Bill McGee


 Thirty years in the music industry, and yet he tries to imply, with a wink and a nod, that he’s just a little over thirty. Bill McGee credits his musicianship to his roots in Atlanta, where his mother was on the faculty at Morris Brown College. “My mother use to chaperone band and choir trips at the college. So, I got to see the famous (FAMU) Florida A&M University marching band perform throughout the mid-sixties.”(Jazz great Cannonball Adderly and his brother Nat Adderly attended FAMU) It was Dr. William P. Foster, the famous director of the FAMU marching 100 who revolutionized the marching band concept by playing popular songs like James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” instead of the traditional military style marches. This was very important because as the son of a single parent McGee didn’t have the influence of being around Jazz music and musicians until he went to high school

“I must credit my high school band director, Dr. Bobby Jordan, for setting high standards. He would constantly talk to us about learning the fundamentals of music. I think it was that foundation and the older students in the band that had the greatest influence on me.” One of his first influences was William Gee, a trumpet player, who in high school played jazz piano and wrote arrangements for the school band. Gee went on to become music director for Marvin Gaye. Another influence was Scott Edwards, renowned studio bass player. “Scott played trombone in the high school band. He learned the Electric Bass in high school and was playing with Stevie Wonder two years later.” Bill believes that the history of his high school had a significant impact on his foundation. He graduated from the historic, Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, Ga., which is the same high school that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Opera singer, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Gladys Knight, Nipsie Russell, Dr. Louis Sullivan and Jean Carn, attended. “At Washington High, we were taught that you could be anybody or do anything that you wanted to do. They used Dr. King, Gladys Knight and Dr. Sullivan, as examples.”

After high school McGee gigged with several local bands including Curtis Smith and The Counts. Curtis Smith was an R&B guitarist from Alabama who had the traditional R&B style. “Curtis was the first recording artist I worked with. He had a single on a small label, so we performed all over the Southeast. Curtis was friends with Roy Lee Johnson, another R&B guitarist/song writer.“ In 1964, John Lennon decided to record Roy Lee’s "Mr. Moonlight," which would appear on The Beatles "For Sale" and "Beatles '65" LP's . He was the first songwriter that I met. Keep in mind I was only seventeen. They use to sit around and talk about the people they knew like, James Brown, Otis Redding, William Bell, Gladys Knight and Gorgeous George. George was the emcee for the Isley brothers, he use to tell us how Jimi Hendrix played in his band and smoked those strange cigarettes.” McGee said, “To an impressionable seventeen year-old, these were great stories.”

After high school Mcgee attended Morris Brown College, where guitarist, Regi Hargis and bassist Ray Ransome, founded a horn band named Hellaphenalia. In 1969, they asked McGee to join the group. The group subsequently signed a deal with Tangerine Records, which in 1971 released the group’s first recording. “I can’t remember the name of the song. I know we recorded it in a small studio in College Park, Ga., and that we played the horn parts in a closet, that was converted to a booth.” Another member of the original group was saxophonist and arranger James McDuffie. “Duff had a great impact me, because I had a chance to watch him write songs. I watched him write a song for an Atlanta vocalist “Gina Hill” and a few months later I heard it on the radio, that was very exciting.“ During this period black music was changing from the R&B style of Otis Redding and James Brown to the self-contained bands like Sly and the Family Stone, War, The Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang. I have to give credit to the great horn bands, Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears and of course Tower of Power. It was a great time to be a young trumpet player.” After Mcgee and others left the group, Hellaphenalia reorganized as Brick. (Bang Records/CBS)

“Atlanta in the early seventies was an exciting and eclectic place to live, we had anti-war protestors, drugs, the civil rights movement, the Klu Klux Klan, and Lester Maddox. I soon realized after some hard times that the big city life was getting the best of me, so, in January of 1973, I moved back to Virginia hoping to finish college. I moved in with my grandparents and with their support enrolled at Virginia State College. I remember in my admissions interview, that I told the professor my gigging days were over until I graduated. Three weeks later, I co-founded the group Trussel. By this time I was almost twenty-one and my experiences in Atlanta proved to be an asset to the group. Our co-founder and drummer, Ron Smith, was from Englewood, New Jersey, where he attended school with Luther Vandross. Ron was also the back-up drummer to Yogi Horton, at All Platinum records, so he also had experience making records when he came to Virginia. His experiences were also very instrumental in setting the foundation of our group. We later started our own label, “Bridge The Gap Records and Tapes” and opened a record store. Trussel developed a huge following at many of the HBCU colleges in the south. We frequently performed in Greensboro, (The Cosmos Club) and Winston-Salem, (The Dungeon) and in Asheville, NC., at a huge club that could hold two thousand people, called The Orange Peel.” In the mid-seventies, around the southeast, there was a network of clubs where bands could consistently gig. “We played the same club circuit as The Commodores, Zapp featuring Roger Troutman, Peabo Bryson, and Mother’s Finest.”

