Big Jay McNeely - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


           Los Angeles Rhythm & Blues tenor sax man Big Jay McNeely almost single handedly sparked the early 50's honking sax movement, paved the way for rock & roll, and blew so hot and wild--to huge, mixed crowds of black, white and Chicano fans--that at one point he was banned by the LAPD from appearing anywhere in the county. The first performer to walk--mid-song--atop a bar, to fall down on his back kicking and honking, to sashay out the club and onto the street, McNeely was so notorious for inciting crowds to a frenzied pitch (complete with teenagers leaping from the balconies and exposing themselves) that his managers once sent out a press release claiming that he'd been hauled before an official psychiatric board of examination. Clad in Mohair tuxedos, garish multi-colored suits, and brandishing a sax coated with fluorescent paint, McNeely was both a show-stopping entertainer and a masterly musician, one who calculated every note with painstaking specificity, to produce an almost mesmerizing effect.


            Born to a poor family in Los Angeles on April 29, 1927,  McNeely took up saxophone early in life, and had started playing jazz with Sonny Criss as a teenager. He also studied with the RKO studio orchestra first chair, saxist Joseph Cadaly. Throughout high school, McNeely bebopped with Criss and also recorded and sat in with Johnny Otis' band. The post-war bloom of popularity for "race records," caught many labels off guard and hungry for talent; when McNeely was given a chance to make his own disk in 1948, he nailed it with "Deacon's Hop." The raunchy instrumental found his saxophone alternating between a laconic drawl and a mad gut-bucket honk, and he achieved a new, very commercial ideal. Just as "Deacons Hop" reached number one on the R&B charts (February 11, 1949), the honking sax craze exploded with similarly unhinged tunes like Paul Williams' "Hucklebuck" (which knocked "Hop" from number one spot after three weeks) and Hal Singer's "Cornbread," and became a national, pre-rock & roll fixation.


            McNeely made the most of it, and churned out dozens of scorching instrumentals; "The Goof," "Nervous Man Nervous," "Teen Age Hop," "Let's Work," and the most frantic example of saxophone pyrotechnics ever waxed, his superbly manic "3-D." He became a socio-cultural phenomenon; the black poet Amiri Baraka (AKA Leroi Jones) described the "secret communal experience" shared by honker and audience as a "Black Dada Nihilismus."  When big names tried to catch some of McNeely's heat, it usually ended badly; he was booked to open for R&B influenced white singer Johnnie Ray but after McNeely's first, volcanic set stopped the show, he was dropped from a planned tour. Nat "King" Cole had a similar experience when he used the honker as warm up act: "I opened the first show and he said  'you'll never work with me again.,' McNeely recalled. "And he meant it." Ironically, his biggest record, 1959's "There Is Something on Your Mind" was a moody vocal ballad, and that lament provided a twilight coda to his heyday. But McNeely never let up, toured Europe annually and, well into the early 21st century, still righteously flipped the wig of anyone within earshot.


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