Ernest McLean, a musician considered by many the best guitarist ever produced in New Orleans, died in Los Angeles February 24 at age 85. He started playing guitar when he was 11. “My father had a job playing in a government concert band in New Orleans,” he said in an interview. “They told him the banjo player needed to double on guitar. When he started to learn the guitar he taught me too.”
In the late 1940s, he was hired to play guitar with Dave Bartholomew’s band, the same band that Bartholomew used when he began producing R&B records at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio on Rampart Street. Of the hundreds of recordings McLean was present on, some that stand out include Fats Domino’s historic “The Fat Man” and “ Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” Beyond the studio, McLean also played at many clubs in the city, most notably the Dew Drop Inn on Lasalle. It was said that McLean would leave the all-night weekend jam sessions at the Dew Drop and then attend the early Sunday mass at St. Jude’s Catholic Church.
“None of the other guitarists came even close to Ernest McLean,” contended Alvin “Red” Tyler in a 1973 interview with John Broven. Tyler was a member of the same band and played on scores of sessions with McLean. “McLean was by far the best musician in Dave Bartholomew’s band, I’ll give you an idea of how good he was. Most guitar players, when they voice a chord on guitar, you say, ‘Mac, I want a C9, I want a third on top,’ there was no problem for him. He didn’t have to say, ‘Well let me see…’ McLean was one of the few musicians I knew that spent 10 or 11 hours a day practicing. He helped found the Fats Domino Sound.”
In the late 1950s, at the urging of drummer Earl Palmer, McLean moved to the West Coast. Palmer had played drums in Bartholomew’s band and moved to Los Angeles, where he became an established studio musician. Rather than pursue studio work however, McLean was hired to play in Earl Bostic’s band.
In the early 1960s, he was directly hired by Walt Disney to play jazz standards at Disneyland. McLean was employed by Disneyland for more than 30 years, though he did take some time off to record on Dr. John’s first album, Gris Gris, for which he performed on guitar and mandolin, an instrument he had never before played.
In November 2010, McLean participated in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s tribute to Bartholomew in a panel at Case Western University which discussed the early careers of Domino and Bartholomew. He was part of an impromptu jam session where he played one last time with Bartholomew.