Big Jay McNeely (1927-2018)

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Cecil “Big Jay" NcNeely, the father of the R&B tenor saxophone whose stamina and extravagant stage act starting in the late 1940s included playing on his back, setting the tone for rock 'n' roll and soul artists who followed, died on Sept. 16. He was 91.

Big Jay had several significant R&B hits in the late 1940s and '50s, including The Deacon's Hop (#1), Wild Wig and There's Something on Your Mind. But his output included so many jump-blues singles that wound-up live audiences and jukebox listeners. These records included Nervous, Man, Nervous; Big Jay Shuffle; Blow Blow Blow; Big Jay's Hop; Mule Milk; The Goof and The Deacon Rides Again.

I first interviewed Big Jay in 2009, and over the years, we spoke frequently by phone. Big Jay was particularly hurt that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continued to ignore him for induction, despite his obviously significant contribution to the music's early development. In 2014, I wrote about Big Jay's Rock Hall beef for The Wall Street Journal (go here). Sadly, Big Jay remains excluded from induction. The last time I spoke with Big Jay was earlier this year for my upcoming history of the rock concert.

In tribute to Big Jay, I've combined all parts of my interview below:

Last Sunday I wrote that Big Jay McNeely viewed himself in the late 1940s as a new breed of jazz musician. A reader posted a comment in response, chiding me for saying so. After scouring books on Big Jay, the reader wrote, he couldn't find any reference to the R&B musician's jazz roots or how he viewed his place in jazz history. The writer added that I had jumped to conclusions and took a parting shot at Big Jay. Now, I love books as much as anyone. But as a working journalist, I also love the phone. So yesterday I gave Big Jay a call to bring closure to the matter.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Big Jay McNeely, the saxophonist today is considered one of the early R&B stage stars and a forefather of 1950's rock 'n' roll. Known back then as king of the “honkers and screamers," McNeely typically entered concerts walking down the aisle while playing a blues riff. When he arrived on stage, McNeely could whip young integrated audiences into a frenzy by playing only a handful of notes. These powerful riffs eventually wound up played while laying trance-like on stage, much to the crowd's hysterical delight. Today, we look back at Big Jay and see an R&B pioneer. But at the time, Big Jay told me,he viewed himself as “a jazz musician who played for people who wanted to dance."

JazzWax: Was it tough growing up in Watts, Calif., during the Depression?

Big Jay McNeely: No, no. We had plenty of food. My family grew our own vegetables. We had turkeys and chickens running around in the yard. My mother cooked for me, my brother Bob, and my father on a wood-burning stove. Each week, the iceman would come with a six-pound block of ice. It was like country living. [Pictured: Watts Tower]

JW: When did you decide to play the saxophone?

BJM: When I was 16 years old, which was around 1943. My brother played the instrument and was an excellent musician. He could have gone with Cab [Calloway] or any of the big bands, but he was too young. When he was drafted during World War II, he left his saxophone home. I was working at the Firestone Rubber Co. at the time. I decided music would be a better bet for me.

JW: What did you do?

BJM: I rode my bike each day to Mrs. Hightower’s house and took lessons for 25 cents. [Saxophonist and singer] Vi Redd was her daughter. [Saxophonist] Sonny Criss and I took lessons from Mrs. Hightower at the same time. Then I took lessons with a gentleman who played first saxophone chair with the RKO Studio Orchestra. He was a great teacher and taught me all about full vibrato, so I could play with a big sound. He was a tremendous musician and could even play Dixieland. I studied harmony, ear training, composition—everything—with him.

JW: What happened when your brother, Robert, came home from World War II?

BJM: We both studied voice with a guy who would eventually teach the Hi-Lo’s and the McGuire Sisters. My brother and I figured eventually we’d have to sing and that studying singing would help us with our blowing. Singing was the same principal as playing. You sing from the diaphragm with compact air pressure and the “e” sound.

JW: What’s the “e” sound?

