Today’s popular catch phrases--Joan’s “Can we talk?” and Billy’s “You look mah velous,” et al.--have largely been drummed into our consciousness via TV. But in 1947, everyone was swept by a piece of nonsense recorded 40 years ago last month by a Los Angeles R&B; musician named Jack McVea.
Like other such phrases, “Open the door, Richard” made no sense unless you were in on the joke, and once it had played itself out, the public quickly forgot what all the fuss was about. When was the last time you heard someone say “Yes, we have no bananas”?
McVea has been playing clarinet for the last 20 years with the Royal Street Bachelors, a three-piece strolling minstrel band at Disneyland. “I hardly ever perform it anymore,” he said during an interview at his Los Angeles home. “There hasn’t been much call for ‘Open the Door, Richard.’ ”
McVea had already figured prominently in L.A.'s important but underrated jazz and R&B; scene when his record became a national sensation.
Born in 1914, the son of local bandleader Isaac McVea, he learned the saxophone in high school and graduated straight into a house band at the Club Alabam, Central Avenue’s hottest nitery. During a three-year stint with Lionel Hampton’s band, he blew baritone sax behind tenorist Illinois Jacquet on Hampton’s 1942 recording of “Flying Home,” a primary influence on postwar rhythm and blues.
Two years later he was a featured performer at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in downtown Los Angeles. He also recorded with Charlie Parker and Slim Gaillard at a famous Hollywood jam session.
While touring with Hampton’s band, McVea frequently worked with a black comic named Dusty Fletcher.
“I knew his act backwards,” McVea remembered. “We’d play his introduction, then he’d come out on stage and (do his) monologue.
“He was supposed to be drunk. He had this routine, he came home and knocked on the door and said, ‘Open the door, Richard.’ When that didn’t work, he’d bring out a ladder and he’d climb up--balancing it straight up--fussing and carrying on: ‘Open that door, Richard!’ He never did get inside. He’d finally climb back down and stagger off with his ladder, and we’d fade him out.”
A few years later, in 1946, McVea was leading his own small band when he sat down one night in Oregon and fashioned Fletcher’s skit into a song.
“That simple melody just came to me. Then we added some business, like the lady across the street looking through her window at us.” In late September, during his band’s first session for Black & White Records in Hollywood, McVea recorded “Open the Door, Richard.”
“It was our eighth song--we were doing a double session and we stuck it in at the end,” he said.
In the song, minimal instrumentation backs McVea and his band as they come home late at night after “Richard went home early, he’s got the only key to the house.”
Repeated knocking and calls from members of the band fail to bring Richard to the door. The neighbors begin to stir. McVea knows Richard’s in there because “I can hear him breathing,” but as the song fades away the guys are still pounding on the door.
The record caught on immediately. Victor Records rushed Count Basie’s band into the studio to record it. An independent label called National found Dusty Fletcher, who had retired in the South, and recorded his old act using McVea’s arrangement.
Louis Jordan, the top name in black music at the time, cut a version for Decca. By March, 1947, five different recordings by black artists had climbed onto Billboard’s “race” chart, and Basie’s version of “Open the Door, Richard” went to No. 1 on the pop chart.
“The song landed us on Bing Crosby’s radio show,” McVea said. “We gave him a line to do, and that just broke him up. (Crosby recorded the song for Decca, but it was never released). Then we did Art Linkletter’s show.”
On other radio programs, such as Jack Benny’s and Fred Allen’s, “Open the door, Richard” became a sure-fire gag line. What was Richard doing in there? The sexual implications naturally boosted the song’s popularity. Stores began selling Richard pins, Richard bracelets, even Richard shirts. And everyone with the name Richard suffered constant ribbing.
Thanks to singer Hank Penny, the song crossed over into country music. The Pied Pipers did a watered-down rendition for middle-class whites. Ted Heath’s orchestra had a European hit. “Open the Door, Richard” even broke the language barrier with the release of Swedish, French, Spanish and Yiddish versions.
McVea’s band embarked on a national tour. “By the time we reached the East Coast, all the other acts that covered ‘Richard’ were being booked just ahead of us. Folks back there thought we had covered the song!”
McVea guesses that his own original recording “sold well over a million,” but he claims he saw little money. When National Records instituted a lawsuit to claim Dusty Fletcher’s composer’s royalties, lawyers for a 1920s comic named John Mason came forward with the claim that Fletcher had originally taken the skit from him.
Said McVea: “It stayed in court for two years. When they were done with it, the song had four writers: me, Fletcher, John Mason, and a dummy name the publisher put in there to cut into our royalties. The lawyers took their chunk. I finally got about $3,700!”
By mid-summer the Richard bug had run its course. One radio station, WOR in New York City, reflected public backlash against Richard gags and songs by banning them. A dozen “answer” records--McVea’s among them--flopped. Everybody was sick and tired of hearing about Richard.
McVea went on with his career and backed up such top talent as T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris, Joe Turner and Gene & Eunice. He made his last recordings in 1962. “I haven’t touched my horn (saxophone) in over 10 years,” he said.
But the recent release of two albums of Jack McVea’s early music by a Swedish label has rekindled interest in his work.
“More and more people keep coming up to me at the park (Disneyland) to talk about my records, especially ‘Open the Door, Richard,’ ” he said. “It’s always nice to be remembered.”