Let’s face it – rock-n-roll music has undergone a number of antiseptic changes since its wild-and-wooly birth back in the early 1950s.
Where once rock-n-roll was edgy, free-wheeling, unpredictable and downright raucous, the music is much safer and much more pasteurized these days and can heard as background Muzick in corporate boardrooms, while also used to hawk your favorite beverage in television commercials.
To enter a time machine and experience a brief glimpse of what the true power of rock-n-roll was all about during its formative days, all you have to do is gaze at the album cover of legendary saxophone player Big Jay McNeely’s latest album, Blowin’ Down The House – Big Jay’s Latest & Greatest (Cleopatra Blues).
There, McNeely is pictured in the early heyday of Rock-n-roll, laying on his back on the bandstand, beads of sweat rolling off his forehead as he blows his ass off on his saxophone, in front of an eager bunch of wide-eyed greasers who are losing their minds at the sheer power of it all.
That, my friends, is what rock-n-roll is supposed to be all about.
“That was what it was all about. What that was all about at the time is kind of summed up in that picture. That picture where I’m lying on stage, playing on my back in front of all those white kids. That’s the greatest rock-and-roll picture there is … everybody included. That’s what rock-and-roll was all about back then,” McNeely recently said.
McNeely has certainly made a name for himself over the course of the past six-plus decades playing the tenor saxophone and even though he’s approaching 90 years of age, he is still the ‘King of the Honkers.’
And as mentioned above, McNeely – who was one of the biggest R&B/early rock-n-roll stars of the 1950s – also has a new album currently out.
“It’s called Blowin’ Down The House – Big Jay’s Latest & Greatest (Cleopatra Blues). It’s a real great album. You know, Tina Turner did ‘What’s Love Got To Do With it?” Well, we have a song called, “Love Will Never Fail,” which is like an answer for that song, like ‘love has everything to do with it.’ It’s a real great tune,” McNeely said. “And then, another tune is called, “Love Is Stronger Than Hurt.” It’s like protest, like marching in the streets in 1965. It’s got like a Motown sound to it. Then we’ve got songs like “I’ve Been Mistreated,” and “My Love Never Ended,” “You Don’t Have To Go Home,” and a tune called “Party.” That’s on the A side of the album. On the B side is two songs that were in Gangster Squad (a 2013 movie featuring Sean Penn and Emma Stone). There’s also “Willie The Cool Cat” which they used in the movie Trumbo. Then there’s some of my other old classics on there, like “Rock Candy” and “Get On Up & Let’s Boogie.” So there’s six new sides (songs) and six classics on there. It’s on Cleopatra Records. They also did a little documentary on me, too. (Editor’s note: The promo that Cleopatra did on McNeely can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whAxAIR2MD4).
He was born Cecil James McNeely in Watts, California in 1927. The ‘Big Jay’ handle came several years after that, after McNeely had cut his teeth recording with the late, great Johnny Otis on a song called “Barrel House Stomp.” Ralph Bass – who was working A&R for Savoy Records at the time, became so enamored with McNeely’s work that he signed him to a recording contract. But before he could record for Savoy, something had to be done about his name.
“Well, what happened was, Herman Lubinsky (head of Savoy Records) took a cab out to my house in Watts with a big cigar in his mouth and he asked me my name. I said, ‘Cecil.’ Well, he didn’t like that as far as publicity was concerned,” McNeely related. “He said, ‘What’s your nickname?’ And I said, ‘Jay.’ And so he said, ‘Big Jay.’ And that was that. That’s how I ended up being called Big Jay.”
Newly christened Big Jay, McNeely’s first splash at stardom came in 1949 with a high-energy cut called “Deacon’s Hop.” That song single-handedly gave rise to the frenetic, powerful and larger-than-life style of saxophone playing known as ‘honking.’ It also led to countless others trying to follow suit.