BJM: That's the sound you get like an opera singer. If you hum through a comb, you get an “e” sound. That’s what makes the sound so big. The principal is you have to have the proper approach. You have to use your whole body as a soundboard. My sax began to sound as smooth as a cello when I studied with him. Eventually my brother and I formed a band. My brother played baritone saxophone. Our band had Hampton Hawes and Sonny Criss, until Howard McGhee stole them both away in early 1947 [laughs].

JW: How did you sound as a jazz musician at that point?

BJM: I didn’t play with a real legit jazz sound. For that sound you’d use very little lip, what they called a nonpressure embouchure. Just enough pressure on the reed to make it vibrate. I took the same principles I learned in vocal lessons and applied it for a good, big soulful sound on the saxophone. That’s why when I play, people recognize it's me. People have criticized me for playing one note but they never criticized my sound [laughs].

JW: Did you listen to jazz musicians in the mid-1940s?

BJM: Oh yes, of course. Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Don Byas—all of them. When Charlie Parker came out to L.A. in the mid-1940s, my mother washed his clothes. We ran [hung out] with him.

JW: Why didn’t you become a jazz musician?

BJM: I started out playing jazz but I didn’t have a perfect ear, like Sonny Criss did. Guys like Sonny could pick up their horn and play anything. They heard things once and they could go off on it. Also, back then, there were so many players you had to be different on your horn to stand out. Eventually it was a money issue. Many of these jazz guys looked sharp. They were earning. I was wearing hand-me-downs. That made me realize early on that I had to do something different to make money.

JW: What did you do?

BJM: In 1947, I began playing at the Barrelhouse Club owned by drummer Johnny Otis. It was right down the street from my home. There was a lot of blues energy there. I was thinking of going to New York, to the Apollo Theater. But a guy I knew spelled out how things would go for me. He said I’d be a big hit for sure and would earn solid money. But he also warned me that there would be all kinds of guys who would pad me [advance loans] and steal my money. He said I’d wind up owing the government all kinds of money but I wouldn’t have it because all the guys who took a cut wouldn’t leave me with enough. That made sense, so I decided to stay in L.A.

JW: How did you come to record?

BJM: At the end of 1948 [right after the second musicians' union recording ban], Ralph Bass, an A&Rr guy at Savoy, asked me if I wanted to do a record. I said yeah. He told me to put a tune together. A kid I knew in Watts had a record shop. He gave me a record by Glenn Miller that opened with a drummer playing the sock cymbal. I can't remember the name of the song. But I built a blues off of it called Deacon’s Hop, which became a big hit [Deacon's Hop hit #1 on the R&B chart in early 1949].

JW: Your real name is Cecil. How did you wind up with your nickname?

BJM: Ralph, the A&R guy from Savoy records, came up with it. I was getting ready to record Deacon’s Hop. We were taking a cab out to my house and were talking. He said “Cecil" was kind of a square name and that I needed a stronger one if I wanted to be big. He asked me what my friends called me. I told him, “James.” He said great, “Let’s call you Big Jay.” So it stuck.

JW: While you were playing R&B during the late 1940s, did you consider yourself a jazz musician?

BJM: I always thought of myself as a jazz musician who was playing for people who wanted to dance. Before I even recorded Deacon’s Hop I worked on Central Avenue in Los Angeles at all the jazz clubs. I knew Teddy Edwards, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, Eddie Heywood, Ben Webster, Lucky Thompson—all those cats. I wanted to become a jazz musician, but when I recorded Deacon’s Hop in 1948, it became so big they wouldn’t let me record anything else but more of it. That’s around the time I started playing a more soulful thing.

JW: So jazz was always on your mind?

BJM: Sure. I was trying to play jazz before Deacon's Hop but I just didn’t have the ear. You can train yourself to have an ear. But unless it comes natural when you’re young, it’s much harder as you get older. If you had studied, you could imitate and pick up on whatever you heard. Bird [Charlie Parker] could play the chord changes to everything. But by me not having a perfect ear, I had to work harder to develop what I played. When I started developing my own sound and adding power, it was a whole different thing. It was the complete opposite from what I had been doing.

