Jimmy McPhail was possessed of a voice that was just right for ballads. While never particularly famous, he could be considered a kind of tenor Billy Eckstine. Although he'd work a lot with Duke Ellington over the years, he always balanced teaching and music.
James Ellis McPhail, Jr. was born on January 19, 1928 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. However, when he was only a few months old, his family moved to Washington, DC.
Jimmy was the son of Blanche Riddick and James Ellis McPhail, Sr. His father's name on Jimmy's birth record was James, although he usually called himself "Ellis". He was "Ellis" in censuses; on his WW2 draft registration; and when he was drafted in February 1944. However, in DC City Directories, it varied between "James" and "Ellis" (there are listings for both names, at the same 425 M Street NW address, in various directories). Later on, Jimmy would have a son also named James Ellis McPhail. [Since they're all James Ellis McPhail, I'll refer to the singer as "Jimmy".]
In the 1940 census, Jimmy (12) has a sister, Eloise (10). There'd be four other siblings: Weldon (born 1944), Jacqueline (1946), Bernard (1947), and Kenneth (1949). Considering that Jimmy and Eloise were born in the late 1920s, this is a strange grouping of children. I suppose the Great Depression might have played a role in it.
As a child, Jimmy sang at the Galbraith AME Zion Church. Although he later said he'd never had music lessons, there's a 1958 photo of him playing the piano.
I don't know why he needed one at that point, but in June 1943, when he was 15, Jimmy signed up for a Social Security card. He was still in high school and there's no indication that he was being paid to sing then.
Jimmy first attended Slater Elementary School and then Armstrong Manual Training High. The Clovers got their start there, as did the 4 Bars.
No later than 1945, he was part of a vocal group called the Armstrong Four, which sang at the Departmental Club in Alexandria, Virginia. Jimmy later said: "We started a group called the Armstrong Four in high school, imitating the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots and groups of that kind, and got quite popular around the city, working in little nightclubs. For about five hours a night we got $1.25 apiece." The others in the group were Earl Brent, Julian Ward, and Raymond Reeder (who'd replace Lester Fountain in the Cap-Tans in 1951). Their high school typing teacher, Blanche Williams, wanted to manage them and got them some bookings.
Local DJ Jackson Lowe had a talent competition held over his WWDC show (with a studio audience). The Armstrong Four competed, as did the Clovers a couple of years later (this was the series of shows at which Harold Winley decided he should be the bass of that group). When the Armstrong Four graduated, all but Jimmy joined the service (they were all older than he).
When Jimmy registered with the draft in January 1946, he was a student living at home.
After graduation from Armstrong, he attended Shaw University (Raleigh, North Carolina) on a football scholarship (he played fullback) and he was enumerated at Shaw in the 1950 census. But, as singing was still on the menu, he got a job with Woody Hayes' band for the four years he was in Raleigh. (Hayes was a white bandleader, but this didn't seem to bother anyone as long as Jimmy entered the clubs through the back door.)
While at Shaw, several mentions of him singing turn up in the Raleigh News And Observer. For example:
March 30, 1947: The Men's Personnel Council of Shaw University will present a musical hour.... Solo work will be done by James McPhail....
May 20, 1948: The Shaw University Choral Society, under the direction of Harry Gil-Smyth, will be presented in an annual concert Sunday afternoon at 6 o'clock in Greenleaf Auditorium.... Featured soloists will be Yarborough Williams, baritone; Dorothy Jones, mezzo-soprano; and James McPhail, tenor.
May 5, 1950: The Shaw University Choral Society, which is one of a number of college musical groups to be heard in the future on the American Broadcasting Company's United Negro College Fund hour Sundays from 10:30 to 11.... The Shaw Choir ... will be heard on the nation-wide hookup Sunday morning June 11.... Solo work in three of the numbers will be done by Dolores Young, soprano; Yarborough Williams, baritone; and James McPhail, tenor.
There were no ads for the Woody Hayes band, but there was this in the November 14, 1947 Raleigh, North Carolina News And Observer: "Woody Hayes and His Bon Air Orchestra, and vocalist Sonja Glass and Jimmy McPhail of Shaw University, entertained the Raleigh Civitan Club at its regular meeting in the Sir Walter yesterday."
Jimmy was graduated from Shaw University in June 1950, and, as a member of the Shaw University Choral Society, was one of those receiving the Choir Key Award.
After Shaw, he came back to DC and started working for the public school system as a physical education teacher. He taught for many years; the last 25 at Eliot Junior High.
[At some point, Jimmy obtained a masters degree from George Washington University and also attended Miner Teachers College for additional graduate work (both were in DC). As serious as he was about music, he was also serious about teaching, juggling both careers. However, there are no dates associated with attending GW or Miner, although the 1954 City Directory lists him as a student. I wasn't sure why a physical education instructor in a junior high school needed a masters degree and post-graduate work. Asking around, I was told that the main reason was probably higher pay initially for the extra degree and therefore a larger pension at retirement. Another source said that, at least in New York State, a masters was required and you had three years to obtain it. (However, DC does not seem to have had a similar rule.) Nothing ever said what the masters degree was in, so it could have been in phys-ed or just something else Jimmy was interested in.]
