Oldies But Goodies Cruise IISailing to the Mexican Riviera October 6-13, 2013
Big Jay McNeely
Big Jay McNeely is one of the musical pioneers of the wild, honking style of sax playing that emerged from dance halls during the late 1940's who has electrified audiences for over 60 years with his outrageous stage presence with his squawking, honking playing style that has earned him the nicknames "Big Jay McSquealy," "The Deacon of Tenor Sax," and "King of the Honkers.". Big Jay is best known for "Deacon's Hop" Tenor saxophonist Cecil "Big Jay" McNeely has been performing for over 60 years, and he's still going strong. 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 McNeely's raised their family not far from the Watts Towers monument. His parents played piano a little and his older brother, Dillard, who later played bass for him. But it was other brother Bobby who played the alto saxophone who gave it to McNeely when he went into the service in World War II." Later, that same brother would play the alto and baritone saxophones alongside his brother in recording sessions.
While still in high school, McNeely formed his first group. He had a ten piece band of mixed kids who'd play at small events like dances. They call themselves the 'Earls of 44" after pianist Earl 'Fatha' Hines, who was popular at the time. 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 up his skills as a musician, he dreamed of bettering his circumstances. With this in mind his parents allowed him to transfer from his local Jordan High School to Polytechnic High School downtown, where he met saxophonist Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes (later becoming a famed jazz pianist). It wasn't long before we formed a hot little combo. In the mid fifties, Big Jay added vocal groups to his act, beginning with Four Dots & Dash, which included, at one time or another, 16-year-old Jesse Belvin, Marvin Phillips (later of Marvin & Johnny fame), Tony Allen and Mel Williams. In fact, Belvin made his first recordings with Big Jay, including "All That Wine Is Gone." Big Jay also worked extensively with The Hollywood Flames, The Penguins and The Medallions up and down the West Coast. In 1955-56 he shared the stage with the Clovers, the Harptones (at the Apollo Theater), Bill Haley and His Comets, the Moonglows, Little Richard, and others.
For the next several years, Big Jay, according to The New Rolling Stone the Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, "famed for his playing-on-his-back acrobatics and his raw, hard-swinging playing." During his act he'd leave the stage, walk across the top of the bar, and sometimes walk out the door of the club, often with a line of people following him. Once, in San Diego, during one such "walk," he was arrested on the street for disturbing the peace. Inside the club, his band kept playing until someone could rush down to the police station, post Big Jay's bail, and bring him back to finish his song.
In the early sixties Big Jay retired from full-time music. But in 1983 after retiring with twenty years with the postal service he began a comeback when some of his early albums were reissued in the United States. He was suddenly touring again, though with less fanfare, and released new albums in Europe. In 1987 he played in a blues jam with B.B. King, Robert Cray, Etta James, Albert King, Junior Wells and others on the internationally televised Grammy Awards. Two years later, he was honking outside the Quasimodo Club in West Berlin on the night the Berlin Wall came down and the German press jokingly called him "the modern Joshua." After the rumor went around the Big Jay helped blow it down with his horn.
In 1959 Big Jay enjoyed his biggest hit, a blues ballad called "There Is Something on Your Mind," featuring Haywood "Little Sonny" Warner on vocals. The record stayed on the R&B charts for six months and reached as high as 44 on the pop charts. The song was later a hit for Bobby Marchan. Other artists who have recorded Big Jay's song include B.B. King, Etta James, Freddy Fender, The Hollywood Flames, Gene Vincent, Albert King and Professor Longhair.
In 2000 the Experience Music Project in Seattle installed a special Big Jay McNeely exhibit that includes his original Conn saxophone; the magazine put the horn on its June 2000 issue cover, along with Jimi Hendrix's hat, Janis Jopin's feather boa, and Eric Clapton's Stratocaster. Big Jay is also the subject of Jim Dawson's book Nervous Man Nervous. Big Jay McNeely and the Rise of the Honking Tenor Saxophone a book written by Dawson is the only book ever written about the R&B sax and its influences. The same year Central Avenue Confidential was released to rave reviews. Wrote Bill Dahl a well known critic wrote in the All Music Guide to the Blues. "The deacon's still hopping." McNeely was given a Pioneer Award for individual achievement by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 2001
These days Big Jay McNeely spends a good deal of time playing in Europe, Australia and Japan. Although he has find time to honk and shout at several Doo-Wop Society concerts, blues and jazz festivals, the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Festival, and the Rockin' 50s fest in Green Bay. He has also recently appeared in several of Art LaBoe's variety concerts. Big Jay is still tearing it up and knows how to delight and entertain an audience of any size, from small clubs to stadium crowds. One of the last true old school entertainers, Big Jay is still performs at select concerts, festivals and clubs.
Big Jay Mc Neely (10" LP)
Swingin' Golden Classics