Jordan : # 6 pop, # 2 R&B
The Charioteers : # 6 pop
The Pied Pipers : # 8 pop.

All in 1947. In the pre-rock & roll days, it was not unusual for a song to chart in many different versions ; it was the song that mattered then, not so much the performer. Rock 'n' roll fans will probably be most familiar with the song via the version of Ernie Barton (Phillips International 3541), which has also been credited to Billy Riley. According to the Sun Records Discography by Escott & Hawkins, Riley recorded a version of "Open the Door Richard" on November 25, 1957 (over a year before the Barton session), but it now appears that if Billy Riley ever recorded a version of "Richard" at Sun, the tapes haven't survived. The fact that Barton's record has never been seen by Sun collectors (and probably was never released) adds to the mystery. To confuse matter more, Riley has never suggested that the version issued under his name was not his. I'd like to hear a Riley expert like Tony Wilkinson on the subject. Whose voice is it?

McVea's band also performed "Open the Door, Richard" in the film "Sarge Goes To College" (1947). There was also a country version by Hank Penny, an orchestral version by Ted Heath, and recordings in Spanish, Swedish and Yiddish. It was the biggest hit of the year, until the riff was so familiar that WOR in New York City banned it, along with Richard jokes.
The follow-up, "The Key's in the Mailbox", by Jack McVea and his Door Openers, flopped. McVea was quite popular during the late Forties, but had a lower profile in the 1950s. He played on T-Bone Walker's classic "Stormy Monday Blues" on Black and White. As a bandleader, he also worked with Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris and Gene and Eunice. For a time he was the West Coast A&R man for Apollo Records. In 1954-55 he recorded for Jake Porter's Combo ; his best recordings from that period have been released on the Ace compilation "Honk! Honk! Honk! " in 2000 (Ace 781). In 1962, Jack McVea gave up the saxophone to play clarinet in a strolling Dixieland band at Disneyland, where he stayed until his retirement in the early 1990s. He succumbed to cancer at the age of 86.

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