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An appreciation

Brian Wright O’Connor | 6/18/2010, 6:57 a.m.
Neil McGee: Cambridge Troubadour Brian Wright O’Connor Neil McGee had a life...

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 and 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.