Big Jay McNeely

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Big Jay McNeely
Birth name Cecil James McNeely
Born (1927-04-29) April 29, 1927 (age 88)
Watts, Los Angeles, California, United States
Genres Jump blues, West Coast blues, jazz blues, rhythm and blues
Occupation(s) Saxophonist
Instruments Tenor saxophone
Years active Late 1940s–present
Labels Various

Cecil James McNeely (born April 29, 1927, Watts, Los Angeles, California),[1] known as Big Jay McNeely, is an American rhythm and blues saxophonist.


Inspired by Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young, he teamed with his older brother Robert McNeely, who played baritone saxophone, and made his first recordings with drummer Johnny Otis, who ran the Barrelhouse Club that stood only a few blocks from McNeely's home.[1] Shortly after he performed on Otis's "Barrel House Stomp." Ralph Bass, A&R man for Savoy Records, promptly signed him to a recording contract. Bass's boss, Herman Lubinsky, suggested the stage name Big Jay McNeely because Cecil McNeely did not sound commercial. McNeely's first hit was "The Deacon's Hop," an instrumental which topped the Billboard R&B chart in early 1949.[1] The single was his most successful of his three chart entries.

Thanks to his flamboyant playing, called "honking," McNeely remained popular through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, recording for the Exclusive, Aladdin, Imperial, Federal, Vee-Jay, and Swingin' labels.[1] But despite a hit R&B ballad, "There Is Something on Your Mind," (1959) featuring Little Sonny Warner on vocals, and a 1963 album for Warner Bros. Records, McNeely's music career began to cool off. He quit the music industry in 1971 to become a postman.[1] However, thanks to an R&B revival in the early 1980s, McNeely left the post office and returned to touring and recording full-time, usually overseas.[1] His original tenor sax is enshrined in the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and he was inducted into The Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.

In 1989, Big Jay McNeely was performing at the Quasimodo Club in West Berlin the night the Berlin Wall came down, "and Cold War legend has it that Big Jay McNeely blew down the Berlin Wall in 1989 with his earth-shaking sonic sax torrents outside the Quasimodo Club in West Germany"[2]

Big Jay McNeely regularly performs at the International Boogie Woogie Festival in The Netherlands, and recorded an album with Martijn Schok, the festival's promoter, in 2009. The album was entitled Party Time, and one track from the album, "Get On Up and Boogie" (Parts 1, 2, and 3)", was featured on the vintage music compilation This is Vintage Now (2011).[3]

Tenor saxophone honkers[edit]

The honkers were known for their raucous stage antics and expressive, exhibitionist style of playing. They overblew their saxophones and often hit on the same note over and over, much like a black Southern preacher, until their audiences were mesmerized. The style began with Illinois Jacquet's lively solo on Lionel Hampton's smash 1942 hit "Flying Home." Jacquet refined the honking technique in 1944 on the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles. Among the other saxophonists who started having honking hits in the late 1940s were Hal Singer (with the number one R&B hit "Cornbread"), Lynn Hope, Joe Houston, Wild Bill Moore, Freddie Mitchell, and many more.

McNeely was credited with being the most flamboyant performer. He wore bright banana- and lime-colored suits, played under blacklights that made his horn glow in the dark, used strobe lights as early as 1952 to create an "old-time-movie" effect, and sometimes walked off the stage and out the door, usually with the club patrons following along behind. At one point, in San Diego, police arrested him on the sidewalk and hauled him off to jail, while his band kept playing on the bandstand, waiting for him to return. The honking style was fading somewhat by the early 1950s, but the honkers themselves suddenly found themselves providing rousing solos for doo wop groups; an example was Sam "The Man" Taylor's eight-bar romp on The Chords' 1954 "Sh-Boom." Bill Haley also used honking sax men Joey D'Ambrosio and Rudy Pompilli on his rock and roll records, including "Rock Around the Clock." However, the rise of the electric guitar essentially ended the dominance of the tenor sax in rock and roll by 1956.

Album discography[edit]

  • Big Jay McNeely (1954, 10", Federal Records)
  • A Rhythm and Blues Concert (1955, 10", Savoy Records)
  • Big Jay McNeely in 3-D (1956, Federal), (1959, King Records)
  • Live at Cisco's (1963, Warner Bros. Records)--recorded live at a jazz club in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1962.
  • Swingin' (1984, Collectable Records)--1957-1961 recordings, including unreleased sides.
  • Live at Birdland, 1957 (1992, Collectable Records)--live performances recorded in stereo at the Seattle, Washington, Birdland Club in 1957.
  • Nervous (1995, Saxophile Records)--rarities, live cuts and alternate takes (from the Federal and Swingin' Records vaults) from 1951 to 1957.
  • Crazy (1997, Saxophile Records)--same as Nervous above.
  • Central Avenue Confidential (1999, Atomic Theory Records)--Big Jay plays jazz with a combo featuring Red Young on B-3 organ.
  • Big Jay McNeely, The Deacon, Unabridged, Vol. 1, 1948-1950 (2006, Swingin' Records)--his complete 1948-1955 released output.
  • Big Jay McNeely, The Deacon, Unabridged, Vol. 2, 1951-1952 (2006, Swingin' Records)
  • Big Jay McNeely, The Deacon, Unabridged, Vol. 3, 1953-1955 (2006, Swingin' Records)
  • Saxy Boogie Woogie (2008, Vagabond Records) with Axel Zwingenberger & The Bad Boys
  • Party Time, featuring Martijn Schok, Rinus Groeneveld (2009)
  • Party Time Volume 2 featuring Martijn Schok, Rinus Groeneveld (2011)


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Biography by Bill Dahl". Retrieved December 21, 2009. 
  2. ^ "Artists - Eleventh Annual Ponderosa Stomp - New Orleans - Schedule, Artists, Tickets and Lineup - Stomp #11, Stomp 2013". Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  3. ^ "Big Jay McNeely on This is Vintage Now; Big Jay McNeely Bio". Retrieved 8 January 2015. 


External links[edit]