Open the Door, Richard

“Open the Door, Richard” is a song first recorded on the Black & White Records label by saxophonistist Jack McVea at the suggestion of A&R man Ralph Bass. In 1947, it was the number-one song on Billboard’s “Honor Roll of Hits” and became a runaway pop sensation.

“Open the Door, Richard” started out as a black vaudeville routine. Pigmeat Markham, one of several who performed the routine, attributed it to his mentor Bob Russell. The routine was made famous by Dusty Fletcher on stages like the Apollo Theater in New York and in a short film. Dressed in rags, drunk, and with a ladder as his only prop, Fletcher would repeatedly plunk the ladder down stage center, try to climb it to knock on an imaginary door, then crash sprawling on the floor after a few steps while shouting, half-singing “Open the Door, Richard”. After this he would mutter a comic monologue, then try the ladder again and repeat the process, while the audience was imagining what Richard was so occupied doing.

Jack McVea was responsible for the musical riff which became associated with the words “Open the Door, Richard” that became familiar to radio listeners; as many as 14 different recordings were made.


In the song, accompanied by a rhythm section and McVea’s expressive tenor honking, the intoxicated, rowdy band members come home late at night, knowing Richard has the only key to the house. Knocking and repeated calls from McVea and the band members for Richard to open the door get no result. The musical refrain kicks in with the musicians singing in unison:

Open the door, Richard,
Open the door and let me in,
Open the door, Richard,
Richard, why don’t you open that door!

The spoken dialog makes humorous references to negative aspects of urban African-American life, including poverty and police brutality. The narrator explains, “I know he’s in there, ’cause I got on the clothes.” He also says, “I was on relief, but they got short of help and you had to go downtown to pick up the checks, so I gave it up.” Later, when a policeman tells him to come down from the ladder and begins hitting his feet, the narrator protests, “You act like one of them police that ain’t never arrested nobody before.”

Although the neighbors are being disturbed, McVea continues knocking as the song fades away.

The recording by Jack McVea, recorded in October 1946, was released by Black & White Records as catalog number 792. It first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on February 14, 1947.