" 'Lord,' I said to myself, 'that I am going to have an opportunity to sing with his big band!' " is how Jimmy McPhail recalls the moment he was told he had won a WWDC talent contest 35 years ago, the prize for which was a week's booking at the Howard Theatre with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. "I had been going to the Howard for years and hearing his music, but I'd never met him."
For the then 23-year-old, the scene at that first rehearsal was enhanced by "seeing the guys who were great names with Ellington." McPhail not only sang that week with the band, but traveled with it for a year and continued to perform and record with Ellington off and on until 1974, when the great band leader and composer died.
McPhail will be one of three former Ellington vocalists featured Monday night at 8 in "Ellington Revisited," a WPFW-FM benefit concert in at University's Cramton Auditorium. His trio -- organist Jackie Harriston, saxophonist George Botts and drummer Courtney Brooks -- will accompany him. Also on the program are singers Al Hibbler and June Norton, tap dancers Bunny Briggs and Brother Black, pianist John Malachi and the Charlie Hampton Big Band.
The Rocky Mount, N.C.-born McPhail, who moved with his family to Washington when he was 3 months old, began singing at the age of 8 in the choir at Galbraith AME Zion Church under the direction of the late Alma Harris. "I just tried to familiarize myself with what I heard," says McPhail, who has never learned to read music. The singing continued through Slater Elementary School, where he remembers doing solos at special assemblies. At 18 he entered the senior choir at church.
There was no record player at home, but McPhail absorbed via radio the popular music of the day, including Frank Sinatra, Ellington, Count Basie and combo jazz. "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."
He returned to his native state to continue his education on a football scholarship at Shaw University in Raleigh, where he had his first big-band experience. A classmate of McPhail's was working in a nightclub and told white band leader Woody Hayes about him. McPhail started singing with the band and stayed with it for the four years he was at the university. He also sang with a black band in small towns around Raleigh. While with the Hayes band, McPhail had to enter through the back doors of the clubs. "There was no problem being on the bandstand," he says, "but I would do my stint on the stage and then go back into the kitchen. I worked at the Sir Walter hotel in Raleigh and the same situation existed. You did all those things because that's the way it was."
After the Ellington year in the early 1950s, McPhail worked with Ella Fitzgerald and then went out on his own, picking up gigs up and down the coast as a single with local bands. "But I got homesick and came back to D.C.," he confesses.
In 1959 he founded Jimmy McPhail's Gold Room, which can make some claim to being the oldest continuously operating jazz room in the area, although jazz activity there now is mainly confined to the Tuesday appearances of Charlie Hampton's band. The first year of the club's operation says much for McPhail's staying power.
"They were tearing up Bladensburg Road, and it would rain almost every week," he recalls. "I put boards across the street so the people wouldn't step in the mud." Redd Foxx, Etta Jones and Al Hibbler were a few of the big-name acts that would fill the popular night spot during the '60s, and McPhail himself still performs there occasionally when he is not in New York or elsewhere contributing his tenor voice to Ellington tributes.
"I'll never forget this one time in Phoenix with Ellington," McPhail says with a laugh, "and we worked the Star Theatre, like a theater in the round. I did a medley and the people applauded for the longest time and I stood out there waiting for Duke to tell me what to do, or whether I was supposed to sing anymore or not. Shucks, he just kept running up and down the piano and I eventually backed on off the stage. Talk about intimidating!"