In 1978, Marvin Daniels, a college friend, trumpet player and leader of the group Southern Energy, made a connection with a lawyer from Philadelphia (John Black.) Black was the manager for a fifteen year old girl that had a record deal with RCA. Her first single had been released but wasn’t really moving. They needed a band to back her up and tried unsuccessfully to get a group together in Philadelphia. “Marvin contacted me and asked me if Trussel would be interested? I said, you must be crazy, we‘re not backing up a fifteen-year-old brat, and I don’t care what kind of record deal she has. Since our group was a democratic organization, I told him I’d present it to the entire group. Everybody but two of us voted to give it a try.”

The girl was Evelyne “Champagne” King. Her debut single “Shame” (RCA) had just hit the Billboard Disco Chart. “The kid came in to sing for us, we started playing a Chaka Khan cut, I think it was “Once You Get Started,” she started singing and we all almost dropped our instruments. I had never heard a kid sing like that before in my life. She was a gifted child with a big, low-pitched voice and she was only fifteen. I immediately became her biggest fan.” Marvin served as her music director and Trussel began backing her up. “A pivotal night was when we performed at Broady’s in New York, for the RCA staff. Label president, Bob Summers, came with Warren Schatz and Al Garrison. They were floored by the performance of both Evelyne and Trussel. After the show they came to our dressing room and promised to sign us to RCA, we were on cloud nine. We had just been promised a record deal by the big wigs at the label. That’s the night when “Shame” received a priority from the head of the label and from that point on it received all of the promotion necessary to make it a #1 hit.”

Around this time the King family and Evelyn’s manager were starting to have problems. RCA was more involved now and they had certain expectations. It was also during this period that disaster struck Trussel. Following a double gig at City College and a players club in lower Manhattan the group’s equipment truck was stolen, with everything but personal instruments inside. After six years of saving and sacrificing to put together, sound, lights and special effects, it was all gone in one night. According to McGee, the group was devastated, but. Evelyn’s management refused to file charges of neglect against the hotel chain. They believed that they could replace the equipment, since the record was now climbing the R&B on vocals) the whole picture would change? A tall, well dressed, gentleman came with the King family; he asked to speak to the band. He informed Trussel that Evelyn’s manager, John Black, had been terminated and that he would be her new manager. “That’s the night the bottom dropped out of the floor,” says McGee. “We just stood there with our mouths open asking, what about the record deal? What about our equipment? What about our future?”

Ultimately negotiations to remain with Evelyne didn’t work out, so she got a new band. That’s when the group was offered an option by John Black. He would work to find Trussel a record deal. So, they returned to Virginia and gave John Black one year to secure them a major label record deal. It was during this hiatus (fall 1978,) that Bill did his student teaching and completed requirements for his college degree in music education. He received his degree, Dec. 1978. In January 1979, Evelyne’s parents asked Bill McGee to return as her music director. “That period was cool, we traveled all over. Both “Shame” and “Smooth Talk” were #1 hits, so we were performing with all the big names.” While the Trussel rhythm section worked on new material back in Virginia, the other members of the horn section (Hannon Lane, and Lynwood Jones) joined McGee on the road with Evelyne King. The new material included a song entitled “Love Injection,” a jazzy song about a love connection, written by drummer Ron Smith and trombonist/guitarist Hannon Lane. John Black hooked the group up with a producer/manager who McGee say’s “will forever remain nameless in my history” this nameless person brought in Fred Wesley to actually produce the album. Bill McGee also wrote a song, which Fred Wesley recorded on his own “House Party” album.

After leaving, Evelyne, McGee worked as a member of the New York based studio horn section started by Marvin Daniels “Chops”, with (Trombonist) Robin Eubanks. We recorded all of the Sugar Hill Records rap classics (before samplers took over). I played lead trumpet on all of the original rap records by “Grand Master Flash, The Sugar Hill Gang, The West Street Mob and Sequence (Angie Stone) I also played lead trumpet on albums by The O’Jays “Out In The Real World,” Leon Huff “The Right Stuff,” Patti Labelle, The Stylistics, and McFadden and Whitehead. This was a strange period of time for the post disco record industry. Sugar Hill records and Philly International Records both folded, without any real explanation as to why. So, McGee joined his friend, Joyce Irby, as tour manager for Klymaxx (EMI/SOLAR) when Klymaxx had “I Miss You” and “Meeting In The Ladies Room.” “The group was having growing pains and after we completed the tour of Japan, Hawaii, and Guam, I returned home to teach, pretty much fed up with the fickle nature of the music industry.” In between gigs, McGee performed as a musician with Lou Rawls and Ray, Goodman, and Brown (The Moments.)