Along with teaching, he also made the rounds of the DC amateur circuit. Local DJ Jackson Lowe (WWDC) hosted a weekly amateur hour ("Amateurs Of 1950") and Jimmy won for 13 consecutive weeks (probably starting in May or June 1950). Lowe was impressed enough to become Jimmy's manager.
["Jackson Lowe" was the radio name of Jack Endler, born in Brooklyn and an NYU graduate. The "Lowe" came from his low voice (he was even the voice of Popeye for a while on the radio). Moving to DC in 1943, he promoted R&B there.]
Jimmy's prize was a week at DC's Club Kavakos (which was extended to two). After that, he graduated to a week at the Howard Theatre (beginning September 22, 1950), where he was billed as an extra and "WWDC Jackson Lowe Contest Winner". It just so happened that Duke Ellington was the star that week and thus began a lifelong association. After this, he quit teaching for a while and got a job at the Merryland Club and then went on the road with Ellington. [Note that the Howard engagement was not the prize for winning the amateur contest; the Kavakos gig was.]
There's an undated press release from Irv Lichtenstein, who worked for WWDC. It would have been written between mid-October 1950 and the end of the year; nothing suggests a later date. It's titled "Jimmy McPhail Hits Road To Success After Winning WWDC 'Amateur Hour' Prize". Here, thanks to Jay Bruder (who received it from Jackson Lowe's son, Mike Endler), is the text:
A featured engagement at the Merryland Club is a far cry from Radio Station WWDC's "Amateur Hour", but 22-year-old Jimmy McPhail has made the jump in three short months.
McPhail won first prize three months ago on disk jockey Jackson Lowe's radio elimination, and since then has appeared professionally at the Howard Theatre and Club Kavakos before being booked into the Merryland.
The Kavakos engagement was McPhail's prize for winning the amateur contest. He was contracted there for one week, but made such an impression on owner Bill Kavakos that his engagement was extended for a second week.
When the Howard Theatre opened its Fall season in September [many venues closed for the summer and started up again after Labor Day], McPhail was booked into the show-house as a featured attraction. He shared top billing with Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
In fact, the Duke was so impressed with McPhail's romantic baritone voice that he cut four master records with McPhail [see below] and is now dickering with the young singer to make him a permanent member of the band.
At the close of his Howard Theatre stand, the Merryland Club booked McPhail into the night spot for an extended engagement. He is now appearing there nightly. [Unfortunately, the only ads for the Merryland were want ads looking for a cook.]
A native Washingtonian, McPhail was born in the District [or would have been if his parents had only waited a few months] and went to school here. He graduated from Armstrong High in 1946 where he played football, was a sprinter on the track team and sang in the Armstrong Chorale Society for three years.
In fact, McPhail first met WWDC disc jockey Jackson Lowe while in high school. McPhail and three other youngsters from Armstrong formed a quartet and entered Lowe's "Amateur Hour" contest in 1946. They won the grand prize, but the quartet split up.
McPhail entered Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He starred [the copy had at least one line missing from the bottom of the page; page 2 continues with] in Montgomery County, Maryland, McPhail still had a yen to be a professional singer. He came up to Station WWDC and entered Jackson Lowe's amateur contest for the second time. His voice had developed and McPhail believed that he could win honors as a soloist.
The prize was a one-week engagement at Club Kavakos, and McPhail won after 13 weeks of eliminations. He quit his job as a school teacher and concentrated on his career as a singer.
His decision is now paying off.
Probably before starting at the Merryland Club, Jimmy journeyed north to New York City with Duke Ellington in order to record four sides, on October 3, 1950, for Mercer Records (named after Duke's son, Mercer Ellington). "I Wonder Why", "I'll Remember April", "No Smoking", and "Brown Suede". None was ever issued. The October 21 Cash Box had an article titled "Mercer Records Signs Jimmy McPhail":
Jimmy McPhail, twenty-two-year-old physical education instructor, who suddenly found himself launched on a career as a singer after winning an amateur contest recently, has been signed to an exclusive contract with Mercer Records, it was announced this week.
McPhail, a native of Washington, D. C., caused such a flurry as a result of his amateur victory that he was immediately asked by Duke Ellington to appear with his orchestra during its recent engagement at the Howard Theatre in the capital. The young singer was accompanied by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn on two pianos with Wendell Marshall on bass. [They're saying that, at the Howard Theatre, Jimmy was backed up by this trio.]
On returning to New York, Ellington arranged a recording date with his son's company and McPhail cut four sides accompanied by the same unusual trio. Two Mercer Ellington compositions were recorded ["I Wonder Why"] as well as one of Duke's ["Brown Suede"] and one standard tune ["I'll Remember April"].
[Their count was off; Duke had also written "No Smoking". Notice the difference between this piece and the prior one by Irv Lichtenstein. Irv's piece was more factual and talked about the Club Kavakos engagement. This one was churned out by a press agent and went straight to Duke Ellington, skipping a boring little club that few people had ever heard of.]
In mid-December 1950, Jimmy appeared at the Brown Derby in DC; at some point in the engagement, he was joined by Billie Holiday. One ad proclaimed that he was the winner of Jackson Lowe's Talent Show; the other said he'd appeared with Pearl Bailey and Duke Ellington, although I never saw any ad with Pearl.
