Bill McGee – he’s living on top of his world
By Janice Millan
Bill McGee, a long-time trumpeter, isn’t your average Central Virginia musician. CEO and recording engineer of The 804 Music Group, Bill brings the live feeling of jazz, gospel, and soul to listeners all over—right from his music studio based in Richmond.
Born in Virginia, but also raised in Atlanta, McGee used many sources that have contributed to his music career. He started his early music work in Atlanta and played in many music groups. He learned the music industry and mastered performance to eventually work alongside artists like The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, and D’Angelo.
McGee grew up in Atlanta during the Vietnam War era. “Everything was really fast paced,” he said. He followed many of his friend’s footsteps who also ended up in the professional music industry. He eventually decided to move back to Virginia where life was a little more laid back.
McGee graduated from Virginia State College (University) with a degree in Music Education. He earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from Norfolk State University. In addition to his musical performance and recording career, McGee has been a public school Instrumental Music teacher in Petersburg and Richmond; Director of the Recording Engineering and Technology Program, Elizabeth City State University (NC); Director of Instrumental Music, Morehouse College (GA); and a recently retired Richmond public schools administrator.Still Bill is McGee’s fourth and newest album. His latest and most popular track is titled “Cantaloupe and Watermelon.” All music content was produced in his personal studio where he manages his own record label, The 804 Music Group. The genres and ages that the label manages vary. And though this was McGee’s fourth album, he says it is his most special because of all of the people that participated in it. Still Bill is a collaboration of many musicians in the 804 area. McGee noted, “I think when I put together a list, there are at least 18 people on this album, and that doesn’t even include my grandchildren.” He continued to explain, “There’s a core group of musicians and the age range is real wide.” Ayinde Williams, a pianist who is featured on the album is 18 years old and just graduated from high school. McGee also features a drummer who is 15, and a 16-year-old saxophone player. Many of McGee’s other featured artists are in their 20s, 30s, and the rest in their 60s. He’s worked with many of the musicians over the years and said that is what has made it special for him, “There is lots of love going on in this CD.”
“Cantaloupe and Watermelon” is now a top 30 hit on billboard charts. McGee exclaimed, “We thought by the time April came around we would be getting ready to put out our second single. We didn’t anticipate this song being as successful as it is.” Billboard lists the top 30 songs in the country. Right now Cantaloupe and Watermelon is listed as the 24th most popular song in the country. McGee continued to say, “And hopefully it’ll keep going higher. But just to get on the billboard top 30 is the first time that ever happened for me as a solo artist. All of the people that I’ve worked with in the past have had big hit records. I’ve played on a lot of hit records, but always as a backup musician. So this record is the first time I’ve made it on the charts as a solo musician.”
McGee’s album wasn’t titled Still Bill for just any reason. McGee said, “People would say, you still got it Bill. I’d say back, I know I still got it! So I said ok, I’m still Bill, and that’s just the way the name came about.” McGee mentioned that another artist influenced his album title, too. Singer-songwriter Bill Withers released his own Still Bill in 1972. McGee added, “Well I thought, hey if it’s good enough for Bill Withers, it’s good enough for me.”
McGee’s Still Bill is composed of ninety percent live music. His previous CD was predominately used with sequencing. Sequencing is when a computer is used to play drums or the rhythm track. McGee reworked his studio after retirement to include live drums. Shortly after, he brought in a few of his drummer friends to make new music. Though McGee used live musicians before, most of the rhythm and drums were used through sequencing on his previous albums. This time, live drummers made those tracks.
“I love this area because I think that there is a lot of talent. There aren’t a lot of outlets but the industry has changed so much with everything being online now. If you really have a good product and you know what to do, you can really do fairly decent from just right here in Richmond. My new record is an example of that. This week we’re number 24 with a bullet and hopefully we’ll be on the Top 20 soon; we are number 14 on the smoothjazz.com chart. That’s the highest we’ve ever been on any chart—and that’s all done from right here in Richmond. It’s all about social media and working the Internet and being in communication and creating websites and all of that. The world has just changed. A lot of people used to just run to Atlanta or New York or LA. The music industry has just changed to the point that you don’t necessarily have to do all that running around anymore.”
McGee recorded local gospel artist Reverend Cora Harvey Armstrong’s album with live instruments too. Her CD was right before Still Bill was created. McGee explained that her CD was 99% live. He continued to explain, “Gospel music…you want drums. You want to get that feeling going!” McGee went directly from finishing Armstrong’s CD to finishing Still Bill and thinks that it is the ‘live feel’ and groove that people enjoy.
Still Bill wasn’t a quick project, though. McGee took a nine-year hiatus before his latest release.
“We have nine grandchildren. In the last nine years we’ve had seven of them. I have two grandchildren that are older than nine. One is 12 and one is 11. The other seven are younger than nine. We’ve been doing a lot of granddaddy and grand-mommy stuff. We’ve become real big time grandparents as the number of grandkids is concerned. I always use that as kind of an excuse when people ask me ‘Why haven’t you put out a record in nine years?’ Well, because I’ve had nine grandkids! But I didn’t have any grandchildren; the mothers had them we just play with them (laughs).”
But with McGee being CEO of The 804 Music Group, engineering and producing were always constant. He helped release other artists in the past decade including two albums by James Saxsmo Gates, a CD by Dr. Weldon Hill, and Armstrong’s album. He explained, “Even though we didn’t release a CD by me, I released music from the record label.”
For the future of music in Richmond, McGee sees a bright future. He believes there is a ton of talent in Richmond, saying “A friend of mine told me once that there are a lot of talented people everywhere, but I think that Virginia has, per capita, some of the most talented people that you would find anywhere.” Further elaborating, “I know a lot of people like bigger cities like Atlanta, but that’s because a lot of people move there. Richmond, VA, is not really a mecca for people to come to, so if you’ve got any talent it’s usually homegrown talent. I feel homegrown because I was actually born in Richmond even though I grew up all over the place.”
McGee plans to work on many more projects this year. He hopes to release at least two or three other CDs this year. McGee, with the help of The 804 Music Group artists, is collaborating on an upcoming compilation CD. A lot of different background musicians who are featured on McGee’s single will have songs of their own released this time. Tom Reaves, a guitarist who has played on all four of Bill’s albums is one of them. A couple of associate producers (E J Shaw and Brandon Lane) will have their own features. McGee plans to participate in album production, but no track will be listed under his name. He said the main goal is to keep trying to expand their base and make hit records.
“We didn’t anticipate this much success. It’s a really big deal. We feel so blessed.”