“Well, I was from a poor family in Watts, you know. A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to record and I said, ‘Yeah.’ But I didn’t know what I was going to record. The guy (Pete Kennard) had a little store in Watts and he gave me a record of Glen Miller with the drum … chee-chee, chee-chee (making a hi-hat sound). So I went home and wrote ‘Deacon’s Hop.” I went from studying classical music for a year (with Joseph T. Cadaly at RKO studios) to doing nothing but soul,” he said. “And the record sold. It was a big hit in 1949 and was all over the charts.”
Success came quickly for McNeely, who had really started his career in earnest just a year or so before “Deacon’s Hop” blew up.
“I was kind of surprised. But I also put all my heart, mind and soul into that song, so I was prepared for it to do well, because of how it was created,” he said. “But what was sad about it, while it was a huge hit (number one on the national charts), I really didn’t make any money off it.”
While “Deacon’s Hop” was responsible for filling up dance floors all across the country, McNeely quickly found out that being on the pioneering edge of this wild new art form called rock-n-roll was not without its share of controversy.
“The people here in Los Angeles wasn’t ready for the white kids to accept the black artists. I played on Central Avenue (in Los Angeles) back when Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstine and all the guys would come through,” McNeely said. “They couldn’t stay in the white hotels then, so they had to stay in the Dunbar Hotel. So I came up in that era … I graduated (high school) in 1946. People would see these huge crowds and think all the kids were on drugs. They said, ‘Oh those white kids were all dancing like Watusis!’ So they (the LAPD and LA County sheriff) ended up barring me from (playing in ) Los Angeles, because they couldn’t stop the white kids from coming to the concerts. So my manager ended up putting me with GAC (influential booking agency) and I was able to work at Birdland and Bandbox, all the big places. Working with certain agencies would let you play in certain places like that.”
Regardless of where he played, or who he played for, McNeely and his horn was always the toast of the town.
“The saxophone was really big back then. It was THE big thing. But it wasn’t long before they took the saxophone out and put the guitar in. That’s when they changed what they were calling it from rhythm-and-blues to rock-n-roll,” he said. “Then it started to be OK for the white kids, because you had Elvis and ‘Blue Suede Shoes” and Pat Boone and all of them. They got the guitar in there. You know for a long time, Dick Clark didn’t have no blacks on his show (American Bandstand). So now, when you turn on all the stations, all you hear is the guitar. You know, to get B.B. King to work Las Vegas back in the day, they changed calling it the blues to calling it folk music. It was like, ‘Oh, it’s folk music, it’s OK for him to go and play there now.'”
Looking back at things, McNeely – while most definitely not bitter about it – knows that the color barrier limited him from doing all that he could of with his music.
“Well, if I’d have been white, I’d have been as big as Elvis,” he said. “Elvis or any of them … but I was black. I don’t feel bad or I’m not angry about it, but it was a period of change and I was early on the scene and I was young.”
Even though he was young, McNeely was by no means shy or introverted. His stage show back then was truly something to behold. It was almost like combining gymnastics lessons with music class. McNeely would do somersaults, play on his back, play on top of the bar … all of that driving his crowd into a certified frenzy with each passing note he blew.
“As far as laying on the floor and playing, that was never really my idea. I was working in a little town called Clarksville, Tennessee and we was working at a small club upstairs and the people were not responding. I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I didn’t change my clothes or nothing – at that time we all dressed sharp in tuxedos, because all the entertainers were proud to look sharp in those days. Anyway, I got on my knees and played and then laid on the floor and played and they went crazy,” he said. “So I said, ‘Let me try this again.’ The next night in Fort Worth, I got the same reaction. They went crazy. By the time I got back to Los Angeles, Joe Houston (tenor sax great) and them were already copying me, so I was trying to figure out something different to do. I was in a club called the Nightcat and this girl (exotic dancer) came out in florescent clothes. I said, ‘That’s it.’ So I painted my horn with florescent paint and when they turned the black light on, my horn would light up. After that, I started wearing white gloves, too. That was quite a scene … all you’d see were my gloves and my horn lit up on stage.”