The May 15, 1951 Washington, DC Evening Star had a column of marriage license applications. Jimmy's name was there; the bride was Catherine Gant.
I can't find a single appearance for him in 1951, and I imagine he went back to teaching. But his outlook was about to look up. The October 13 Billboard said: "RCA has also inked Jimmy McPhail, a protege of Washington, D.C. deejay Jackson Lowe." Other Washingtonians signed at the same time were TNT Tribble and the Heartbreakers (as well as Little Richard).
Jimmy's first RCA session was held New York (as all his RCA sessions would be) on September 20, 1951. The four songs were: "Gee! I Wish (The G.I. Wish Song)", "Bouquet Of Roses", "That's How Much I Love You", and "Artificial Leaf". Some of the session musicians you might know were Howard Biggs (leader), Buddy Tate (sax), Bill Doggett (piano and organ), Doles Dickens (bass), and Everett Barksdale (guitar).
"Gee! I Wish (The G.I. Wish Song)", backed with "Bouquet Of Roses" were released in October 1951 (an RCA ad had it as a new release the week of October 13). "Gee! I Wish" is the same song that the 4 Vagabonds had recorded for Victor back in May 1945 (as "A G. I. Wish"). It's a plaintive song sung by a soldier overseas. Now, with the Korean War raging, it was dragged out of mothballs. "Bouquet Of Roses", an Eddie Arnold song from a couple of years back, also had current versions by Bob Crosby and Sammy Kaye.
I don't know what he was singing in clubs, but RCA really made a pop singer out of him, rather than an R&B performer. In spite of that, his music is very listenable. The October 30, 1951 Washington Afro-American had an article titled "McPhail, ex-DC Teacher, Realizes Vocal Ambition":
Jimmy McPhail, a young Washington physical education teacher with a real ambition to sing had his dream come true a short time ago as a result of the efforts of one of the nation's capital's wax whirlers, Jackson Lowe.
McPhail first appeared as part of a vocal quartet on Lowe's amateur program a few years ago while he was still in high school. In 1950, he re-appeared on the show as a soloist and Lowe took him under his wing.
Under the disk jockey's guidance, McPhail made appearances in leading Washington night spots and theaters, and finally was carried to New York to audition for a recording contract with RCA Victor.
Signed without hesitation by the company, McPhail cut his first records a short time ago. The first platter, "G. I. Wish" [sic] and "Bouquet Of Roses" will be released shortly.
The tunes were reviewed in the November 24, 1951 Billboard:
Gee I Wish (72): Gimmick here is the play on "G.I." In all, tho, the tune and performance are quite routine
Bouquet Of Roses (71): McPhail hands a good r.&b. chant to the familiar ditty, but poor recording balance detracts from the performance.
Jimmy's second RCA release was "That's How Much I Love You", coupled with "Artificial Leaf", issued in December and reviewed in the December 29 Billboard:
Artificial Leaf (76): A pretty little tune is given a full-blown reading by the singer, and a smooth arrangement by the ork.
That's How Much I Love You (74): A good performance by McPhail and a slick arrangement by the band, on this oldie. [It had been popularized by Bing Crosby in 1947.]
The December 29 Cash Box, eager to catch up, told us that Jimmy, as well as Little Richard, TNT Tribble, Frank Motley, and the Heartbreakers, had all been signed by RCA.
Not at all that eager to catch up, the January 5, 1952 Pittsburgh Courier told us that Jimmy had been signed by RCA "last week" and that "Gee! I Wish" would be his first record. The label's publicity team really fell down on this one.
The week beginning February 8, 1952, Jimmy was back at the Howard Theatre, this time with Ella Fitzgerald. He was advertised as "Washington's OWN".
Amazingly, the February 14, 1952 Indianapolis News told us that Jimmy and the usual suspects had just been signed by RCA. (He'd held his first RCA session five months previously.)
On February 21, 1952, Jimmy waxed four more tunes for RCA: "There Is No Greater Love", "You Brought Me Love", "You Can't Imagine", and "I Could Love You More (Than You've Ever Been Loved Before)". "You Brought Me Love" (a song written by the 4 Aces' Al Alberts and recorded by that group) and "You Can't Imagine" were released in March.
The week of April 11, 1952, Jimmy was at the Apollo Theater, along with Dinah Washington, saxophonist Arnett Cobb, and organist Bill Davis. The April 12 New York Age said he was the "much heralded singer and m.c. from Washington, D.C., making his Apollo bow." Amazingly, Apollo owner Frank Schiffman was almost gushing in his praise:
First time here. Unknown. Have [sic] fairly good act. Is promising as a singer.
Frank didn't even complain about the $200 he paid Jimmy for the week.
The record was reviewed in the April 26 Pittsburgh Courier:
Jimmy McPhail, the public school teacher from Washington, D.C., proves on his third RCA-Victor platter that he is a singer of unusual talent. His latest, "You Brought Me Love," is a new song by the writers of "Tell Me Why", Al Alberts and Marty Gold. It is on the slow side with first-rate ballad singing by Jimmy, and an expressive tenor sax backing him up. "B" side, "You Can't Imagine", is an original, written especially for Jimmy, and his high tenor completely wraps it up. Jimmy recently closed a successful date at the Howard Theatre in Washington. When the school year is over, a lot more will be heard from McPhail via personal appearances. [That last sentence proves that the review was written by a press agent. No reviewer just listening to the record would have known this.]
