The name John McLellan might be unfamiliar to many readers of this blog. That’s understandable; it’s been almost 60 years since John’s jazz program was last heard on Boston radio. McLellan, whose real name was John Fitch, died in Boston on Nov 28, 2020, at age 94 (obituary). He was a man of many interests who reinvented himself and his career several times in the years before people talked about doing that. But I think of him in the context of just one of those interests and careers. I think of John McLellan as a good friend of jazz.

Photo of John McLellan, 1955

John McLellan, about 1955

I’ve written about John McLellan here, and specifically about his TV program here, as well as in The Boston Jazz Chronicles. But to briefly summarize his decade in the jazz world: hosted The Top Shelf on WHDH-AM from April 1951 to February 1961; wrote 400 “Jazz Scene” newspaper columns for the Boston Traveler between August 1957 and September 1961; hosted a twice-monthly Jazz Scene program on WHDH-TV from May 1958 to December 1961; and emceed the first two Newport Jazz Festivals in 1954 and 1955. And he wrote liner notes, narrated the “Living History of Jazz” production with Herb Pomeroy’s big band, mentored the Teenage Jazz Club, and more. Without a doubt, it was a vast body of work.

The Top Shelf

John McLellan’s years on WHDH-AM were good ones for local jazz radio. All the action was on commercial AM stations. When McLellan was on WHDH in 1952-53, Nat Hentoff was on WMEX, and Sabby Lewis and Symphony Sid Torin were on WBMS. When Hentoff left for New York, Ken Malden, Bob “the Robin” Martin, and Norm Nathan came on the air. Most built long radio careers in Boston or beyond. An announcer needed personality to stand out in that crowd, and John had one, even though he played it down: “We were hired because we have nice voices and can sell soap.” He was unhurried and approachable. And he indeed had that nice voice—one of the local supermarket chains hired him as their radio spokesman.

He told me it took awhile to get the right informal feel. He started out as too scripted. It probably didn’t help that the station manager told him not to use the word “jazz” on the air because it might frighten the sponsors. But he became a Saturday-night fixture on local radio soon enough. Ron Della Chiesa remembers McLellan as “the most learned of the broadcasters. He could put any tune in context, relate it to its time, describe how it fit into what the artist was doing.” In 1956, Metronome magazine called him “the purest jazz jockey in town” because of his emphasis on the music.

Photo of Duke Ellington and John McLellan

Duke Ellington on the set of Jazz Scene, 1959. Photo courtesy Robert Fitch.

Armstrong, Ellington and Parker were McLellan’s jazz pillars. Armstrong and Ellington were guests on his TV program, while Parker did interviews on The Top Shelf. One of those sessions was something out of the ordinary, though, as John brought Paul Desmond into the studio to conduct the interview. You can hear it here. McLellan wasn’t happy with the result. He thought Desmond asked too many softball questions, allowing Parker to coast on pleasantries while offering few insights.

There was a little more of Bird on WHDH, too. McLellan set up a tape recorder at home to capture his remote broadcasts from Storyville, provided, of course, that someone at home remembered to turn on the machine. Tapes of Charlie Parker at Storyville in 1953, complete with John’s intros, survived the decades in storage and were eventually released on vinyl by Blue Note in 1985 (BT-85108).

The Jazz Scene Columns

McLellan’s newspaper columns for the Traveler remain, to this day, a remarkable achievement. The newspaper wars were still in full swing in the late 1950s. Boston had three afternoon dailies then, one of which was the Traveler (it shut down in 1967). McLellan wrote two columns a week for four years (a pace any blogger today would be proud of), and anything that happened in regional jazz figured into that column. No other paper in town covered the jazz beat. Fifty years later, my own writing benefited greatly from these columns. I could not have written The Boston Jazz Chronicles without this week-by-week record of reporting.

By 1961, John McLellan felt it was time to move on. The radio station canceled his show in February. He gave up the newspaper column in September: “I had said everything I had to say about jazz, and I was starting to repeat myself.” Finally, in December he gave up the television show. And there was something else, too. He’d heard the new directions in jazz being played by Ornette Coleman and Ken McIntyre, and even though he recognized their importance, he couldn’t get excited about it. He was ready for something new.

With his passing, another link to Boston’s jazz past is gone. But we should all be thankful for the reporting on the jazz scene that he left behind.

To the music. In 1956, Don Elliott wrote a tune for John to use as The Top Shelf theme. He named it “Straits of McClellan,” spelling John’s name wrong. No matter, it’s a great tune, and I’ve added it to my YouTube channel. Elliott included it on his 1956 ABC-Paramount album, A Musical Offering. Sometimes I sub as a host on WETF radio (“the Jazz Station”), and I use “Straits” for my show intro. I’m sure John wouldn’t mind.