AMONG THE MORE INTRIGUING SONG-ORIGIN SAGAS associated with the Pacific Northwest, has got to be Jack McVea’s huge 1947 R&B hit, “Open The Door, Richard!” Formerly a tenor saxophonist with Lionel Hampton’s esteemed jazz band – & a contributor to the recording of their big 1942 hit “Flying Home” – McVea had gone on to form his own combo & hit the road.
Their tour-routes brought McVea through the Northwest on repeated occasions, playing various black-oriented nightspots including Seattle’s Washington Social Club (2302 E Madison Street) & Portland’s Dude Ranch (240 N Broadway) where they built up followings of fans who dug their jazz, jump blues, & early R&B. Such bands could also find work gigging on, or near, military bases by Tacoma, Moses Lake, & Vancouver, Washington.
In his 2005 book, Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz (1942-1957), historian Robert Dietsche reveals that McVea’s “act at the Dude was more entertainment than art, full of costumes and comedy routines. While he was playing at the Dude and the Vancouver Barracks, he wrote or actually compiled his biggest hit and one of the best-selling records of the decade, ‘Open The Door Richard!’”
The reason McVea is credited with having “compiled” the song is that – original tune aside – the lyrics (or comedic spoken-word storyline) were based on an old, African-American vaudeville routine. McVea & his band simply revived that stage act, and boosted it with a good rhythm & classic riff. The plot, in short, has the rowdy and inebriated band-members all arriving at home one night in the wee hours, and realizing that while they are locked out, their pal “Richard” is inside sleeping. Much hollering, door-knocking, & general tomfoolery results in a fair amount of low-brow humor.
Recorded by Jack McVea and His Allstars in October 1956 for the cool Los Angeles-based Black & White Records company, the song (with a composer credit of: “McVea-Clarke”) began to get considerable plays on tavern jukeboxes and a few black-oriented radio programs. But when 1947 began, a frenzy suddenly erupted and all sorts of labels and artists produced their own competitive renditions of “Open The Door, Richard!”
A version on National Records by pianist Clinton “Dusty” Fletcher (with Jimmy Jones and his Band) was, on January 31, 1947, the first one to hit Billboard magazine’s Best Seller chart. Tellingly, the disc not only gives composer credit to “Fletcher,” but also – in a manner exuding territorialistic sensitivity about the topic – also asserts that his recording is “By the Originator.”
Next came the Count Basie Orchestra’s disc for RCA Victor (with a composer credit of: “McVea-Clarke) which charted on February 7 and soared to the No. 1 slot; then McVea’s disc hit Billboard on February 14, eventually peaking out at the No. 7 slot; that same day the Three Flames disc for Columbia Records (with a composer credit of: “McVea-F. Clark-Howell”) hit Billboard, peaking at No. 4; then came Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five’s foxtrot version for Decca Records (with a composer credit of: “Jack McVea-Dan Howell-‘Dusty’ Fletcher-John Mason”) debuted in Billboard on March 7, peaking at No. 7. Finally, a version by Walter Brown (and the Tiny Grimes Sextet) was issued by Signature Records (with a composer credit of: “McVea-Clark-Howell”) – though about a dozen additional recordings of the tune would soon follow.
When the Duchess Music Corporation published and marketed sheet music for the song in 1947, it listed these credits: “Words by ‘Dusty’ Fletcher and John Mason / Music by Jack McVea and Dan Howell.” Makes one ponder who all these Clarke, Clark, Mason, and Howell dudes were...maybe song-publishing / music biz lawyers? Regardless, with all this action going on it is no wonder that lawsuits broke out over the song’s theoretically lucrative authorship.
In the end, it was Fletcher who won rights to the song – but it was McVea’s disc that earned credit for a couple significant achievements. Historians believe that it was the very first recording to feature a purposeful fade-out ending, and – because various other artists recorded thematically responsive novelty songs, such as Stepin Fetchit’s “Richard’s Answer (I Ain’t Gonna Open That Door)” for Apollo Records – “Open The Door, Richard!” is noted for having sparked the fad of producing so-called “answer songs.”
Meanwhile, when McVea’s band returned to Seattle in 1948 they performed at Sy Groves’ Washington Social Club. Paul deBarro’s 1993 jazz history book, Jackson Street Afterhours, quotes local jazz bassist, Wyatt “Bull” Ruther, recalling that during this period: “If you couldn’t play the blues, you couldn’t play in Seattle. That was during the time when the smaller bands would be patterning themselves after Louis Jordan’s band. There was Jack McVea and his ‘Open The Door, Richard.’ Everybody did that one. You had to entertain.”
The trio that was hired to open this 1948 McVea show was new on the Seattle scene, having just been formed by two cats fresh in town from the south – guitarist Garcia McKee & a blind young pianist/singer, Ray Robinson – who’d hired a bassist, Milt Garred, through Seattle’s “Negro Musicians’ Union” AFM Local # 493. McVea was quite impressed by the Maxin Trio & later, when back in Los Angeles, he mentioned them to black record executive, Jack Lauderdale. Long-story-short, within weeks Lauderdale raced up to Seattle, heard the trio, quickly took them into a downtown studio, & produced what would be the very first bluesy disc ever cut in Seattle and released commercially – “Confession Blues” – which was issued on his Down Beat label. By ’49 Lauderdale was convinced that it was the singer he really wanted to work with, & after the young musician adopted his first and middle names as a new stage name – Ray Charles – he went on to global fame as the “Genius of Soul.” For his part, McVea carried on, recording for Black & White, and touring the “chitlin’ circuit” with his newly renamed band: Jack McVea & His Door Openers.