"I was from a very poor family, and we needed money," McNeely says. "I'd started off playing jazz with Sonny Criss, he had a little band, but then I went and studied with Joseph Cadaly at RKO studios, he played first-chair saxophone in the RKO orchestra. Studied a little bit of theory, harmonics, and got so legit that I felt like I was playing cello on the saxophone." His RKO training placed the cherry on top of McNeely's musical confection; he'd been bebopping throughout high school, and had occasionally recorded and jammed with the Johnny Otis band at South-Central's Barrelhouse. When he was approached by Savoy in late 1948 with an offer to make his own record, all of these experiences collided, with phenomenal results.
"I had no idea what I was gonna do," he says, "but I went to see Pete Canard, he had a little record shop down on Compton Avenue, talked to them, and they gave me a record by Glenn Miller ['Nothing but Soul'] that had that sock cymbal on it -- chh-chh, chh-chh-chh -- so I developed the number from that. I went into the studio and forgot all about the training I'd had for a solid year and just went completely in the other direction."
McNeely's debut release, "Deacon's Hop," with the saxophone alternating a glorious mix of drawling tease and gutbucket abandon, was an artistic and commercial ideal and launched the honking-sax craze, a direct outgrowth of Illinois Jacquet's frantic mid-'40s soloing on "Flying Home." "Deacon's Hop" reached No. 1 on the R&B charts, swiftly giving way to hits like Paul Williams' "The Hucklebuck" (which knocked "Deacon's Hop" from the No. 1 spot after two weeks) and Hal Singer's "Cornbread," a radical handful of instrumentals that inspired a gaggle of insta-honkers (Los Angeles' Joe Houston and Chuck Higgins among them). After Big Jay, Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker seemed hopelessly tame.
For a guy with a hit record, McNeely played it extremely cool: "I didn't go on the road at the time," he says, "because Bardu Ali, who was with Johnny Otis, told me what it was like -- how these gangsters treated black artists. They'd buy 'em a Cadillac and sign them for a huge percentage of their money, but when the party's over, they stole all your money, you find out nobody paid the income tax and you end up broke. So, because of that, when I was No. 1, I didn't work at all!"
At home in L.A. in 1949-50, he was packing them in. For Big Jay, "It was tremendous. At the time, people were so prejudiced, they couldn't understand why the white kids responded the way they did, and there'd be Mexican kids by the thousands watching us jam. People thought the kids must all be on drugs, and it got to the point where I was blocked out of Los Angeles -- either the cops would come and shut us down or they wouldn't give me a permit."
Big Jay became too hot to handle where other headliners were concerned, as well. "I was supposed to go on the road with Johnnie Ray, who was a big hit," he says. "His manager had made a bet that I couldn't break up the show, so I went on the very first show and broke it up -- the police said they were going to stop the whole thing!" McNeely was bumped off the tour. Then, "I was supposed to go with Nat Cole; they figured they could get me to start some excitement. When I was just a kid, Nat came out to the garage one time, saying, 'You guys sound great, you'll make it some day,' but the one time I did go with Nat Cole, I opened the first show and he said, 'You'll never work with me again.' That really did surprise me -- and he meant it, too."
Meanwhile, McNeely was grinding out a series of electrifying singles on various independent labels: "The Goof," "Nervous Man Nervous," "Teen Age Hop," "Let's Work," "Beachcomber," the sultry "Strip Tease Swing," and perhaps the most breakneck example of saxophone pyrotechnics in history, the supremely manic "3-D." By this time, Big Jay was one in an ever-growing guerrilla army of wild saxophonists. Still effectively hobbled at home, he â took his blowtop assault across the country -- where it only grew wilder.
