McNeely, Big Jay
Big Jay McNeely
Arabble-rousing musical pioneer who used the tenor saxophone as his solo instrument of choice in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, Big Jay McNeely has electrified audiences for over 50 years with his outrageous stage presence. Inspired by Illinois Jacquet’s frantic soloing, he developed a squawking, honking playing style that has earned him the nicknames “Big Jay McSquealy,” “The Deacon of Tenor Sax,” and “King of the Honkers.” McNeely became famous in the late 1940s for his acrobatic performance style, such as blowing sheets of sound from his instrument while spinning round and round on his back, and by playing on his knees.
McNeely and his musically inclined brothers grew up in the city of Watts, now a part of Los Angeles. Their parents had migrated in search of work from Kentucky and Tennessee during World War I. Watts at that time was a melting pot—and a happening place for live music. The McNeelys raised their family not far from the Watts Towers monument. “My parents played piano a little,” McNeely said in an interview with Larry Benicewicz on the Baltimore Blues Society website. “And my older brother, Dillard, later played bass for me. But it was my other brother Bobby who played the alto. He even gave it to me when he went into the service in World War II.” Later, Bob McNeely would play the alto and baritone saxophones alongside his brother in recording sessions.
While still in high school, McNeely formed his first group. “We had about ten pieces of mixed kids who’d play at small functions like dances. We’d call ourselves the ‘Earls of ‘44,’ after pianist Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, who was popular at the time,” he continued in the Benicewicz interview. McNeely was still learning his craft solely on the alto saxophone. Meanwhile, he worked with his father at the nearby Firestone rubber plant. As he honed his skills as a musician, he dreamed of bettering his circumstances. With this in mind his parents allowed him to transfer from local Jordan High School to Polytechnic High School downtown, where most of the students were white. “At Poly we had music appreciation and some formal training,” he continued to Benicewicz, “and that is when I met [alto saxophonist] Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes [later a famed jazz pianist]. It wasn’t long before we formed a hot little combo.”
McNeely began studying harmony, theory, and scales with Alma Hightower, Criss’ tutor, at 50 cents a lesson. He began playing the tenor saxophone at this time and also started going to a local club called Billy Berg’s, where he encountered the saxophonist Lloyd Reece. “Lloyd came out of Les Hite’s band and he’d rehearse every Sunday at the black musician’s union hall…” he told Benicewicz. “You’d never know who was going to show up. I saw all the greats—Mingus, Dexter Gordon,
For the Record…
Formed ten-piece ensemble at Jordan High School, Los Angeles, playing alto saxophone, 1944; transferred to Polytechnic High School to receive formal musical training; formed combo there with classmates Sonny Criss (alto saxophonist) and Hampton Hawes (pianist); switched to playing tenor saxophone; joined house band at Los Angeles’s Barrelhouse club, 1948; recorded first cuts as sideman on Excelsior label, 1948; had big break with release of singles on the Savoy label—“Deacon’s Hop,” “Wild Wig,” and “There Is Something on My Mind,” 1949; fell into obscurity, became postman and Jehovah’s Witness, 1960s-1970s; resurgence in 1980s with reissues of albums, touring, and releases of new albums in Europe; continued touring overseas and again in U.S., 1990s; released Central Avenue Confidential in U.S., 2000.
Awards: Rhythm and Blues Foundation, Pioneer Award, 2001.
Howard McGhee, or whoever might be appearing at Billy Berg’s.”
Despite his growing familiarity with Los Angeles’s exciting music scene, McNeely still concentrated on his formal music studies. He began lessons with Gene Barham, a retired opera singer and voice instructor, and with Samuel R. Browne, the band teacher at Jefferson High School, where McNeely and Criss were now students. Barham, whose clients included Judy Garland, taught both McNeely and his brother Bob breath control and circular breathing, while Browne, who had instructed tenor saxophone icon Dexter Gordon as a youth, taught McNeely about jazz music. In 1947, after McNeely had graduated from high school and Bob was back from Army service, the two youths began studying with Joseph Cadaly, a saxophone and clarinet player from the RKO Studios orchestra. For five dollars an hour, “Both of us got the full treatment of classical conservatory stuff—theory, counterpoint, harmony, etc.,” he recalled to Benicewicz. “It wasn’t my cup of tea but it was information I really needed to know.” Nevertheless, as a player he would achieve fame because of his unorthodox approach to the music.
