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Big Jay McNeely

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Biography

As one of the titans who made tenor sax the solo instrument of choice during rock's primordial era, Big Jay McNeely could peel the paper right off the walls with his sheets of squealing, honking horn riffs. His mighty tenor sax squawking and wailing with wild-eyed abandon, McNeely blew up a torrid R&B tornado from every conceivable position -- on his knees, on his back, even being wheeled down the street on an auto mechanic's "creeper" like a modern-day pied piper. Cecil McNeely and his older brother Bob (who blew baritone sax lines with Jay in unison precision on some of Jay's hottest instrumentals) grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, where jazz reigned on the bustling nightlife strip. Inspired by Illinois Jacquet and tutored by Jack McVea, McNeely struck up a friendship with Johnny Otis, co-owner of the popular Barrelhouse nitery. Ralph Bass, a friend of Otis, produced McNeely's debut date for Savoy Records in 1948 (Savoy boss Herman Lubinsky tagged the saxist Big Jay, in his eyes a cooler and more commercial name than Cecil). McNeely's raucous one-note honking on "The Deacon's Hop" gave him and Savoy an R&B chart-topper in 1949, and his follow-up, "Wild Wig," also hit big for the young saxist with the acrobatic stage presence. From Savoy, McNeely moved to Exclusive in 1949, Imperial in 1950-1951, King's Federal subsidiary in 1952-1954 (where he cut some of his wildest waxings, including the mind-boggling "3-D"), and Vee-Jay in 1955. McNeely's live shows were the stuff that legends are made of. He electrified a sweaty throng of thousands packing L.A.'s Wrigley Field in 1949 by blowing his sax up through the stands and then from home plate to first base on his back. A fluorescently painted sax that glowed in the dark was another of his showstopping gambits. In 1958, McNeely cut his last hit in a considerably less frantic mode with singer Little Sonny Warner. The bluesy "There Is Something on Your Mind" was committed to tape in Seattle but came out on L.A. disc jockey Hunter Hancock's Swingin' imprint the next year. McNeely's original was a huge smash, but it was eclipsed the following year by New Orleans singer Bobby Marchan's dramatic R&B chart-topping version for Fire. Since then, it's been covered countless times, including a fine rendition by Conway Twitty. Honking saxists had fallen from favor by the dawn of the '60s, so McNeely eventually became a mailman and found religion, joining the Jehovah's Witnesses. Happily, his horn came back out of the closet during the early '80s. McNeely went on to record for his own little label and tour the country and overseas regularly. Big Jay remained active well into the 21st century; in 2014 he released a collaboration with the group the Engenius, and in 2016 he dropped an album that mixed re-recordings of his classic hits along with new material titled Blowin' Down the House: Big Jay's Latest & Greatest. Big Jay McNeely died in September 2018 at the age of 91. ~ Bill Dahl
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