Billboard also reviewed it on April 26:
You Brought Me Love (72): A sincere reading of the lovely ballad. If anything, tho, McPhail pushes a little too hard.
You Can't Imagine (70): McPhail impresses with his deep-voiced chanting.
A third review was in the May 7 Down Beat, which gave each side two stars:
Young singer, who has been doing well around Washington as a protege of deejay Jackson Lowe, does a competent job on two average ballads. First side [Love], with guitar, organ and horns prominent in background, is marred by McPhail's slightly off-pitch ending. Reverse has some half-hearted [Mitch] Millerish sounds by band.
Another RCA session (his last), held on June 6, 1952, produced "Sugar Lump" and "Some Folks Do And Some Folks Don't".
RCA issued "There Is No Greater Love" (also released by the Billy May Orchestra) and "Some Folks Do And Some Folks Don't" (competing with versions by Eileen Barton and Trudy Richards) in June 1952. They weren't reviewed.
By late June, Jimmy was appearing at Harlem's Baby Grand along with Varetta Dillard and the Ben Smith Quintet; Nipsey Russell was the MC.
There was an article in the August 2, 1952 Detroit Tribune about Jimmy and Little Richard, both of whom had recent RCA releases. Of Jimmy, they said:
McPhail, the Washington, D.C. school teacher whose versatility is showcased on both sentimental tunes and light pop numbers, has waxed a coupling to demonstrate his talents in both categories. A rhythm-blues singer with a lyric twist, he does a standout job with the Isham Jones classic, "No Greater Love" on the "A" side of the platter.
On the reverse side, Jimmy changes his style to knock out a fast rhythm number with a Latin flavor. On "Some Folks Do And Some Folks Don't," a rippling piano backing augments his exciting delivery, and fills out the platter with a perfect melodic touch.
Jimmy's last RCA release was November's "I Could Love You More (Than You've Ever Been Loved Before)", backed with "Sugar Lump" (which would be recorded by the 4 Tunes the following year). They were reviewed in the November 15 Cash Box:
I Could Love You More (B): Jimmy McPhail warbles a slow melodic tune with emotion. Support is soft and in the background.
Sugar Lump (B): McPhail sings a moderate foot tapper in happy fashion. The bouncer is a light and winning side.
It was also reviewed in the December 3 Down Beat:
MacPhail [sic] delivers the ballad Love, uneventfully; Sugar is a jump novelty of no particular import, though it features some tidy band work and the now traditional tenor [saxophone].
Sometime in late 1952, Jimmy appeared at the Sugar Hill Club in Boston. By January 1953, Jimmy was appearing at Randy Wiggins' Seven-Tee Cocktail Lounge (it was at 7th and T Streets in DC); he'd still be there in February.
On March 15, Jimmy and saxophonist Ben Webster were in a variety show at the Odd Fellows Hall in DC. It was part of a Capital Press Club benefit carnival to raise money for the club's scholarship fund.
The September 22, 1953 Leroy Kirkland column in the Washington Afro-American said: "Jimmy McPhail, with about a dozen RCA Victor recordings to his credit, will soon have a recording session with Derby Records. Edwin Wilcox, noted for his 'Wheel Of Fortune,' will be in charge of the session." If it ever happened, nothing was ever released on Derby.
The November 7, 1953 Washington Afro-American, speaking of a Halloween dance, told us that:
Dykes Stockade was jam-packed as the singing of Jimmy McPhail pulled in the customers. Jimmy is a localite with the talent to go all the way to the top. His singing and showmanship are a big treat to all who see him. Of course, no show is any better than the orchestra that sets the tempo, and Benny Fonville's top outfit deserves a lot of credit.
When the 1954 Washington DC City Directory came out (presumably printed in late 1953), Jimmy (a student) was living with his parents; his wife, Catherine, was at a different address. Why was that, you may ask. For an answer, let's turn to Dan Burley's column in the August 12, 1954 Jet:
[People Are Talking About] Blues singer Jimmy McPhail, whose recordings on Victor label of Sugar Lump and G.I. Wish are so "solid" on the juke boxes. He was entertaining his favorite Washington, D. C. Sugar Lump in an Atlantic City hostelry when his irate missus walked in on him. The firecrackers started popping; he is now humming "G.I. Wish She Hadn't Come!" [Translation: Catherine walked in on him with another woman in an Atlantic City hotel.]
It gets worse. The August 19 Jet had this:
Singer Jimmy McPhail Charged With Beating Wife. Jimmy McPhail, Washington, D.C. blues singer whose recordings of Sugar Lump and G.I. Wish are popular on juke boxes, was charged with assaulting his wife, Catherine, who appeared in municipal court with a bandage on her neck.