JW: Did jazz artists dig you?

BJM: Hamp [Hawes], Bird, Miles, Sonny [Criss]—they all loved what I did. Dizzy, too. I played Birdland in New York in the early 1950s and opened for jazz artists. They’d put me on first, before Milt Jackson, Ben Webster, Erroll Garner, all of them. I was always the opener. I guess to get the people who were there excited.

JW: When did the theatrical part of your act begin?

BJM: In about 1950, in Clarksville, Tenn. It was a real small town, so small you didn’t need an address on an envelope, just the name of the person living there. When we played Clarksville for the first time, the audience didn’t respond. They just sat there. I couldn't understand that. The music usually got people going. So on the next set I did something different. I got down on my knees to play. Then I laid down on the stage and played from there.

JW: What happened?

BJM: People went crazy. After the concert, I said to myself, “I’m going to try this again." So I did it in Texas. And again, everyone went crazy. Back in L.A., I did it, too. The kids went nuts. They loved that I was on my back blowing like that, and my energy fired up theirs.

JW: Most of the kids already knew your hit Deacon's Hop. Who helped you break in that song?

BJM: Hunter Hancock [pictured], the Los Angeles r&b DJ. He broke it in. He was the only DJ in town who played black music. The kids who listened to the station were mostly white and Spanish kids. Those were the ones who dug me the most. They were the ones I was playing for mostly.

JW: You really knew how to work up a crowd.

BJM: My manager was Chuck Landers. He lived in Hollywood and was the business partner of [concert promoter] Gene Norman. He knew that gig [performing] cold. He got me with the talent agency, G.A.C. He said I had to be more stage. Before Chuck, I used to throw my suit coat on the stage to play and then picked it up after. He said that was no good, that I had to have someone else do that. I had to look and sound like the boss, like my name. Chuck then went out and got a guy in Hollywood for me who specialized in staging.

JW: What did the guy do?

BJM: He was used to staging other kinds of acts. So he came and watched me for a whole week. He taught me how to segue from one number to another—whether I had to play five minutes or an hour. He taught me how to keep the energy going from the stage, how to present myself to get the most excitement going and to program people.

JW: What does that mean?

BJM: Reading the crowd and playing accordingly. When I’d open, I used to come down the aisle while playing. That tore the place up because if you were in the audience you didn't expect it. It also told people that I was one of them. But you have to watch people close when you do this. There are some people on the aisle wearing expensive suits, and you have to play one way when you get near them. Or if you see kids, you have to let go of other types of notes. I'd stop and play differently for different people I'd see along aisle. That’s how I got audience participation. And that’s the greatest thing.

JW: Alto saxophonist Earl Bostic came up around the same time, but he came out of the big bands. What did you think of him?

BJM: Earl was great. He could take any song and make a hit out of it. But he wasn’t a performer. My thing was more visual. One time Earl followed me into Minneapolis. But after I cleared out, everyone was waiting for Earl to be like me, theatric and all. But he wasn’t [laughs].

JW: What did it feel like to have that kind of power over teens in the early 1950s?

BJM: It felt incredible. One time it got out of control, and I got locked up.

JW: Where?

BJM: In San Diego. I didn’t have a wireless microphone  for my sax. So I walked up the aisle playing but then kept going straight out the door onto the sidewalk with everyone following me. I was outside the club blowing my horn the way I was inside. A cop saw this and called the station house. More cops came and arrested me. They had some law that said you couldn’t play outside like that.

JW: Was your exit something new?

BJM: Nah. I had done that at Birdland in Seattle and the Band Box. But it wasn’t allowed in San Diego. The funny thing was the band inside on the stage was waiting for me to come back into the club. But I was in jail. So someone in the band came running down and bailed me out so I could finish the set [laughs]. The kids went nuts.