Another trick that McNeely used to perform was to walk outside the club that he was playing in, while still blowing his horn. The crowd went nuts every time McNeely pulled this off, but there was one particular night in San Diego when McNeely had the attention of more than just the patrons inside the club.
“I have a wireless mic now and can go 400 yards and you can still hear me. At that time, I didn’t have a wireless and you could just hear me in your presence. So I’d get off the bandstand and walk through the audience. It was in a club in downtown San Diego and I walked out the door, into the street and was still playing. Well, I guess this cop was driving by and he called the police station and said there was some cat out in the street downtown blowing his horn,” said McNeely. “So the police came and arrested me (for disturbing the peace). It was so packed in the club that the band was still playing and didn’t know what happened to me. Somebody finally told them the police had arrested me and taken me away to the station. So my brother finally went down and bailed me out. When I appeared before the court, they fined me $50 and told me not to go out in the street anymore.”
Since 2000, McNeely’s original Conn saxophone has been displayed in the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
“That’s the one that I recorded “Deacon’s Hop” with. They gave me $10,000 for that horn. I wish I’d known that the guy spent $100 million on that museum. If I’d known that, I would have held out for some more money for that horn. They wanted me to ship the horn by FedEx, and I said, ‘No man.’ So they flew me up there with it,” laughed McNeely.
The popularity of “Deacon’s Hop” could have potentially set McNeely up with a huge nest egg at a young age, but that was not what ended up happening. What did end up happening was the financial windfall of “Deacon’s Hop” went in another direction.
“Yeah, I didn’t make anything off that. I didn’t go on the road and tour that song because this kid that discovered Ella Fitzgerald told me how these agencies overcharge the artists money and they have all these people on their payroll that are getting paid for doing nothing. The artists end up with nothing. Back then, artists in the south would be playing these clubs for $15 a night if they were lucky and the agencies and the managers would be getting all the money they should have been making,” he said. “So when Ralph Cooper (the original master of ceremonies at the Apollo) called me and wanted me to come to the Apollo Theater, I said, let my brother come, too (Robert McNeely, who played baritone sax). He said, ‘No, we just want you.’ So I didn’t go. But Savoy Records made all the money off that song … I think I ended up with $900 or something, total. They got all the publishing, too. All those record companies would always tell the artists back then that there was no money in publishing and then they’d keep the rights and they’d make all the money. That’s where the big money was, in publishing. And they charge the artist all the money for recording the tune in the first place. They give you a little advance and then the artist has to pay all the recording costs out of that advance and then the record company ends up owning the master, which the artist paid for in the first place. But being young back then … we didn’t know. Everybody just wanted to make a record and make a name for themselves.”
“Deacon’s Hop” was not the only mega-smash hit that McNeely was responsible for.
In 1959, he cut “Something On Your Mind” with Little Sonny Warner on vocals. That too, ended up hitting gold for McNeely.
“Well, I paid $25 for that tune to the guy that wrote it. He wrote it in my wife’s (the amazing Jackie Day, a dynamite vocalist) house. I knew it was going to be a hit. They put it on the radio first in San Francisco back in 1959 and it tore the country down,” McNeely said. “All these other artists ended up cutting that song … Bobby Marchan, Etta James, Albert King, Freddy Fender, Professor Longhair, B.B. King. If I’d have had an honest manager, who would have gotten what he was due, too, I could have went on and made some nice money back then, but I never did.”
It may seem like McNeely was born to play the sax and has been doing so ever since he was a wee lad. While that may be close to the truth, fact is, working a 9-to-5 job as a young man didn’t seem to suit McNeely, so he turned his energy and passion in a different direction.
“I was working on a job at Firestone Rubber Company and I just got tired. After about four hours, I said, ‘Man, there has to be a better way to make a living than working eight hours a day.’ So I rode uptown on a bike and got an alto that my cousin gave us and said, ‘I’m going to learn to play this thing.’ So I started taking lessons for 25 cents a lesson,” he said. “That’s what motivated me to get interested in music and the saxophone at 16-years-old.” Not very long after that, McNeely teamed up with high school buddies Sonny Criss (alto sax) and Hampton Hawes (piano) to form their first band.