But all became sweetness and light by the time of the October 14 Jet:
Singer Jimmy McPhail's wife dropped assault charges against him and they reconciled. Pretty Lorice Gray, the cause of their troubles, is now upsetting a not-too-happily wed member of Cootie Williams' band with her charms.
Ah, wedded bliss.
All was quiet for the next year, until Jimmy showed up at the New Marina Club in November 1955. It was his only mention the whole year. I believe that he started teaching physical education at Eliot Junior High School in 1955 and was probably enrolled in George Washington University at the same time.
Nor was there anything in the next two years except a blurb in Willie Bryant's January 21, 1956 Pittsburgh Courier column: "Dorothy Mann is still pitching for Washington's Jimmy McPhail to get a break. I hope he does. He can really sing. No romance here. Just friends." I have no idea who Dorothy Mann was.
But he was back in 1958. The March 29 New York Age told us:
Mercer Ellington's brand new record company, Gayle [sic; should be Gaye], has unveiled Jimmy McPhail, a Duke Ellington discovery. McPhail is a Washington, D.C. school teacher with a big voice which, though distinctive, is reminiscent of [Al] Hibbler and Herb Jeffries [both of whom had been with Duke Ellington]. It's only logical that he should sound a bit like Jeffries too - especially doing Mercer's original and lovely "Indelible." 'Way back, Mercer composed a hit tune popularized by Jeffries. It was "The Girl In My Dreams Tries to Look Like You." McPhail also does a credible job with Duke's "No Smoking." On the same side of this 45 EP is an upbeat tune "When I Say Goodbye," a Lois Abrahams composition. But, next to "Indelible" we like his "Don't Sing Of Spring" authored by Braithwaite and Dussault.
The Mercer EP in question, released in early March, contained all four songs mentioned. On them, Jimmy had been backed by the Helen Way Singers. Jimmy had also recorded "No Smoking" for Mercer back in his first recording session in October 1950.
The August 28, 1958 Cash Box told us that Sid Mills of Diana Music was Jimmy's Manager. It concluded with "... Jimmy McPhail, who will be out in two weeks with his first platter for the Gaye label."
That platter was "Ding Dong Babe (Lumma Diddle Diddle Diddle Dee)", backed by "Is It A Sin". These also had the Helen Way Singers (although the label just said "Way Singers") and Bill Harris and His Swanging Thangs. As far as I know, this the same Bill Harris who'd been the guitarist for the Clovers and who'd recently left them to spend more time with his family. Since the record was never reviewed or advertised, I'm hoping that the September 1958 date is accurate (two weeks from August 28 would put it in September); prior to reading that, I had its release date as June. (Of course, since the blurb says it was his first Gaye release, all is suspect.)
While Jimmy was appearing at the Passyn Lounge [said the ad, although I can't find a trace of it], he was a guest on the December 8, 1958 Capital Caravan TV variety show over WMAL-TV. He'd soon become a regular.
And then, a chance for real national exposure. The December 18 Washington, DC Evening Star had a big article titled "McPhail Wins Spot On Hayes Daytimer":
Singer Jimmy McPhail is the winner of the local auditions for a prized guest spot on the Peter Lind Hayes daytime show sometime next month and I wish WMAL-TV had been able to promote a spare half-hour or so to televise the "finals" Tuesday night [the 16th] from its Studio B.
The talent displayed was simply too good to waste on three judges and one of them, Bob McEwen, was quick to snap up two of the finalists - winner McPhail and Loretta Holmes - for his own Capital Caravan show (Saturday, WMAL-7).
McEwen, Jerry Strong and this reporter [Bernie Harrison, the Star's TV critic] wrangled for a half-hour after the auditions before naming McPhail and, to be frank about it, I lost. But don't get me wrong, McPhail, a 28-year-old singer who has recorded for RCA and sung at the Howard here and Apollo in New York, in addition to scores of nightclubs, is one of those real pros who needs to be only in the right place at the right moment to hit.
Maybe Pete's show will lead up to the "break". In any case, it'll be a pleasure introducing this fine, 28-year-old singer to the Hayes audience.
The December 28 Evening Star had a photo of Jimmy at the piano, playing for Jeanne Tisdale, a dancer who was one of the contestants. Did he really play the piano or was this a posed photo? I don't know. There was an accompanying article:
"I'm overwhelmed," said Jimmy McPhail when he emerged victorious in the recent WMAL-7 talent search. His top honor will make for a first network appearance when he is showcased on the Peter Lind Hayes Show in the near future.
The physical education major who attended Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. on a football scholarship has been singing his way through life since his high school days. Amateur contests, a quartet, local television shows and nightclub engagements have kept the 28-year-old vocalist busy and in tune. [While they keep harping on 28, he was actually only a few weeks from his 31st birthday.]
It was a meeting with that swinging master Ella Fitzgerald that proved one of Jimmy's biggest boosts. Ella's encouragement and recommendation landed him a job at the Appollo [sic] in New York. (And that kind of recommendation you don't get very often.)
Bernie Harrison had a field day with the whole affair. Here's what he wrote in the February 2, 1959 Evening Star:
Nervous Young Man Dept.: If Washington's Jimmy McPhail should have a case of the jitters this week, it's understandable.
