Big Jay McNeely – Blowin’ Down the House
Cecil James (AKA Big Jay) McNeely began his formal music career in high school playing with jazz legends Sonny Criss (alto sax) and Hampton Hawes (piano). Then, at 21 years of age in 1948 he played tenor sax for Johnny Otis’ “Barrelhouse Stomp.” He then recorded the number one hit “The Deacon’s Hop,” also for Savoy Records. SO jazz was out and R&B was in. His antics with his saxophone and playing on his back are legendary and he is credited as having pretty much “invented” rock and roll saxophone. His squeaky high notes and pushing himself around on his back while playing the sax are trademarks of his shows.
McNeely garnered huge success continuing through the 1950’s with many great musicians. He predated the psychedelic rock era using strobe and black lights to highlight his on stage persona. But by 1963 he gave up music and went to work for the Post Office. Twenty years later, he was back at it, touring the world and playing with many blues and rock greats. He has released a dozen albums since 1983 and he still plays and tours the world as he approaches his 90th birthday.
This album is a mix of old and new stuff. His wild vocals, sax and antics are represented well here. He begins with a new funk-filled soul/R&B cut “Love Will Never Fail.” His vocals are solid and the sax is fresh and the same as it always has been. He shouts and groans out the vocals and honks on the sax as the backing vocalists and band move in lock step to his beat. “Love Is Stronger Than Hurt” turns the heat down a small notch. Another newer song, we get to see that McNeely remains as solid today as he was decades ago. Very much a late 50’s or early 60’s styled rock styled cut, it’s a joy to listen to. “My Love Never Ended” is a slow blues cut with McNeely testifying and growling out the lyrics. He blows some soulful sax here. “I’ve Been Mistreated” is a slow blues with tons of vocal and guitar reverb to give it an interesting sound. Then the down and dirty tenor sax comes in- marvelous! “You Don’t Have to Go Home” continues the string of 6 new cuts. The male backing vocals respond to his call “You Can’t Stay Here” and McNeely and the guitar sing and play with bell like qualities, ringing brightly. You know the sax solo is coming and when it does it delivers the goods so well. “Party” is the last of the opening new cuts; it’s a driving and high flying jump blues and rock and funk cut with Jay shouting the title out repeatedly with a funky and fast guitar following along. The stratospheric horn then comes in as a funky whirling dervish of fun. Good stuff!
“Big Jay’s Hop” is a 1955 remake of his 1949 classic “Deacon’s Hop.” Recorded in Chicago on VeeJay records, he and the band swung through the Windy City and recorded this great tune. Almost 62 years later this song still presents itself well. McNeely’s sax is the star here. “Blow, Blow, Blow” is from 1951 in Los Angeles on Imperial Records. It begins with a blaring sax and the driving sound of the band behind McNeely seems to go 100 miles per hour as this great instrumental tune wails on and on! “Willie the Cool Cat” is the oldest cut of the set, recorded in 1949 in Hollywood for Exclusive Records. It’s a mid-tempo jump and jive instrumental with Jay on tenor and brother Bob on baritone (as in the prior cut), trading licks back and forth. “Rock Candy” follows, a 1953 song from Radio Recorders. It opens with a big organ sound and then the sax and band jump in for some fun. A slow to mid tempo instrumental, this is just cool and a lot of fun. The same session also produced “Nervous, Man, Nervous” with the then unknown vocal group The Platters clapping, yelling and shouting on it. It’s a beautiful and fun cut. It’s wild! The album concludes with the new “Get On Up & Let’s Boogie.” This was recorded live with a piano in full stride with McNeely’s vocals and the blistering sound of the band. A guitar solo sets the tone for a sax solo, both at breakneck speed. Then they repeat that all again at the finish not once but twice, last time at an even faster speed! It’s an apt and fun conclusion to an album by a man who has made magically fun music for over 70 years!
If you are a sax person this one’s a no brainer. McNeely is showcased now and back in the day showing off his amazing talents. I loved this album! Is it saxophone excessiveness? You bet! And it’s great! Highly recommended!