McNeely’s first break came in 1948. He was befriended by the drummer and bandleader Johnny Otis, who co-owned the Barrelhouse club in Los Angeles. On a Thursday amateur night at the Barrelhouse, McNeely’s over-the-top antics at the open microphone led Otis to offer him a position in his house band. It wasn’t long before McNeely and Otis were recording together on the “black” independent label, Excelsior, which regularly recorded Otis.
That same year McNeely met the record producer and talent scout Ralph Bass, a friend of Otis who was fanatical about the R&B dancehall craze. Bass convinced Savoy Records chief Herman Lubinsky to sign McNeely to a contract. After first consulting with McNeely’s parents, Lubinsky bankrolled his initial sessions for Savoy, in Hollywood. Lubinsky also convinced McNeely to shed the name Cecil for the more commercially viable “Big Jay”—though McNeely was of average stature. “I had no idea what I was gonna do [in the Savoy sessions],” McNeely later said to Jonnny Whiteside of LA Weekly, “but I went to see Pete Canard, he had a little record shop down on Compton Avenue, talked to them, and they gave me a record by Glenn Miller [Nothing but Soul] that had that sock cymbal on it—chh-chh, chh-chh-chh—so I developed the number [“Deacon’s Hop”] from that. I went into the studio and forgot all about the training I’d had for a solid year and just went completely in the other direction.” McNeely’s first singles released by Savoy were unsuccessful, but “Deacon’s Hop” went all the way to number one on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1949. “Here I was just a kid of 21 with a national number one hit on my hands. It was pretty unbelievable,” he recalled to Benicewicz.
In the same year, another single, “Wild Wig,” reached number 12 on the R&B charts, and McNeely wowed audiences with his scandalous stage act at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field, stealing the show from his idol, the bandleader Lionel Hampton. “After that performance, he barred me from ever performing with him again,” he told Benicewicz. To get even more attention, he began playing his glow-in-the-dark saxophone.
During the 1950s McNeely recorded a series of fasttempo, lusty albums, including Big “J” in 3-D, The Deacon Rides Again, and Live at Birdland: 1957. In 1959 he released his last smash single, “There is Something on Your Mind,” which reached number five on the R&B charts.
Of McNeely’s sway over his fans, LA Weekly quoted a 1953 Ebony magazine review of a McNeeley concert: “A young white lad got so hepped up over Big Jay’s music that he jumped out of a balcony onto the main floor where he miraculously landed without hurting himself and went into a riotous dance. In Redondo Beach last summer, a teen-aged white girl was sent into raging hysterics by the violent sounds of Big Jay’s horn. She did not recover her balance until her boy friend had slapped her face vigorously about a dozen times.”
Around the turn of the decade the honking R&B pied piper began to lose his grip on the charts. McNeely, a youthful relic of an already bygone era soon found himself without a recording contract. To support him-self, he worked as a postman and found spiritual sanctuary as a Jehovah’s Witness. In the early 1980s, however, he began a comeback when some of his early albums were reissued in the United States. He was suddenly touring again, albeit with less fanfare, and released new albums in Europe. In 2000Central Avenue Confidential was released to rave reviews. “The deacon’s still hopping!” wrote critic Bill Dahl in the All Music Guide to the Blues. McNeely was given a Pioneer Award for individual achievement by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 2001.
Big “J”in 3-D, Federal, 1954; reissued, King, 1994.
The Deacon Rides Again, Marconi, 1957; reissued, Pathe Marconi, 1983.
From Harlem to Camden, Ace, 1983.
Nervous, Saxophile, 1995.
Swingin’—Golden Classics, Collectables, 1994.
Live at Blrdland: 1957 (reissue), Collectables, 1992.
Central Avenue Confidential, Atomic Theory, 2000.
All Music Guide to the Blues, Miller Freeman Books, 1996.
Encyclopedia of Popular Music, third edition, Grove’s Dictionaries, 1998.
LA. Weekly, February 2000.
“Big Jay McNeely,” Louie’s Juke Joint: Music and Voodoo, http://www.thejukejoint.com/bigjaymcneel.html (February 23, 2002).
“Big Jay McNeeley [sic] Rocked the House,” Soul-Patrol, http://www.soul-patrol.com/randbfoundation/jay.htm (February 23, 2002).
“Big Jay, The Early Years,” Baltimore Blues Society, http://www.mojoworkin.com/bluesrag/features/897jay.html (February 23, 2002).
Official Big Jay McNeely Webpage, http://www.spookypie.com/bigjay.html (February 23, 2002).
—David László Conhaim
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