In 1987, when the music industry turned primarily to samplers and sequencers, Bill McGee accepted position teaching public school music in Richmond, Virginia, where he met D’Angelo. “I first met Michael “D’Angelo” Archer when he was in the 8th grade, he had his own band and was already performing like a professional at twelve years old.” At the high school where I taught, (John F. Kennedy, Richmond, Virginia) we started a performance group that was designed to give students the opportunity to perform with professional equipment and with a live band, that same group has produced Mad Skillz, (Rawkus Records,) Danja Mowf (Elektra/Gold Mine,) and VA (Dreamworks.) I remember when Michael and his mother came to my house to discuss his options for a music career; he was extremely focused at 15 years old and already knew what he was going to do with his life. For five years, until he was out of high school he would come and perform on my talent showcases.” There was a healthy competition between my students and Michael, because he went to a different school he would prepare all of his material on his own. When he came to the rehearsal I could feel the tension and competitiveness. He set the standard for how to perform like a professional.” When McGee left Richmond, the other music teachers, Haywood and Greg McCallum continued the showcase tradition. To his credit, D’Angelo returned as a special guest performer the same year his #1Billboard hit “Brown Sugar” was released.

Bill McGee left teaching in the public schools and accepted a position at Elizabeth City State University, (a University of North Carolina affiliate,) directing the school’s unique Music Engineering and Technology program, while at the same time pursuing a Master’s Degree in administration at Norfolk State University, in Norfolk, Virginia. After receiving his Master’s degree, he accepted the position of Director of Instrumental Music at the esteemed Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia. “My experience at Morehouse was great, I have never seen a finer group of young men anywhere. The young men who attend Morehouse and the faculty are so focused on excellence that it’s scary. Everyone should visit Morehouse College, just for the experience of seeing this campus full of focused young African-American men, all striving for excellence.” Another highlight of his return to Atlanta was being there for the Centennial Olympiad and performing for one of the Olympic events. “We played for one of the girls basketball games, afterwards Lisa Leslie and Cheryl Swoops gave me a small Olympic basketball, now that was cool and I still have the ball, of course.”

Even while in Norfolk and Atlanta, Bill McGee was still collaborating and running a label with former student from Kennedy High, Danja Mowf (Danger Mouth.) In 1996, they released the solo album by Danja Mowf (Danger Mouth) “Word of Mowf.” On Funtown, which includes one of the best remakes of Billye Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” ever made The album was favorably reviewed in every major hip-hop magazine and was featured in the popular do-it-yourself book “How To Make and Sell Your Own Record” by Diane Rappaport. Bill McGee returned to Richmond from Atlanta to accept a position as an administrator with Richmond Public Schools. “My grandmother always gave me that old school wisdom –You got to have something to fall back on.” So as the industry has flipped and turned over the past thirty years, I’ve worked in the music industry when the work was available and at other times I’ve used my education to make a living and pay my bills. That’s why I went to college in the first place.”

Bill McGee has continued to mentor and develop hip-hop artist. Especially, The SupaFriendz, (Mad Skillz, Danja Mowf, and radio personality/rapper Lonnie B., at Richmond’s Power 92) In 1999, the group had a smash hit with Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody – Remix.” McGee says, ”It was real cool because we got to fly to New York, to perform the song with Aaliyah, Missy and Timbaland. She was such a nice down to earth young lady; it’s a real tragedy that she died at such an early age. I’ll always cherish the picture I took with her.” The SupaFriendz, as a group, have been very close to having a major record deal several times. “

Most recently Bill McGee was the co-executive producer on the title song “What’s The Worst That Can Happen” by The SupaFriendz from the movie by the same name featuring Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito. He also co-wrote and co-produced two other songs that were featured prominently in the movie and on the soundtrack.

With a hint of regret, Bill McGee acknowledges that since 1987 he’s been behind the scenes, still active, but not out front. With the release of his first solo album “This One’s 4U” that’s all about to change. “I’ve always been what people would call a sideman; a member of a group, a supporting musician, or business/production/technical person, someone who is pretty much incognito.” The musicians, the recording engineers, the arrangers, the background singers, the producers, songwriters, the accountants, art designers, they all play a significant role in the process; these are the people who really drive the entertainment industry and they’re all usually incognito.

