Arkansongs – It’s Another Song of Arkansas: ‘Open the Door, Richard’

November 4-10, 2019

By Stephen Koch


Arkansongs – It’s Another Song of Arkansas: ‘Open the Door, Richard’


The catchphrase “Open the door, Richard” isn’t well-remembered today, but it caught fire in America and beyond in the 1940s, and R&B pioneer Louis Jordan of Brinkley can take a lot of the credit – or blame for its spread.


“Open the Door, Richard” first gained wide attention as a comedy stage routine perfected by John “Spider Blue” Mason and popularized by comedian Clinton “Dusty” Fletcher, but possibly dating back even further. The origins of “Richard” were onstage, but Fletcher’s version of the routine – which was quite physical as well as verbal and involved a ladder and a beatdown from a policeman – became so well-known it was filmed for a short feature in 1945. Fletcher plays a drunkard coming home after a night of partying, only to discover he’s lost his house key. His inebriated quips as he tries to enter his home and mask his drunkenness are punctuated by repeated loud knocking and a yell for his roommate – who, yes, is named Richard – to open the door.


The first recorded musical version of this comedy bit was done by saxman Jack McVea, formerly of Lionel Hampton’s band. Arkansas Delta native Jordan and his Tympany Five band charted a version of the song in spring 1947 – already well into the “Richard” trend. In fact, the culture was so rife with “Richard” references that year, New York radio station WOR banned any airplay of the musical version of the song and encouraged comedians to cease performing the routine onstage.


Recorded in January 1947, Jordan’s version of “Open the Door, Richard,” like Fletcher’s, incorporated much of the comedy routine to music. He also copies some of Fletcher’s choice one-liners like “I know I ain’t common, cause I’ve got class I ain’t never used yet!” and “I’m going to drink to everyone’s health until I ruin my own!”


Another quip, this one about the landlady, goes, “Imagine that old woman charging us three dollars a month, and getting mad ‘cause we’re twelve months in the arrears! Come meet me last Thursday saying, ‘Ain’t you boys going to give me some back rent?’ I told her she’d be lucky if she got some front rent!”


Riding the wave of fame, the market became flooded with versions of “Open the Door, Richard,” including ones by Count Basie, Hot Lips Page, the Three Flames, the Charioteers and Jimmy Durante. McVea quickly moved to cash in as the originator of the musical version of “Open the Door, Richard,” changing the name of his band to “The Door Openers,” and recording a follow-up called “The Key Is In The Mailbox,” which flopped.


Some recorded versions of the song didn’t use any of the comedy routine at all, just the “Richard” refrain. Vaudeville legend Stepin Fetchit filmed a sequel to the “Richard” comedy routine called “Lazy Richard (Can’t Get Him Up)” that featured an uncredited Jordan and band. “Open the Door, Richard’s” sketchy written origins, coupled with its fast ubiquity in the marketplace, meant a lawsuit was soon in order; Fletcher and Mason received writing credit, although many of its collection of jokes were from far-flung sources.


White hot through the 1940s, the catchphrase “Open the Door, Richard” still had legs in subsequent decades. It’s referenced in at least two separate Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Foghorn Leghorn and Yosemite Sam. Rockabilly performer Billy Lee Riley of Pocahontas recorded a version for Memphis’s Sun Records in 1957, as did Billy Adams. Beyond its numerous versions recorded in English, the comedy routine/song has been recorded in several other languages, among countless other references in media. Bob Dylan and the Band recorded an homage called “Open the Door, Homer” in the late 1960s. Even in the 21st century, Jordan’s version landed on the “Mafia 2” video game soundtrack. And people of a certain age named Richard can attest to the number of times they’ve been asked to open the door.


Comedy aside, “Open the Door, Richard” became one of several calls of the American civil rights movement. It was a phrase used in the American racial integration battles of the 1950s and 1960s as doors previously closed in the U.S. were demanded to be opened. With that, and the routine’s likely origins in minstrelsy, one could say the phrase “Open the Door, Richard” came full circle.



“Open the Door, Richard”- Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five

“Open the Door, Homer”- Bob Dylan and the Band

“The Key Is In the Mailbox”- Jack McVea

“Open the Door, Richard”- Dusty Fletcher

“Open the Door, Homer”- Thunderclap Newman

“Open the Door, Richard”- Walter Brown with the Tiny Grimes Sextet


(Author and musician Stephen Koch’s weekly “Arkansongs” program is syndicated on public radio stations all across Arkansas, in Louisiana, and in east Texas.)