The stylish baritone, who has been on the verge of making it big before, gets another fine chance to impress the New York show crowd when he guests on the Peter Lind Hayes program Friday (WMAL-7).
Jimmy earned the opportunity the hard way - by winning out in a talent audition at the local ABC affiliate over some rugged competition. He leaves this morning for New York, in fact (along with this reporter), and what makes his network TV debut such an intriguing one is that he'll have an opportunity to see and hear himself in action Friday.
The reason for this is that the Friday Hayes show is taped on Tuesdays (tomorrow), to give Pete and Mary Healy a long weekend off.
What Jimmy and so many other excellent young singers need, of course, is to so impress a manager or agency that they will take over his career. It takes more than courage, determination, and talent to make it as a singer. It takes a manager with the right connections - and plenty of money, for wardrobe, arrangements, etc.
It's a long shot, but worth the taking. We all have our finger crossed.
And, after the show had been taped on February 3, Bernie Harrison filed this column, to appear in the next day's Evening Star:
Men About Manhattan: I always knew that Peter Lind Hayes and the ABC crew "winged it" on their daytimer, but this seemed ridiculous. "They won't need you until 4 p.m.," is what the girl in Pete's office said.
"But that's only an hour or so before air time," I stuttered.
Jimmy McPhail, the Washington baritone who won the WMAL-7 talent contest and the chance to appear on Pete's network show, merely gulped.
Here we had purposely left Washington 24 hours early so that we would be available to Pete's producer and director so that they could go over Jimmy's number or numbers (we didn't know what they wanted), buy the right kind of shirt, put on makeup and get oriented in general.
All I had to do was introduce Jimmy, of course, and I wasn't worried. I have been known to ad lib without cue cards for oh, 10 seconds, before going into TV shock.
Well, as Marion Lorne would put it, that's daytime show biz. [Lorne was an actress who was famously terrified of live television.]
You "wing it" or else.
And those of you who are near a TV set Friday morning (11:30 a.m., WMAL-7) are invited to have a look. The comforting thought, as Jimmy and I head for the Little Theater off Times Square, friends, is that we are in the hands of top pros.
To explain that late evening for a daytime show, Pete, Mary and the gang taped the show late Tuesday evening, thereby getting a long weekend off. Jimmy and I will be home to watch it, too, laughing and scratching and flinching.
In the February 5 Evening Star, Harrison said:
The fellow from Washington who really performed was singer Jimmy McPhail. He belted out a standard, "I'm Going To Live 'Til I Die" with nary a trace of nervousness. Producer Frank Musiello [and] music director Burt Farber were enthusiastic about McPhail's singing, as were Mary Healy [Hayes' wife], Peter, John Bubbles [of Buck & Bubbles] and the rest of the cast. The studio audience was transfixed.
Catch Jimmy tomorrow [February 6] (11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., WMAL-7). I think you'll agree.
Those of Harrison's readers who didn't peruse his column on a daily basis would have been confused when he talked about the performance having taken place and then saying it would be on tomorrow.
As promised, Jimmy appeared on the Peter Lind Hayes show on February 6, 1959, over the ABC network (of which WMAL-7 was a part). There was a big write-up about the appearance in the February 15 Sunday Star (not written by Bernie Harrison), complete with photos. Nothing ever said what song(s) he sang.
Except for the December 18, article, nothing in all this even remotely suggested that he'd had five releases on RCA, the largest record company in the country, or that he'd sung with Duke Ellington; he's being treated like an unknown amateur talent contest winner. Of course, people in DC knew him, but it would be interesting to know what was said about him on the Hayes show.
But, for the most part, it was "sound and fury, signifying nothing" (as a poet friend of mine once said). There was this non-item in the May 22, 1959 Evening Star: "Jimmy McPhail, the swinging singer who won a WMAL-7 talent hunt recently, auditioned a new tune for Peter Lind Hayes' ex-producer, Frank Musiello, in New York the other day and Frank wants to record it 'immediately' ... Frank, who is Janette Davis' hubby, is associated with Mercury." What did that say? Did Jimmy write the song? Did Musiello want Jimmy to record it for Mercury? Was it just a kind of demo for a song that would be given to some other singer to record? Since they didn't actually name the song and Jimmy never appeared on Mercury, it hardly matters.
While, as I stated above, he'd become a regular on Capital Caravan for most of 1959, the only other appearance I could find for him that year is the Howard Theatre. Starting the week of August 7, he shared the stage with the Coasters, the Cadillacs, Milt Buckner, Jesse Powell, and Tiny Topsy.
And then, a new venture. Sometime in 1959, Jimmy McPhail bought the Melody Inn, a DC nightclub on Bladensburg Road NE and changed its name to Jimmy McPhail's Gold Room. He kept it going as a blues and jazz club through the late 1980s. Of course, he regularly appeared there.
So now, he's a nightclub owner, a singer, and a physical education teacher at Eliot Junior High School. That kept him busy for a few years.
The next time we hear about Jimmy McPhail, he's back with Duke Ellington again. Ellington had put together a show called My People, which opened at the Arie Crown Theater, in Chicago's McCormick Place, on August 16, 1963 and ran until September 2. The singers were Jimmy, Joya Sherrill, Lil Greenwood, Jimmy Grissom, and the Irving Bunton Singers.