JW: When you were playing, you thought of yourself as a jazz musician. But it wasn't like jazz, was it?

BJM: I played jazz, but I was an entertainer. Even when we played what was called r&b, the music was sophisticated. We changed keys and did things that were very progressive. It was all very soulful stuff.

JW:  Give me an example. 

BJM: Every time I'd go to the bridge, I'd get a lift out of the audience. So I’d use the guitarist like an organ. I’d have certain voices and a sound when I’d go to the subdominant chord or the tonic. The voicing had to be just right. Same with the voicing by the pianist. I always thought progressive.

JW: What did the jazz guys dig most about you?

BJM: The soulful thing. One time I worked with Sonny Stitt on the same bill. He loved my energy and sound. Other jazz guys respected me because they knew I was a real musician. I wasn't just honking on the horn, like some critics said. And these guys loved power. They all wanted to blow. But what made me different that these cats could hear was the soulful thing. It was from my heart. The younger jazz guys coming up at the time who didn’t know better said I was just playing one note. Hey, it’s an art to play one note [laughs]. Especially if you can get an audience going with it.

JW: You had your biggest hit with There’s Something on Your Mind, with Little Sonny Warner on vocal in 1959.

BJM: We first recorded There's Something on Your Mind in Seattle, in 1957, in a guy’s basement. I didn’t have enough money to get it out. A year later I bought the record and took it to Hollywood. Still nothing. Then I put it out in San Francisco in '59. A DJ there named Rockin' Lucky played it on his midnight show on KSAN. He’s the only one who had the single. After that, everything went nuts.

JW: Looking back, do you think r&b and rock ‘n’ roll hurt jazz?

BJM: I don’t think so. Everyone’s got their own thing that they like. R&b and rock captured a lot of people at a time in the early 1950s when jazz wasn’t that dominant. The truth is black musicians weren’t making money playing jazz.

JW: What do you mean?

BJM: It wasn’t until white musicians started to play with Jazz at the Philharmonic and other things like it that money started to roll in. The kids loved what I did. They’d follow me up to my house. But I don’t think what I was doing messed up jazz. Jazz had its thing. It’s just that its audience was smaller. The kids liked r&b and rock more.

JW: Why?

BJM: To play jazz, you had to have gone to school to learn to play it with all those chord changes. Cultured people liked that. Then along comes a working person who doesn’t know nothing about that. He just wants to hear music that makes him feel good. He wants what he likes to be basic and exciting. People who like jazz are hip and want to see how fast musicians can play and dig their technique. Other people didn’t want to think that much. They just wanted excitement. [Pictured: Big Jay's band in 1958]

JW: But plenty of kids liked jazz.

BJM: Oh sure. And jazz was creative. You couldn't believe what you were hearing when guys like Bird or Wardell [Gray] played it. But it didn’t have the impact on lots of people. You could dance to r&b and relate to it on a simple level. People in the audiences felt they were a part of you and what you were doing. With jazz you have to analyze what the guys are playing.

JW: Did the growing car culture play a role?

BJM: What do you mean?

JW: As more kids started to drive and could afford used cars in the early 50s, there seemed to be an emphasis on speed, excitement and a break from parents.

BJM: Oh sure. And what I played sounded great coming through a car radio [laughs].

JW: You really were one of the originators of rock ‘n’ roll, weren’t you?

BJM: [Pause] Yes. I was the first to be called a “honker and screamer.” But with a good sound. Some play stuff like I did but their sound was terrible. If I hadn’t had a chance to study with a teacher who stressed volume and power, I never would have had that sound. And if that audience in Clarksville had reacted a bit more the first time, I probably never would have had to go down on the floor of the stage to get them going [laughs].

JW: Yet you haven’t been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Why not?

BJM: I don't know. I guess the people who make those decisions don't realize I'm still around.   JazzWax clips: Here's The Deacon's Hop and Artie's Jump on Savoy in 1948...



Here's Nervous, Man, Nervous...



Here's 3D...



And here's Rock Candy...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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