“As for me, I feel that the time is right for me to step up and do my own thing, so to speak. I’ve worked behind the scenes for years helping other people get to the next level. I’ve played on so many albums where my name isn’t even mentioned; I don’t even remember the names of all the songs. So, I needed to do something for myself. You know, like when you go out a buy a new suit, or treat yourself to something really nice.” Doing this CD was therapeutic. However, Bill McGee knew that he needed to call on his special friends to assist him in his feel good endeavor. So, the first track on the album is a smooth rendition of The Stylistics hit “People Make The World Go ‘Round” featuring the beautiful and talented Shawn Chappelle, a beautiful young vocalist from Richmond, Virginia. “Shawn is like the female voice of the SupaFriendz, I’ve worked with Shawn since she was in high school. She use to sing backup with D’Angelo, plus she had her own group in high school, they were great. Shawn is also an accomplished songwriter with an album finished and ready for distribution. Another friend featured on the album is the venerable James “Plunky” Branch, Richmond’s top recording artist, who opens the first verse of Track 4, “R. Kelly’s, - I Believe I Can Fly” with his smooth tenor sax. The third verse of “I Believe I Can Fly” features the smooth vocal style of the multi-talented Yolanda “Yonnie” Westinghouse, a Richmond native, has a bright future in the music industry as a producer, songwriter, studio owner and artist. The CD, “This One’s 4U,” features a cadre of saxophonists on different tracks and ironically all of them have the first name “James.” On Track-10, “Day-Oh,” Bill McGee called on Richmond, Virginia native and Berklee College of Music Graduate, James “Saxsmo” Gates to play a blazing, soulful alto sax. Track-8 “San Diego Sunset” features the sweet sound of James “J.J.” Johnson, on tenor Sax. Track-3 “My Girl Sunday” a cover of the smooth jazz hit by guitarist, Cheli Minnuci, features the exciting soprano sax of James Holden. Professor Holden is Director of Jazz Studies and the Gospel Choir at Virginia State University. In addition, James Holden co-wrote and plays tenor sax on, Track-9 “Key West Carnival.” “Which was inspired by a beautiful vacation I had in Key West.”

The CD also features the multi-talented Hannon Dexter Lane, who plays guitar on “Day-Oh.” “Hannon and I go back twenty-nine years, when we were both members of the group Trussel.” Hannon co-wrote the hit “Love Injection” which Trussel recorded for Elektra Records in 1979. In addition, guitarist, Tom Reaves plays a funky wah-wah on the title cut “This One’s 4U.” “This was the last song I recorded, I kept hearing this part in my head. So, I called Tom, he came over and 45 minutes later we were finished. That’s when I knew I had completed what I had hoped to accomplish. Tom and I go all the way back to 1984 when he worked with me at a local record chain that I managed. So I was really happy to work with again in this capacity.”

Bill McGee is currently completing his sixth year as an administrator (assistant principal) with The Richmond Public School system, Richmond, Virginia. Bill says, he’s already working on his second CD, which will be released in early 2003. “I want to pace the second CD a little better, with This One’s 4U, I pretty much locked myself in the studio for five months.” According to McGee, the next album will feature songs that were inspired by the writings of great black authors, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, and others. I’m also going to arrange a version of Oleta Adam’s, “Get Here” and Joe Samples, “X Marks The Spot.” I really like both of those songs.

As far as his career in education, he says, “Working with children is my way of thanking my parents, and grandparents for the love they gave, so freely, to me. Many of the children that I work with everyday don’t feel loved. My family has a legacy in education, I’m just trying to live up to that heritage and at the same time use my GOD given gifts as a musician.

Bill McGee comes by both of his missions honestly. His grandfather was a gospel music recording pioneer, The Rev. F. W. McGee of Chicago, was recording for Victor records in the 1920’s. Rev. McGee was credited with influencing Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Arizona Dranes. Rev. McGee was also a pioneer in the holiness movement, as a former teacher turned preacher with the Church of God in Christ, where he founded the first C.O.G.I.C. congregation in Chicago. “Expertly blending lively congregational singing with powerful preaching, the Reverend F.W. McGee was among the most popular country gospel performers of the pre-Depression era.”

McGee’s great-grandfather, W. E. Day was a Professor at Paul Quinn College and Principal at Booker T. Washington High School, Sapulpa, Oklahoma. His father, William Day McGee, was a Superintendent, his uncle William Henry Wiggins, III, of Petersburg, Va., was a Principal for twenty-five years, and his mother, Vivian Laverne McGee, (Va. Union/VSC) taught for twenty years, worked for the U.S. Department of Education and was one of the pioneer directors of the Upward Bound. His first cousin was Dr. Sonya Haynes-Stone, Professor of African-American Studies, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

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