Cecil James "Big Jay" McNeely
April 29th 1927 - September 16th 2018
Olympic Auditorium Los Angeles 1951 |photo by Bob Willoughby
Hailed as the King of the Honkers, Big Jay McNeely was at the forefront of a group of post-bop saxophonists who, in the late 1940s, abandoned the heady reveries of jazz for the more gutbucket pleasures of rhythm and blues. In the process he played a pivotal role in establishing the saxophone — before the electric guitar supplanted it — as the featured instrument among soloists at the dawn of rock ’n’ roll.
Best known for his acrobatics and daring in performance, Mr. McNeely whipped up crowds by reeling off rapid sequences of screaming notes while lying on his back and kicking his legs in the air. Other times he would jump down off the stage and blow his horn while strutting his way through the audience.
Back: Bob McNeely ; Front: Big Jay McNeely
Cecil James McNeely was born on April 29, 1927. He was the youngest of three boys, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His father, Dillard, was a porter on a floating casino moored off the Santa Monica coast. His mother, Armonia, a Native American, made Indian blankets and quilts that his father sold to supplement the family’s income. Both parents played the piano and his brother Dillard Jr played the bass, other brother Robert played the baritone saxophone. It was inevitable that Big Jay's life would be influenced by music.
At 16 years old, Big Jay decided to pick up the saxophone and try his hand after being influenced by his older brother Robert, who he deemed an excellent musician. He felt Robert could've gone on to play with Cab Calloway but was too young at the time. During World War II, Bob was drafted and left his saxophone at home. At That time Big Jay was working at Firestone Rubber Co. and wasn't fond of the idea of working 8 hours a day and was convinced that "there had to be a better way." It was then that he decided music would be a better bet for him. He asked his brother if he could have his saxophone and after receiving a yes Big Jay was on his way. His mother sent him to Polytecnic High School where they had a better performing Arts program. Big Jay started playing in bands in high school, including a trio with the alto saxophonist Sonny Criss and the pianist Hampton Hawes, both of whom would distinguish themselves as jazz musicians. Around this time he also began to ride his bike each day to Alma Hightowers house where he would take lessons for $0.25 with fellow band mate Sonny Criss.
It wasn't long after high school before he began to take lessons with Joseph Caroline, a gentleman who played with the RKO Studio Orchestra. Big Jay mentioned what a great teacher he was and how he taught him all about Full Vibrato so he could play with a great big sound. He studied harmony, ear training, composition and more with him. After Robert returned from the war, they both studied voice. They figured eventually they'd have to sing, and studying singing would help with their blowing. "Singing was the same principal as playing. You sing from the diaphragm with compact air pressure and the "e" sound," he said in an interview with Jazzwaxx. He went on to say " 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[vocal instructor]"
Big Jay went on to form a band with his brother Robert [Baritone Saxophone], Sonny Criss [Alto Saxophone], and Hampton Hawes [Piano] up until 1947.
The 1940's was a very exciting and influential time for Big Jay. A few artist who he loved listening to were Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, and Don Byas. "When Charlie Parker came out to L.A. in the mid-1940s, my mother washed his clothes. We ran [hung out] with him."
In the clubs of Los Angeles, Big Jay heard and met bebop luminaries like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who in the late 1940s appeared often on the West Coast. But his biggest early influence was the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet
, particularly his honking 64-bar solo on the vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s popular 1942 recording of “Flying Home.”
“Every time we picked up our horns we were just elaborating on that, trying to make it bigger, wilder, give it more swing, more kick,” Big Jay explained, referring to Jacquet’s solo, in the biography “Nervous Man Nervous: Big Jay McNeely and the Rise of the Honking Tenor Sax!” (1994), by Jim Dawson.
“If you want to know where rhythm and blues began, that’s it, brother.”
Left: Big Jay McNeely ; Right: Robert McNeely at a Pittsburg club in 1955 or 56
After Big Jay's unhinged appearance in an amateur night at the Barrelhouse Club
in Watts, Johnny Otis
, the renowned bandleader and talent scout, persuaded him to join his ensemble. Mr. Otis was then under contract to Savoy Records, whose owner, Herman Lubinsky
, took a keen liking to Big Jay and wanted to work.
"At the end of 1948 [right after the second AFM strike], Ralph Bass, an a&r guy at Savoy asked me if I wanted to do a record. I said yeah. He told me to put a tune together. "
The same a&r would go on to be responsible for christening Cecil with the name “Big Jay,” not because of his size — he was 5-foot-11 and of average build — but because of his outsize talent.
