Andy McGhee: Rockin’ with the Fat Man
Back in the day—no, even before that—there was a rowdy saloon on the corner of Stuart and Tremont streets, in Boston’s Theatre District, called the Knickerbocker Cafe. This was in the early 1950s, and the Knickerbocker was a favorite of the hordes of sailors from the Navy Yard who flooded the Theatre District nightly. They liked it because the club had a great house band, Fat Man Robinson’s quintet (later expanded to sextet), and one of its stars was the tenor saxophonist Andy McGhee.
McGhee, who died October 12, 2017 at age 89, came to Boston in 1945 to attend the New England Conservatory. He studied with Sam Marcus, a saxophonist and dance band leader, and later the president of AFM Local 9. McGhee graduated from the NEC Diploma Program in 1949. The comment accompanying his photo in his senior class yearbook read, “Will be on the road and with a first-rate band before you know it!”
In later years, McGhee downplayed his activity outside of school, but he was among the galaxy of future jazz stars around town in the late 1940s, a cluster that included Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Sam Rivers, and Joe Gordon. McGhee logged time in the big bands of fellow student Bernard Moore, Roxbury pianist Hopeton Johnson, and finally the fabled Boston Beboppers of Jimmie Martin.
Eight-Day Weeks in the Boston Clubs
McGhee served in the U.S. Army 1950-52, stationed first at Fort Dix in New Jersey, then in Korea. Back in Boston, he replaced Sam Rivers in the aforementioned band of alto saxophonist and singer Paul “Fat Man” Robinson. Fat Man was a rollicking jump bluesman who modeled his band after Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five. The schedule was as frantic as the music. Robinson’s popular quintet worked constantly, mainly around Boston and the blue-collar cities of the Merrimack River Valley. During McGhee’s time, they also traveled as far south as Miami and as far north as Montreal. Their home base, though, remained the Knickerbocker, which was renamed the Stage Bar in 1955 after an ownership change.
After five non-stop years with Fat Man, McGhee needed a break. Boston was especially grueling for bar bands in the 1950s because of what the musicians called its eight-day week—they worked seven nights a week plus a Sunday matinee. In his interview for the Berklee Oral History Project in 2005, McGhee told Fred Bouchard: “Fat Man Robinson worked all the time. I was with him for four or five years with no time off at all. That’s why I left.” That was in 1957.
One night in November 1957, McGhee dropped by Storyville to catch Lionel Hampton’s big band. Hampton, needing a tenor player, invited him to sit in. Hamp liked McGhee’s sound, and promptly hired him. Two weeks later, the band left on a European tour, and McGhee spent the next seven years on the road with the Hampton Orchestra. He followed that with three more years with Woody Herman before finally coming to rest back in Boston in 1966. That’s when Count Basie offered him a job in his prestigious band, but McGhee turned him down. His days as a road warrior were over.
Back Home to Stay
Andy McGhee was proud of his time with Hampton and Herman, but he never had much to say about his days with Fat Man. Maybe he did not want to admit to playing in an R&B band. Or perhaps he ignored those years because even though they were earning years, they weren’t learning years, and learning mattered to him. McGhee told Bouchard, “When I finished New England Conservatory, I said, I’m ready. I wasn’t ready for nothin’. I go to New York and get killed, and this is (by) a guy who has a day job. The only time I learned something was when I got into Hamp’s band. And the alto player, Zach Zachary, he killed me every night.”
McGhee opened a new chapter in his life in 1966, at the Berklee School of Music. We’ll get to that in the second installment of the Andy McGhee story. As for the Fat Man, he left Boston in about 1958 and returned to his home town of Cleveland, where he died in the early 1960s.
Alas, Andy McGhee chose not to be interviewed for The Boston Jazz Chronicles, so I never got to ask him about joints like the Stage Bar, the Flamingo in Lowell, or the Celebrity Club in Providence. He was the last living member of Fat Man’s quintet, and I regret that lost opportunity.
To the music. All of Fat Man Robinson’s recordings—78s on the Motif, Regent, and Decca labels—were made before McGhee joined the quintet. Here’s a Fat Man side anyway, “Lavender Coffin” (Motif 2001, 1949) which received some regional airplay, and Andy surely knew it. Oscar Dunham plays trumpet here, but Fat Man was soon to replace the trumpet with a tenor sax in his quintet, and later he’d expand the group to include a guitarist. Lionel Hampton also recorded this tune, and I wonder if it was still in Hamp’s book when McGhee was with him.