Tracy McCleary, 89, led the house band at the Royal Theater

December 30, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Tracy McCleary, a saxophonist who led the house band in Baltimore's principal black theater and accompanied Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole during a musical career that spanned six decades, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at St. Agnes HealthCare. The Edmondson Village resident was 89.

From 1948 to 1966, Mr. McCleary led his 12-man group, Tracy McCleary and His Royal Men of Rhythm, seven days a week, four shows a day at the old Royal Theater in the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Ave. in the heart of the city's African-American entertainment and business district.

"He was such a gem, a precious man, with a beautiful smile and eyes sparkling," said jazz singer Ruby Glover, who was a Royal Theater patron. "All our lives we looked up to Tracy. He and his band were such a wonderful instrument of our musical education. He never ceased talking about making the music fit the audience. He also talked about honor and always being polite."

Adept at the saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and flute, Mr. McCleary often joined his orchestra to play the sax and, occasionally, the flute.

"He played a beautiful saxophone," said Montell Poulson, a bassist who lives in Baltimore. "He was also a beautiful gentleman.

Mr. McCleary was the emcee for many of the shows and introduced the performers.

"I told no jokes," he said in a 1991 Evening Sun interview. "The band always opened the show with a popular number of the day, but we had no signature song. In between the live shows, the Royal presented first-run movies, cartoons and travelogues."

As Royal band leader, Mr. McCleary was responsible for all the live music at the theater. He was in charge of program, song arrangements and the hiring and firing of the artists. "I found the biggest thing is to get along with people. Make allowances for shortcomings," he said in the 1991 newspaper interview.

"Some stars were testy," he recalled at that time. "If the act was not going well, it was everybody's fault ... not theirs. I found the bigger the performers, the easier they were to get along with."

"Pearl Bailey was just a dancer in the chorus line then. Her brother was Bill Bailey, a great dancer. Billie Holiday was troublesome," he noted. "She took drugs and was mostly always out of it."

"Musicians are not usually friends with stars," he said. "Musicians must study and practice and practice and practice. Performers can be little talented but look good with music."

"Dinah Washington was a bit difficult," he said. "Dionne Warwick was not very impressive when she sang a Nelson Riddle repertoire. Her performance was not up to the music. My prediction, wrong, of course, was she would not ever make it."

Mr. McCleary once employed Ray Charles to warm up the audience for the stars. Charlie Parker was a member of the band for a short time. "My job was to cue the youngsters in," Mr. McCleary said.

"I taught Fats Domino how to maneuver on stage. He was always walking into someone or something," he said.

Among those whom Mr. McCleary admired most were Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. "Ella was great. Nat King Cole a joy," he said. "Nat was so pleased with our arrangements of his songs that he said we may not be the best band he ever worked with, but we were the blowingist."

"He was well educated in music," said one of Mr. McCleary's former sidemen, Arthur Garner, a saxophone player who lives in Randallstown. "We had a fine time playing together. Tracy was a happy fellow. He ran the place according to the rules. You couldn't show up late for a show."

Born in McCurtain County, Okla., Mr. McCleary was the son of a black farmer and a Choctaw woman. He moved at an early age with his family to Oklahoma City, then an oil boom town. Mr. McCleary learned to play jazz at Frederick Douglass High School there. As a 15-year-old, he was entertaining oilfield workers in gin joints.

In 1933, he attended Talladega College on a music scholarship but soon switched to Alabama State College and played in the school's ensemble, the Collegians. He was soon missing his examinations because he was playing engagements in places as distant as Asbury Park, N.J., and Chicago. Mr. McCleary was headed back to school when he came to Baltimore from an engagement in New York in 1936. He had a stint as bandleader at the old Carlin's Park open-air dance arena and at Ike Dixon's Comedy Club, a popular Pennsylvania Avenue night spot, where he led the house orchestra. He then signed on with the Royal Theater in 1937 after Rivers Chambers, its band leader, quit and set up his own group.

"The Royal seated 1,349 and had a beautiful velvet curtain, elaborate boxes overlooking the stage and uniformed ushers," Mr. McCleary said in the 1991 interview. "People came in their best finery to see the stars and a variety of acts that included Hungarian acrobats, dancing bears and singing dogs."

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