"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. "
Mr. Lubinsky began recording him under his own name, billing him as Big Jay and His Blue Jays and releasing, along with seven other singles, the career-defining “Deacon’s Hop.”
"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]
“Deacon’s Hop” was a growling, percussive instrumental released on the Savoy label. Based on Lester Young’s tenor saxophone solo on the Count Basie Orchestra’s 1940 recording “Broadway,” “Deacon’s Hop” spent two weeks at the top of Billboard’s Race Records chart, as it was then called, in the winter of 1949.
"Deacon's Hop" was such a GRAND career defining moment for Big Jay. He often mentions how it hindered him from playing the music he set out to.
"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."
"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."
Olympic Auditorium Los Angeles 1951 | photo by Bob Willoughby
But nonetheless, Big Jay was the epitome of Showmanship. At times his theatrics prompted white nightclub owners to summon the police to avert what they feared would be rioting by hysterical teenagers. He created an infectious sound that was almost hypnotizing. It had the power to take over your soul and make you move. It was almost as if audience members had no choice but to be engulfed by the screaming riffs and honks.
After “Deacon’s Hop” topped the R&B chart, Big Jay unleashed a barrage of stupefying singles with such gone titles as "The Goof," "Strip Tease Swing," "Nervous Man Nervous," "Teen Age Hop," "Let's Work" and the most savage, souped-up dose of frantic sax ever perpetrated, the flat-out flabbergasting "3-D." The press called him "Big Jay McSquealy," "the Go Go Go Man," "the Deacon of Tenor Sax" and "King of the Honkers." After he began to draw huge, racially mixed crowds (a big fat no-no in the early 1950s), the police and sheriff’s departments effectively banned him from performing anywhere in L.A. County. Clad in mohair tuxedos or loud Technicolor suits so gaudy they “glowed in the dark,” McNeely roared out of the Shrine Auditorium all the way to Birdland, flipping teen wigs and outraging jazz purists at every stop.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Big Jay remained immensely popular in the R&B music world. He became famous for his acrobatic and hard-swinging antics and flamboyant playing style which critics called “honking.” During his act he would occasionally leave the stage, walk across the top of the bar, and sometimes walk out the door of the club with an entourage of people following behind him. Once, while touring in San Diego, he left the band stand for his usual crowd walk, and walked right out the door onto the side walk blowing his horn. An off duty officer alerted local squad members and arrested Big Jay for disturbing the peace by engaging in such activity that evening. He never returned to the band stand, but that didn't stop the crowd for Dancing. In-fact the band members had no idea what happened to him until a worker of the club reported back, "Man, that cat's in jail."
In May 1953, Ebony magazine reported, "A young white lad got so hepped up over Big Jay's music that he jumped out of a balcony onto the main floor, where he miraculously landed without hurting himself and went into a riotous dance. In Redondo Beach during summer, a teen-aged white girl was sent into raging hysterics by the violent sounds of Big Jay's horn. She did not recover her balance until her boyfriend had slapped her face vigorously about a dozen times."
You could bet that if Big Jay was influencing crowds the way he was, then there was no doubt that he had the same effect on up and coming artist as well. Among his many admirers were Clarence Clemons
, the longtime saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and the young Jimi Hendrix, who after seeing him perform in the late 1950s incorporated some of Big Jay's showstopping moves into his guitar-slinging persona.
His popularity notwithstanding, Big Jay's more flamboyant exploits hardly met with universal approval. Some of his fellow African-Americans also disapproved of his over-the-top displays, shunning them as uncouth.
“I played with Nat King Cole up in Oakland one time, and I came on powerhouse, the crowd was screaming,” Big Jay told LA Weekly in 2016.
“I ran into him later that night at Bop City, an after-hours spot, and he said, ‘You’ll never work with me again.’
“I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.”
The poet Amiri Baraka
detected something more disruptive — and culturally more pressing — than mere unruliness in Mr. McNeely’s performances. In his book “Blues People: Negro Music in White America” (1963), he wrote that he heard Big Jay's blaring riffs as a “black scream,” an expression of individuality and protest in the face of racial oppression.
A decade later still going at it, but now honing into the love that he had for the Jazz genre, incidentally, given his typically raucous approach, Big Jay's signature hit was a smoldering ballad, “There Is Something on Your Mind,” a Top 10 R&B hit in 1959 featuring vocals by the doo-wop singer Little Sonny Warner
. The song was widely recorded by others, most notably the New Orleans crooner Bobby Marchan, who had a No. 1 R&B single
— and Top 40 pop hit — with it in 1960.
