Big Jay McNeely: 'Life Story'


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The history of R&B and rock and roll would be incomplete without mentioning Big Jay McNeely—father of the honking tenor-sax sound. Incredulously, Big Jay still has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If he were British or white, I suppose that would have happened a long time ago given who has slid in. For shame, Fame. [Photo above of fans reacting to Big Jay McNeely at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1951 by Bob Willoughby]

In 1949, Big Jay recorded Deacon's Hop, an instrumental that reached #1 on Billboard's R&B chart and all but launched small-group jump-boogie. The sound would become synonymous with rolled up jeans, tricked out cars and drag racing. He also had big sellers with Nervous Man Nervous, 3-D, All That Wine Is Gone and There Is Something on Your Mind. Here's what Big Jay told me when I interviewed him in 2009:

“At the end of 1948 [right after the second AFM strike], Ralph Bass, an a&r guy at Savoy [in Los Angeles] 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 the 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 [#1 on the R&B chart in early 1949]."

In 1950, Big Jay was playing Clarksville, Tenn., when he had an idea to amp up his act:

“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. 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."

His appearance in Los Angeles, at the Olympic Auditorium in 1951 was immortalized in photos by Bob Willoughby, who told me he was astonished by Big Jay's performance and the passionate reaction by the integrated audience. [Photo above of Big Jay McNeely at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1951 by Bob Willoughby]

Miraculously, Big Jay at age 85 is still touring and recording—mostly in Europe, where musicians and audiences recognize and appreciate his gifts and importance. But he can't seem to get a gig or kudos here.

A few weeks ago Big Jay called to tell me about his new album—Life Story (Brisk). Big Jay is backed by the Ray Collins' Hot-Club & Friends㬈 German musicians who live and breathe jump-boogie and swing rock-and-roll.

This is R&B before vocalists—when the music and energy rested on the shoulders of a single star instrumentalist. Early on, the music appeared on shellac 78-rpm records, since the 45's popularity with teens was still a few years off. Big Jay recreates the sound beautifully, knowing how to work a lick and enthrall listeners.

I hope someone from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is reading this. If Abba, the Ventures and Donovan can wind up crowned, isn't there room for Big Jay McNeely? [Photo above of teens reacting to Big Jay McNeely at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1951 by Bob Willoughby]

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Big Jay McNeely's Life Story (Brisk) here, here or at iTunes.

And while you're at it, sample The Best of Big Jay McNeely (1948-55) here. That's right—he's not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

JazzWax note: You can read my interview with Big Jay McNeely here and Bob Willoughby here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Big Jay McNeely with the Ray Collins Hot-Club...

Here's Big Jay in San Francisco a few years ago, blowing his big hit Deacon's Hop...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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