In December of 1963, Contact records released a cast album of that show (which didn't have the Ellington orchestra, but only the Duke narrating). Jimmy can be heard on five tunes: "Ain't But The One", "Will You Be There?", "99%", "Come Sunday", and "My Mother, My Father (Heritage)". The January 11, 1964 Cash Box talked about the record:
NEW YORK - Contact Records, recently formed here, has released its first LP - the original cast version of Duke Ellington's "My People".
The opus was presented last summer during the "Negro Centennial" celebration at McCormick Place. Performers who performed the work - Joya Sherrill, Jimmy McPhail and Lil Greenwood along with Billy Strayhorn's Orch. - are also on hand on the LP, which features the original music composed by Ellington.
The diskery is lining up its distrib network, the first distrib being Jet Dist. in New York.
Deejays and radio stations can get a promo copy of two songs from the show. Write to Contact at 1841 Broadway (Room 1205).
The February 16 San Francisco Examiner reviewed the album and said of it: "... in general, it is embarrassingly trite and shallow.... In all, My People sounds more like a passing Cotton Club floor show than a musical production of lasting value."
The Pittsburgh Courier of February 15, 1964 talked about a February 8 show at which Duke Ellington had received an award; Jimmy was there to sing with the band.
[New York City] Radio Station WLIB's 11th annual Festival of Music and Drama drew the largest crowd in its history as 3,000 packed Carnegie Hall and an estimated 200 were unable to get in.
Highlight of the affair were the presentations of music and drama awards to Duke Ellington and Sidney Poitier. Mayor Robert F. Wagner made the presentation to Mr. Ellington and cited his contributions to worldwide jazz. Mr. Ellington and his famous band -- composed of some of the nation's finest jazz artists -- Ben Webster, Paul Gonzalez, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance and Billy Strayhorn -- entertained the cheering audience. Mr. Poitier's plaque, citing him as an "actor's actor" was presented by WLIB commentator Evelyn Cunningham.
In the rhythm and blues portion, the youngsters who tore up the house were the Diplomats, Exciters, Lenny Welch and Shirley Ellis.
The jazz segment was represented by Kenny Burrell and his quartet with Milt Jackson. Later, Joya Sherrill and Jimmy McPhail sang with the Ellington band.
Said Jay Bruder: "McPhail was known to travel to meet Duke Ellington at out-of-town locations. Duke would be advertised, but McPhail would be called to show up and sing (a little). That might explain why you don’t see more advertised engagements."
On Monday morning, March 30, 1964, Jimmy was a guest on the Women's World TV show on Channel 7. I'm not sure what advice he could give women, but, since the show was on opposite an old Fibber McGee & Molly movie, I bet there weren't many viewers.
More recording. On January 22, 1965, Jimmy recorded two songs with Mercer Ellington & His Orchestra: "In A Valley Of Dreams" and "Undertow". They were both released on the Jobel label sometime that year. (The flip of each was an instrumental.)
An RCA LP from 1966 was called Concert Of Sacred Music with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Recorded at New York's Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, Jimmy performed "Ain't But The One" and "Will You Be There?", the same songs he had done in My People.
The March 30, 1967 Jet mentioned him in the "People Are Talking About" column:
Popular Dee Cee entertainer Jimmy McPhail and how he is fast earning the name of King Midas (everything he touches turns to gold). In addition to being a top-flight physical-ed teacher in the local high schools, Jimmy uses his spare time to tape TV recordings for a 9 a.m. show, manages a night club, and during the spring and summer school breaks, becomes a part of bandleader Duke Ellington's entourage.
He was with Ellington at Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel for a Concert Of Sacred Music on October 15, 1967.
There was nothing about Jimmy for two more years until, on September 11, 1969, he recorded some tunes with Mercer Ellington (all unissued). I don't know which (if any) of the three known titles are instrumentals: "Cold Duck" (probably an instrumental), "It's Over", and "It Was Your Smile That Won Me Over".
The January 23, 1986 Washington Post had an article about a retirement party for Oswald "Pat" Monroe, a public school system psychologist. "Last week more than 200 of Monroe's friends got together and gave him a belated retirement party complete with a sumptuous dinner of seafood and roast beef, and entertainment by a belly dancer and the Jimmy McPhail Combo." That's the first we hear of a combo.
There was one more appearance that I can document. The September 14, 1992 Jet talked about:
An extravaganza, Stars Over Washington Shining Brightly For The Children, presented by the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Doll League, Inc., benefited the Edward C. Mazique Parent/Child Center. Exciting performers included tango dancers Doretta Knight and Joseph Brooks; soulful saxophonist Roscoe Bowis, accompanied by the Jimmy McPhail Combo....
James Ellis McPhail, Jr died on March 16, 1998. The March 19 Washington Post had a long obituary:
Jimmy McPhail, 70, a Washington blues singer who toured and recorded with such jazz luminaries as Duke Ellington, taught for 25 years at Eliot Junior High School and operated a popular Northeast Washington nightspot, the Gold Room, died March 16 at Howard University Hospital. He had heart ailments.