Alot of people think this record was written by Big Jay but he actually purchased it from the writer for $25.
"He said 'well give me $25,' so, you know I was very poor you know, so I went home I told my mother, I said 'look, "I got to have this $25, this,' I said 'This is a hit,' you know and so I taken him down to the lawyer, wrote a contract, gave him $25 and I taken it to him, and Little Sonny, I'd picked up, he'd been with me for about 5 years, and i asked him to sing it.
They recorded the track in Seattle, Washington. Once done, they took the record to Hollywood and all the record companies said it wasn't worth a dime and they weren't interested. A disc jokey by the name of Hunter Hancock told Big Jay "Okay, I'll put it out for you Big Jay, but this ain't nothing."
"Rocking Lucky comes on at 12 o'clock at night, put that thang on the air....., man people were calling and screaming. Everybody's recording it, you know every white, black, Jamaicans, in-fact they got a tune now called "There's Nothing on Your Mind."
Left to Right: Big Jay McNeely, Jackie Day
"A singer by the name of "Jackie Day"called up to the station one day while "There's Something on Your Mind" was playing and asked "Where'd did you get that song?!" I told her I bought it from a guy." She went on to tell me how she helped him write that song right in her kitchen. Then i found out she was studying as a Jehovah's Witness just as I was and we'd been inseparable ever since"
Big Jay married the singer, Jackie Day – real name Jacqueline Baldain – April 4th 1960. They recorded and toured together for many years. Jacqueline was already the mother to a Son, Richard Herman which Big Jay went on to adopt as his own. October 21st 1963, they welcomed another child into the world, this time a baby girl, Jacquelene Jay McNeely (Jay Jay).
Big Jay and Jackie continued to tour together well into the 60's, creating and building a life together. The both were very active members of their Jehovah's Witness congregation. Amid changing musical trends it was financially difficult to run a touring band. At the time, rhythm and blues was being eclipsed by smoother sounds from Motown and elsewhere, and the ’60s rock culture would soon prize the electric guitar over the saxophone. In 1971, Big Jay and Jackie both retired from the industry. Big Jay gave up the late nights of the music business for the early mornings of being a postman, and Jackie went on to do security and police work. This now gave them the opportunity to devote even more time to the ministry.
"We both didn't like how much time we were spending away from the Kingdom Hall and how many meeting we were missing."
Unfortunately, the McNeely union ended in divorce in the mid 1970's. They remained very close and kept a tight knit friendship. Although divorced, neither dated during their hiatus apart. By the 1980's they began to rekindle their partnership. This was around the time they welcomed their first grandchild into the world in 1983, Richard Herman McNeely Jr, son of Richard Herman McNeely Sr & Patricia McNeely. The 2nd grandchild wasn't far behind, another boy, Brian Scott Benson Jr, son of Jacquelene Jay McNeely and Brian Scott Benson Sr in 1989. A few years after that, 1992, they welcomed their last grandchild Brittney Kay Calhoun, daughter of Jacquelene Jay McNeely and Spencer Calhoun. New life definitely brought them right back to where they had started.
An R&B revival in the early 1980s, returned Big Jay to the music stage and he began recording and touring full time. In 1987 he united with B.B. King
, Etta James
, Freddy Fender, The Hollywood Flames, Gene Vincent, Albert King and Junior Wells on the annual Grammy Awards.
Left to Right: Big Jay McNeely, B.B King, Etta James, Albert King
In 2000, the Experience Music Project in Seattle installed a special Big Jay McNeely exhibit in his honor.
The cover of the June 2000 Smithsonian magazine featuring an article on Paul
Allen's new Experience Music Project in Seattle, which contains an exhibit on
Big Jay and displays the Conn tenor sax he played on his early records.
From the 1980's and on, Big Jay spent a good portion of his time performing and recording both in the United States and overseas in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North Africa. Big Jay performed at many many Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, Boogie Woogie, and Rock & Roll Festivals, as well as making Pop Up appearances. He literally continued to 'Blow" our minds. He never lost his touch or his sound. Never missed a beat, and kept us on the edge of our seats for all these years.
He was a master entertainer. You'd never leave a Big Jay McNeely show feeling like you didn't get what you came for. He always gave all that he had and left his heart on the stage. He carried his showmanship with him right on to his very last performance.