McNeely ended up retiring from the music business for a couple of decades, starting in the mid-60s.
“I was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness back when I was 12. What happened was, I started missing too many meetings and my spirituality started going down. So I quit music, went back home in the ’60s and started working a job for $3.50 an hour. I didn’t know anything but music at that point,” McNeely said. “Then I finally got into the post office and stayed there for 12 years. I also got back to the (Jehovah’s Witness) meetings and things.”
His hiatus from the music industry ended in the early 1980s with an offer to tour overseas. It was at the tail end of that decade when McNeely found himself smack-dab in the middle of a truly historical event.
“We was working at a club called Quasimodo in West Berlin (with Detroit Gary Wiggins) in 1989 on the night that the Berlin Wall came down,” he said. “I recorded a number over there in Germany called, “Big Jay Blows The Wall Down.” We drove to the gig, but we had to walk back to where we were staying, because the streets were so crowded. You couldn’t move. The wall went down and the people just fell out like crazy. It was amazing to be around such a part of history like that. It was really something else.”
McNeely has done so much and displayed such a high-level of excellence for so long that it might seem impossible for him to pick out a highlight of his career. However, he’s quick to offer up an evening back in 1987 as a time he will not soon forget.
“I was on the Grammys back then with B.B. King, Albert King, Dr. John, Robert Cray, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Etta James and Junior Wells. That was the first year they ever had the blues as a part of the ceremony. Before you appear on the T.V. show, they have rehearsals where everybody does their act, so the producers will know what all will be happening for the broadcast. I said, Since we’re playing “Let The Good Times Roll,” why don’t I lay on the floor? You know, it’s a funny thing when you’re working with a bunch of artists and everyone wants to be the star. When I laid on the floor during rehearsal, the promoter said, ‘Yeah, keep that in.’ So during the performance, I had my wireless mic, and I came up to the stage from the audience. Gladys Knight and Whitney Houston and her mother and father were sitting up front on the end, so when I started up to the stage, I sat on Whitney Houston’s mother’s lap. Then I went up on stage and took my tux jacket off, kicked it into the audience and laid on the floor and played. When I did that, 6,000 people stood up and went crazy.”
He may roll around on the bandstand floor with less frequency these days than he did back in the early 1950s, and he may play with slightly less free-wheeling abandon than he used to, but Big Jay McNeely still retains the ability to wow and amaze today’s younger generation the same way he did back then.
“I did a concert in San Jose and was doing a sound check and one of the doo-wop groups on the show was there watching. When I walked up to sound check, I could feel they were thinking, ‘Oh, man, who’s this old black guy coming up here?’ I could see it in their faces. I said, “Give me something up-tempo. A-flat as fast as you can play.’ I kicked it off and started screamin’ on that horn. When we got ready to go downstairs and eat before the show, these young guys that were playing horn for one of the doo-wop groups that watched me soundcheck came up and said, ‘Man, what kind of a mouthpiece do you play?’ I said, ‘It ain’t the mouthpiece, man,'” laughed McNeely. “When you got that good, quality sound, I don’t care if it’s on the bass, drums, guitar or what, people will recognize it. Just because I lay on the floor, they may think that I don’t know what’s happening. I didn’t lay on the floor in the first place because it was my idea. I did it to try and entertain the people. That’s what it’s all about. But they may not know the musical background that I’ve had. That’s why I’m going to release an album of ballads, some really beautiful songs I’ve written. There’s this kid over in Cologne that I recorded with and we’re going to put out an album of those ballads called The Mellow Side Of Big Jay. That’s what I’m excited about these days. I want people to see my other side, the one that’s different from the screamin’ and honkin’ that they already know me for.”
Visit Jays’s website at: www.bigjaymcneely.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.
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