"The first time I ever laid on the floor, I'll never forget it," he says. "You know, the blacks didn't like you laying on the floor -- they thought that was degrading -- but they were the ones that caused me to lay on the floor. It was in Clarksville, Tennessee, and we had a hot band, great piano player, but the people didn't respond to anything we played. At intermission, I said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do.' Went back out, got down on my knees -- nothing happening. I thought, 'Well, there's nothing else for me to do except lay on the floor.' Laid on the floor, man, and they went crazy. I got to Texas and tried it, went over big, go back to California, the kids went crazy about it. And then all of 'em started laying on the floor."
THE HONKER'S RAW TYPHOON OF SOUND and untamed
performing style took R&B to such a vivid extreme that he not only
evoked outrageous audience response, but also served as a sort of blank
cultural screen upon which were projected all manner of weird interpretations,
calumny, resentment and psychologizing. The poet Amiri Baraka passionately
wrote of the
"secret communal experience" shared by
the honkers and their audiences as a
"Black Dada Nihilismus," while journalist Leonard Feather dubbed them "extrovert moderns" and sniffed about their "deliberately vulgar tonal effects."
Many jazz musicians were repulsed by the honkers' hijinks, too. But not all: "I was working in New York at Birdland," says McNeely, "and Charlie Parker, who I was very close to, would come up and talk. I knew them all very well -- when I was a kid I was just bopping my way through everything. And the other jazz guys would look at me and all they could think was, 'Why are they talking to this guy? All he is, is a honker, playing one note!' But Sonny Criss, all the L.A. guys, had respect for me, even though I was doing something else. But they knew me -- I grew up with them." (Criss and McNeely went to school together; his friendship with Parker started during Bird's eight-week engagement at the Hollywood club Billy Berg's in 1946.)
Tensions from the jazz set toward
McNeely were rivaled by some of his
infamous ongoing disputes with other honkers. "I've had a couple of incidents with Joe Houston, it's really sad,"
McNeely says. "A lot of them can't honk, and that's why they decide to be crazy. I'm playing soul, and that's not just honking. They don't have the soul, so when they try to play a note, it sounds so phony. And even the guys who really listen and try to do what you're doing, they'll play a real stiff reed, and when they play high notes it's very piercing to the ear. I can stand right in front of you and play three octaves up and it's just like I'm playing in the middle of the saxophone, because I'm using a very soft reed -- it's like the difference between riding in a car with 50 pounds of air in the tires and riding in a car with 25. I can stand right in front of a guy at a table and scream, and they don't jump out of their seat! You get the other guy, and it sounds like a car with squealing brakes.
"People think you're just walkin' through the room honkin', layin' on the floor screamin', but when I play they have to say, 'This guy has got quality.'"
THAT QUALITY HAS CARRIED McNEELY comfortably through five decades; ironically, his biggest hit, 1959's "There Is Something on Your Mind," was a moody vocal ballad, but he remains a major overseas draw, still makes records, and at his appearances still effortlessly manifests the tumultuous turmoil that put him on the map. The entire presentation is a painstakingly crafted mixture of specific musical technique and calculated rabble-rousing.
"When you want to create excitement, you repeat a phrase over and over and over," he explains, "but as you repeat this phrase, there's different ways: Sometimes you use vibrato, sometimes you don't. When you use a real fast vibrato, then the note has a different connotation, all right? Certain low notes bring out certain characteristics in a person, high notes bring out other characteristics. A-flat is probably the best key, because you can get your low notes, you've got the middle range, then you go up another octave or two and you've got the whole range of the saxophone. A-flat has the groove, it brings out the darker side.
"But the reason I'll play high notes is because I'll watch people's clothes, the way they dress, their shoes. If I see a person in a $200 suit, I'm not gonna scream and holler, I'll play it lower -- to meet their characteristics, to make that cat groovy. Then if I get somebody dressed a bit different, then bam! I throw in high notes and low notes, and it creates excitement with them, and the other people sitting around them who maybe won't even move, they get this radiation and they begin to move. So you get everybody in the house movin' -- this is what you have to do. People don't know what it is, but when they hear it, they know. To me, it's soul."