Mr. McPhail appeared with such singers as Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker. In 1965 [August 26], he performed in the San Francisco premiere of Duke Ellington's first "sacred concert," a program of original religious music. He recorded with Ellington for RCA Victor.
Mr. McPhail was born in Rocky Mount, N.C., and had lived in Washington since he was an infant. He began singing at age 8 with the Galbraith AME Zion Choir, but he never learned to read music.
He came into his own as a singer while attending Armstrong High School, where Ellington also had studied. The quartet Mr. McPhail formed there in the 1940s performed at the Cotton Club at 16th Street and Benning Road NE.
In 1950, Mr. McPhail won a talent contest sponsored by radio station WWDC, beating out another singer who was to make a name for herself, Shirley Horn. First prize was [a week at DC's Club Kavakos, which led to] a week's engagement at the Howard Theatre with Ellington, who asked him to come to New York to perform.
In the meantime, however, Mr. McPhail also performed at the Howard with Ella Fitzgerald, who asked her agent to find him additional work and helped launch his national career.
Mr. McPhail, then still a student, was determined to have a separate career as an educator. He went on to graduate from Shaw University in North Carolina, received a master's degree in education from George Washington University and did additional graduate work in education at Miner Teachers College.
He taught science and family living at Eliot Junior High School until 1980 [every other source said that he was a physical education teacher], saving up leave time to perform when Ellington needed him and working full time in music during the summer. He sang at Carnegie Hall. He continued appearing with Ellington's band -- directed after Duke's death by his son, Mercer Ellington -- until about a decade ago.
"Jimmy was a wonderful singer" with a wide vocal range, recalled Washington bassist Keeter Betts [sic; his nickname was "Keter"], who first appeared with Mr. McPhail in the early 1950s. "He had really good ears. . . . You didn't have to worry about the key. He'd say, 'Just play the intro,' and he'd just jump right in and sing any key."
In 1959, Mr. McPhail bought the Melody Inn, a nightclub on Bladensburg Road NE where he had been performing regularly. Since then, he operated it as Jimmy McPhail's Gold Room, featuring many of the best-known names in blues and comedy.
After the 1968 riots closed some longtime District nightspots, the Gold Room was one of the few places left with a "comfortable, intimate environment" for top-flight jazz, observed Reuben Jackson, an archivist with the Duke Ellington collection at the National Museum of American History.
"I think that's where the music is best presented . . . with this wonderfully affable guy who's at the helm," Jackson said. "There was a warmth about the place and about him."
Mr. McPhail was a member of the Shaw University Alumni Association and the Omega Psi Phi social fraternity.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Catherine Gant McPhail of Washington; two children, Sharon McPhail Brake of Atlanta and James Ellis McPhail of Washington; two sisters, Eloise Coehins and Jacqueline McPhail, both of Washington; three brothers, Dr. Weldon McPhail and Kenneth McPhail, both of Washington, and Bernard McPhail of Atlanta; and a grandson.
While Jimmy McPhail was quite well known in Washington, most of the rest of the country barely ever heard of him. Even though he was a favorite of Duke Ellington, he was not a star by any measure. If you only listen to R&B, you may not like Jimmy McPhail (and probably don't like Billy Eckstine either), but Jimmy had a wonderful voice and you should give it a listen.
Jay Bruder's liner notes to R&B In DC (1940-1960) - Bear Family BCD 17052 - 2021
Group Harmony - The Black Urban Roots Of Rhythm & Blues - Stuart L. Goosman - University of Philadelphia Press - 2005
Special thanks to Jay Bruder and Victor Pearlin.
MERCER Session with Duke Ellington in NYC - 10/3/50 - all unissued
I Wonder Why
I'll Remember April
RCA (Jimmy McPhail)
47-4312 Bouquet Of Roses / Gee! I Wish (The G.I. Wish Song) - 10/51
47-4400 Artificial Leaf / That's How Much I Love You - 12/51
47-4605 You Brought Me Love / You Can't Imagine - 3/52
47-4788 There Is No Greater Love / Some Folks Do And Some Folks Don't - 6/52
47-5026 I Could Love You More (Than You've Ever Been Loved Before) / Sugar Lump - 11/52
GAYE (Mercer Ellington's label, named after his daughter)
EPG 369 Indelible / Don't Sing Of Spring // No Smoking / When I Say Goodbye - 3/58
above with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra.
364 Ding Dong Babe (Lumma Diddle Diddle Diddle Dee) / Is It A Sin - 9/58
above with the [Helen] Way Singers with Bill Harris and His Swanging Thangs
CS-1 Duke Ellington - My People - 12/63. McPhail sings lead on these:
Ain't But The One
Will You Be There?
My Mother, My Father (Heritage)
JOBEL (Mercer Ellington & His Ork)
1000 In A Valley Of Dreams / [Cunga - instrumental] - 65
1001 Undertow / [Take A Giant Step - instrumental] - 65
LPM3582 The Duke Ellington Orchestra - Concert Of Sacred Music - 66
Ain't But The One
Will You Be There?
MERCER ELLINGTON RECORDINGS - NYC - 9/11/69 - all unissued
Cold Duck (probably an instrumental)
It Was Your Smile That Won Me Over
FDS 112 - reissue of the Contact LP - 70