|Neil McGee had a life much larger than the diminished circumstances of his later years. Shown (above) in front of Cambridge’s Plough and Stars, (photo by Paul Collins) and (below) in a studio in 1983, McGee left an indelible mark on the local music scene. (Photos courtesy of Erint Images)
CAMBRIDGE — Smiling like a reggae-Buddha, Neil McGee sat in a corner of my living room, his hands gently brushing over a conga in perfect time with the rag-tag musical horde making a joyful sound in the Cambridge night.
One of the amateur songsters began noodling the opening chords to Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.” Neil nodded, cleared his throat and began to sing, conjuring from somewhere in the past the liquid tenor of a troubadour who knows every dip and turn of the song, the heartache of every pause, the rhythmic core of an island ballad.
It was astounding — and the first of many lessons that my laughing friend who tooled around town on a second-hand bike had a life much larger than the diminished circumstances of his later years. But that’s Cambridge, where you learn to expect the unexpected.
Neil McGee’s life, which ended last August after three-score years on the planet, contained extraordinary passages.
By the age of 10, he had performed in the Yale Bowl — dancing with his father for an audience of 80,000. As a teenager, he showed his moves on “American Bandstand.”
In 1967, he got arrested with Jim Morrison of the Doors at the New Haven Arena. He spent a few fitful years at Yale, befriended Michael and Orrin Bolton, toured with Earth, Wind, and Fire, fronted bands from coast to coast, and helped bring reggae to Boston — not just the sound but also the stars, including his friend Bob Marley.
Neil convinced the owners of the Orson Welles Cinema to show the reggae classic, “The Harder They Come,” which played for 10 smoke-filled years in Central Square. When Marley came to town, the Wailers crashed at his Green Street pad.
Neil was a Cambridge original, someone who knew everyone, who was as passionate about politics as music and who forever carried the memories of a tough childhood. “Life was not always easy for Neil,” said Sarah Mendelsohn, who was the drummer in the band Shy Five. “Music gave him joy and he was able to give others joy through music.”
In the music he wrote and performed with Shy Five, the reggae inflection was dominant. Marley taught him the distinctive staccato of skank guitar, a sound Neil used to say he loved both musically and culturally because “the accents were on the off-beat.”
His eclectic tastes reflected his experience growing up in 1960s New Haven, one foot in the city’s well-established African American community, the other on the Yale campus, with its Cantabrigian blend of tweedy establishment and trust-fund revolution.
His grandmother Jessie McGee was a college graduate from Mississippi, an unusual achievement for a black woman in pre-World War II America. She ran a boarding house in New Haven where Harlem celebrities like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, who couldn’t stay at the white hotels downtown, enjoyed her hospitality.
His father Richard, a gifted hoofer and singer, adored his sons Neil and Trent. Arrested and beaten by New Haven cops at the age of 33, he suffered injuries from which he never recovered and died before the age of 35. Neil’s mother sank into depression and moved out of town.
Neil’s Aunt Grace finally tracked down the family and brought the boys home to live with her. It took several years, family members recall, for the shock of abject poverty and isolation to wear off and Neil to regain some joy again in living.
Under Grace’s tutelage, Neil did well in school, earning a scholarship to Yale. But classrooms came to matter less to Neil than music and the whiff of change — and cheap hemp — in the air. How could you study Plato with the Black Panthers on trial in downtown New Haven? Neil left school to start a hipster clothing store called Renaissance on Whalley Avenue, purveying striped bell bottoms and vests for the Woodstock Generation.
He followed friends to Cambridge, tooled around with local bands, moved to California and ventured to Jamaica to seek new sounds and, as always, new friends. Isis, the Itones, the Pearls — a succession of bands led him back to Cambridge once again.
With the Sibling Rivals, later renamed Shy Five, he found his most lasting musical family. In a 1988 WERS-FM studio recording of “Steal Away,” Neil’s sweet vocals hover over tight instrumentals, the reggae refrain blending implausibly with psychedelic guitar licks.
The band, like everything, didn’t last, but the sound remains — notes caught in amber, evoking the stages of the Plough & Stars, the Western Front and other local venues where the Shy Five found their groove.
As the music faded in Neil’s life, he turned to politics, everything from community organizing, volunteering on political campaigns, holding signs and passing out fliers, finding fulfillment in working for the progressive causes he believed in.
When Farm Aid came to Boston several years ago, who else but Neil would serve as the perfect body-man for Willie Nelson — shuttling the pony-tailed country crooner around town, two worn showmen sharing the musical and cultural history of Neil’s adopted home.
The last few years were not easy for Neil. Money was tight. Work was scarce. Diabetes slowed him down. Friends checked in on Neil from time to time at his Cambridge Street apartment. Toward the end of July 2009, after a few days of unreturned phone calls, a friend called police. Neil was gone — back to Jah.
Hundreds of friends turned out a few weeks later at the Plough to raise a glass to Neil. His family drove up from New Haven, looking around in wonder at the motley mix of businessmen, politicians, ministers, musicians, street poets, fly girls, fishermen and short-order cooks who made up Neil’s living rolodex.
And soon the Shy Five, his beloved ensemble, will reunite to perform a musical tribute to Neil McGee. Proceeds from the concert, on June 19, 7 p.m., at the Somerville Arts Armory on Highland Avenue, will go toward youth programs, in particular the Mark Sandman Music Project, which provides musical education for young people.
Music, friends and a good cause — there’s no more fitting tribute to Neil McGee, who loved them all with equal and unabashed measure.
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