Since 1984, Big Jay has released more than 17 albums including his latest " I'm Still Here."
The last years of Big Jay's life were nothing short of spectacular. In November 2012, he traveled to Asia to record and tour in Japan with Bloodest Saxophone. Out of that tour came the live album entitled "Blow Blow All Night Long."
At the start of 2013 in January, he traveled to Europe for a small tour that started in London and ended in Paris where he played at the infamous Balajo.
In 2013, He traveled to Vienna Austria to record a live album with Michael Pewny. Another success.
In 2014 Big Jay was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in Memphis Tennessee.
In 2015, it was back to Japan for a 2nd live album with Bloodest Saxophone.
2018 the family helped Big Jay celebrate his 90th birthday at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill where he put on a phenomenal show.
Left to right Top: Yvette Wilkerson, Demarius Wilkerson | Left to right middle: Jasmine, Jay Jay (Daughter), Simone Renee Smith, Kimberly McNeely (daughter in law), Richard Herman McNeely Sr (Son) | Left to Right bottom: Richard Herman McNeely Jr (Grandson), Big Jay McNeely (front & center), Brittney Kay Calhoun-Morris (Granddaughter)
In October of 2018 Big Jay was officially diagnosed with prostate cancer. This heartbreaking news didn't seem to affect Big Jay emotionally at all, and It for-sure didn't affect his ability to play. He had the hope of living forever with the help of Jehovah God. He kept a good spirit and his eye on the prize, God's Kingdom. Big Jay still went to his weekly Kingdom Hall meetings every Tuesday evening and out to service on the weekends. After the sun had set, he was ready to boogie on down to Big Mama's Rib Shack where he'd play every Sunday evening just to keep his chops wet, as he would say.
As the months went by Big Jay's health seemed to be on a steady decline. It didn't break his spirit, but the cancer was wreaking havoc on his body. It became harder and harder for Big Jay to do things on his own like he did normally just a few months prior. This lead to it being impossible for Big Jay to stand on his own. He mentioned being in horrific pain and spent most of the day asleep if he wasn't watching his favorite court TV shows, sports, or playing his beloved sax and flute. Big Jay NEVER stopped playing his sax. We believe it was the one thing keeping him here on earth. The time came in which Big Jay's health had gotten so bad that he no longer wanted to eat or drink and when asked if he wanted his saxophone by the family he answered "No." That's when he family knew something was terribly wrong. He never declined his Sax.
Big Jay spent his last months living with his daughter Jay Jay in her Moreno Valley home with son Brian who provided around the clock care and helped keep him comfortable. He was transported to the Riverside Health Center System September 11th where he spent the last 6 days of his life. September 16 2019, Big Jay passed away at 6:15am due to advanced prostate cancer.
Although Big Jay is no longer with us physically, we still feel father near every time we hear saxophone riff. The family is currently working on putting on the first annual Big Jay McNeely Rhythm & Blues Music Festival in Los Angeles Ca, in the spring of 2020. More info to come soon children.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Big Jay has not yet been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Journalist Marc Myer got the chance to interview Big Jay back in 2014 to get his thoughts.
Big Jay Gets No Respect From the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Marc Myers
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.
Marc Myers. JazzWax "Interview: Big Jay McNeely (Part 1)" July 30th, 2009
Bill Friskics-Warren. "Big Jay McNeely, 91,Dies; R&B's 'King of the Honkers'" The New York Times, September 17th 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/17/arts/music/big-jay-mcneely-dies.html
Elwood Watson. "Cecil 'Big Jay' McNeely (1927-)" BlackPast, October 19th, 2013, https://www.blackpast.org/aaw/vignette_aahw/mcneely-cecil-big-jay-1927/
Johnny Whiteside. "R.I.P. Big Jay McNeely, April 29, 1927- Sept. 16, 2018" LAWEEKLY, September 16th 2018, https://www.laweekly.com/music/rip-big-jay-mcneely-april-29-1927-sept-16-2018-9870238
JD Nash. "Blues Hall of Famer Big Jay McNeely Dead at 91" American Blues Scene, September 17th 2018, https://www.americanbluesscene.com/blues-hall-of-famer-big-jay-mcneely-dead-at-91/
Big Jay McNeely. "Big Jay McNeely Documenatry" RayCollinsHotClub YouTube, September 17th 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr2Z_xQrR_A
Marc Myers. "Big Jay Gets no Respect From the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame' The Wall Street Journal, April 9th, 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-jay-gets-no-respect-from-the-rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame-1397078481