ROLLEE McGILL (By Phil Davies)
Born 29 December 1931, Kingstree, South Carolina
I first heard of Mr McGill during my mid 70s college years via my secret tutor "Prof" Bill Millar. Rollee's Mercury 45 Oncoming Train was featured on side two of Phonogram's tasty Other Song Of The South -Louisiana RnR lp which came out in 1975. This album introduced me to many of my southern favs inc Jivin' Gene, Rod Bernard, Guitar Jnr, Elton Anderson, Phil Phillips,the magnificent Cookie and the Cupcakes and the incomparable Prof Longhair. Bill's liner notes pointed out that the laid back Louisiana styled music came from Philadelphia based Rollee. Bill reckons that the track featured Mickey Guitar Baker as an added bonus (not confirmed by the cd notes). Over the decades I managed to find more songs by the others on the album but ole Rollee boy proved elusive until I got my mitts onto his fine 1999 cd Rhythm Rockin' Blues on Bear Family. If you are not familiar with any of Rollee's singles then you will have heard his cracking sax solo on the Silhouettes 57 classic Get A Job.
The date and place of Rollee's birth proves elusive (hence my not nominating him for a BTBWY piece) and he seems to have avoided researchers/interviewers over the years. Eagle eyed Colin Escott spotted his sister's 1997 obit on the internet. She died in Kingstree S carolina but had lived in Philadelphia. Her late parents were Jessie and Annie McGill, and she had two brothers Rollee and Clarence.
Rollee and the Rhythm Rockers hit the national r&b charts in 1955 with the great There Goes That Train on Mercury. it was originally on Philly based Piney Records (owned by Herman "Piney" Gillespie).Mr G wrote the Turban's Sister Sookey (a regional hit) and helped get them a deal on Herald.Originally a big band man he became a mentor for the young 50s r&b wannabees in Philly, helping Rollee, Little Joe Cook, Don Gardner ,the Manhattans, Faye Simmons & the Filatones, the Turbans and the Silhouettes. The latter's tenor man, and former Turbans roadie, Rick Lewis (a keen Philly music historian now) reckons Rollee cut his hit at the Reco-Art studios on Market St, the songs would be rehearsed elsewhere throughly before the session and then the sides would be cut quickly in a hundred dollar session.The BF booklet merely list New York as the venue.
Train broke out quickly locally on Piney and Mercury quickly picked up the national rights to both the single and the front man. It hit the Billboard charts in August 55 and reached #10 on both dj and jukebox charts. Rollee plays fine solos on the hit and the flip You Left Me Here To Cry. It drew a cover on Groove by Maymie Watts and another arrangement on a Gillespie subsidiary Nestor by the Treblaires . As late as 63 Lee Martin cut a version down in the bayous for the Jinn label, as did Snooks Eaglin in 91, both fine tributes to Rollee's yankee version of the bayou sound. The other Piney sides were unissued until the BF cd came out. His next session was in LA in June of 55, with Chuck Norris on guitar and the superb Ernie Freeman on piano. Rollee wrote all four songs which became his follow ups to his biggie. Neither charted which is not a reflection on the quality of the songs especially the great flip Rhythm Rockin' Blues.
Undaunted, Rollee returned to NY in on January 24th 1956 (the same week that Elvis first shook up America on the Dorsey/Gleason tv Stage Show ) . Rollee cut thecracking Oncoming Train, I'm Not Your Square and two more sides. Neither charted in the rock n roll boom year of 56 and mercury and Rollee eventually parted Back in Philly he hooked up with local dj/mc and record shop owner Kae Williams (an associate of Piney's).
Kae owned the labels kaiser and Junior that Rollee recorded for. In 57 he cut the two part People Are Talking for Kaiser which was later leased to local biggie Cameo. Talented artists like Rollee and Gracie were neglected instead of the latest teen quiff of the month/Bandstand dance craze.
In October 57 he cut the great blasting sax solo on the Silhouettes classic Get A Job (# one pop and r&b Feb 58, penned by Rick Lewis), originally released on Junior before being leased to Ember (Cameo and many other labels turned it down). Incidentally the group was originally named the Thunderbirds before Junior bos Kae Williams renamed them after the Rays biggie. Rollee couldn't read music and his songs and solos were usually head arrangemnets made up on the spot, magic. Lewsi says what Rollee played wasn't written by the arranger Howard Biggs instead " Rollee just winged it". Amen to that. The Mills Brothers even charted (#21) with a cover but didn't have the killer sax solo though.
More Rollee sessions followed in 58, one in NY for Junior, even trying songs written by otherswhich flopped despite a Xmas 58 trade ad billing him as "America's newest song salesman" , another session in 59 for Chelsea in Ny flopped on a Sam Cooke styled ballad, as did two sessions in 63 (featuring fine sax by Rollee) and 65 (soul style). Although he remained on the music scene in Philly nothing has been heard of him for years, Rick Lewis has tried tracking him down but as yet with no success. Luckily BF have compiled a fine 29 track cd ensuring that Mr McGill's fine musical legacy will not be forgotten. If you like southern styled r&b then I heartily recommend this collection.
The Rollster's elusiveness is confirmed by there only being one photo of him in the booklet yet there are six label shots confirming that he did exist! A case for Mulder and Scully , the SAX Files perhaps.
Highly recommended cd:
special thanks to Bill Dahl's fine notes for much of the above
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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