The Deacon Is In : Big Jay McNeely©2008JCMarion


Cecil James (Big Jay) McNeely was born in April of 1929 in Los Angeles, California. His parents had originally been from Kentucky but headed West looking for a better opportunity to raise their family. As a young man he was fascinated by music and his older brother had played saxophone, which led Cecil to try his hand on the instrument. In high school he was part of a small combo that included pianist Hampton Hawes (later famous for "The All Night Session" lps). McNeely had a number of neighborhood teachers during his teenage years, and it was at this time he adopted the tenor sax as his horn of choice. As he performed his music to a small appreciative audience, he began to employ a bit of a swagger and a dose of showmanship to his playing. This certainly led to his street recognition in his Watts neighborhood. Soon he entered the soon to be historic club known as "The Barrelhouse" on the Thursday Night Amateur Show and wowed the patrons with his flash and blast. The owner of the club, R & B bandleader Johnny Otis, recognized the potential of this exciting new sax player and took him aside and offered him a spot in the house band for the club. It was McNeely's first gig and led to his start as a recording artist.

McNeely recorded an instrumental side with the Otis band for Excelsior Records owned by the Rene Brothers, a Black song writing team that composed many American standards over the years. McNeely's tune was never released by the label, but he was soon put in touch with one of the major players in the R & B scene of the late forties - Savoy Records of Newark, New Jersey. It was at this time that Cecil became "Big Jay", reportedly requested by label president Herman Lubinsky perhaps to cover for the young age of the newest member of the Savoy label. In late 1948 McNeely recorded four tunes for the label. The first release by Savoy was # 682 with the songs "Benson's Groove" (titled for Chicago's famous radio personality and record label owner Al "Ol' Swingmaster" Benson) and "Wild Wig". The second record from that session was on Savoy # 683 which lists the backing band as The BlueJays (which included brother Bob McNeely on baritone sax and Devonia Williams on piano). The songs were "Hucklebuck" (a hit for Paul Williams on a tune based on a riff by Charlie Parker on "Billie's Bounce") and "Hoppin' John" with a vocal by Teddy Reig.

In early 1949 another Savoy recording set the tone for McNeely's future. The song was "Deacon's Hop" on Savoy # 685 ("Arties Jump" on the other side) , and this record made him a star. Great sales and radio airplay put Big Jay in demand as a performer and when the patrons got a look at his stage presence, they were amazed. McNeely further cemented his place in the R & B field with his historic performance at the Jazz & Blues Cavalcade in Los Angeles Wrigley Field during the summer of 1949. Sitting in with the Lionel Hampton band, his solo on the classic "Flying Home" totally updated the Illinois Jacquet signature solo, and wowed the crowd with his call to the future. Reportedly, Hampton's take on the spotlight stealing shot by McNeely spelled the end of any association between the two in the future. The Savoy releases continued - "Sunday Dinner" and "California Hop" on # 698, "Cherry Smash" and "Man Eater" on # 713, and a later re-release of "Deacon's Hop" with a Paul Williams song on the reverse on # 798. During 1949 McNeely also recorded some songs with the Johnny Otis Orchestra. "Going To See My Baby" and "Little Red Hen" released on Regent # 1017 was the first followed by "New Orleans Shuffle" on Savoy # 743, and "Head Hunter" on # 744. Pianist Devonia Williams and vocalists Redd Lyte and Little Esther were part of the Otis band on these recordings. By the end of the year McNeely had moved on to Aladdin Records, the famous West Coast indie label.

In February of 1950 Jay's first Aladdin record is out. It pairs "Jay's Frantic" and "Deacon's Blowout" on # 3050. During the spring and summer McNeely plays a number of club dates throughout the Southern California area. One such gig is an extended engagement at Peacock Alley with his backup group known as the Cool Cats. The backers change their name (temporarily) to The Deacons behind Big Jay as they play L.A.'s Elks Ballroom in August and September. After that the band takes off on a tour of one nighters throughout the Southwest, including a number of stops in Texas. Big Jay's stop at Aladdin Records is over as he quickly moves to another L.A. indie label, Imperial Records. By April his first for the label is out - "All That Wine Is Gone" and "Don't Cry Baby" on # 5115. "Wine" gets off the ground on the West Coast and is a pick hit and garners airplay throughout the region. By May the record is a good seller in the Southeast, especially Atlanta and Jacksonville. During the summer "Insect Ball" and "Sad Story" are out on Imperial # 5130, followed by "Let's Do It" and "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" on # 5164. In October, the Lincoln Theater begins a series of in person stage shows presented by radio dj Hunter hancock. The star of the first of these shows is Big jay McNeely and his band. In November McNeely does an extended recording session for Imperial before heading out on his first one nighter tour of the Eastern states. McNeely continues to be a big draw in person because of his straight ahead sax blasting and his gymnastic approach to stage presence (jumps, splits, floor rolling, playing on his back, etc) that will be copied by many of his sax contemporaries. Imperial records releases "Tall Brown Woman" and "The Deacon Blows For Ray" on # 5169.

Big Jay McNeely begins 1952 headlining a big R & B show at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. Also on the bill are Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers and Smokey Lynn. "Blow Blow Blow" is a good seller in the Southern California area. Part of the McNeely band is a vocal group called The Four Dots & Dash which has had in their lineup Jesse Belvin, Marvin Phillips (of Marvin & Johnny), Tony Allen (of The Champs), and Mel Williams. In July of the year McNeely signs on with King Records of Cincinnati, a top R & B independent label. That month McNeely appears with Earl Bostic at the Lincoln Theater in L.A. Imperial has two records left over to release during the year - "Jay Walker" and "Night Rider" on # 5176, and "That Old Mule" and "True Love" on # 5186. That label also soon releases an LP album called "The Deacon Rides Again" on LP # 154. In September of 1952, headlines in the music trade press discuss the furor that McNeely followers produce at many of his stage shows. One example was an appearance at Ebony Hall in San Diego when McNeely marched outside the hall and continued the show on the street, which resulted in an arrest for disturbing the peace. Another incident happened at Big Jay's appearance at Gene Norman's annual Blues Jubilee at the Shrine Auditorium, when an overexuberant fan leaped out of the balcony onto the stage. Some West Coast producers are backing out of bookings because of the notoriety. In October, McNeely's first Federal record hits the street with "The Goof" and "Big jay's Shuffle" on # 12102.

In January of 1953 "Just Crazy" and "Penthouse Serenade" is released on Federal # 12111. Imperial joins in with one last record by McNeely with "Deacon's Express" and "Jet Fury" on # 5219. In February, McNeely joins tenor sax man Joe Holiday in a battle of the tenors at Harlem's Apollo Theater. In April Big jay plays an extended engagement at Chicago's Capitol Lounge. In mid summer Federal releases "Nervous, Man, Nervous" and "Rock Candy" on # 12141. "Texas Turkey" and "3-D" are issued by Federal on # 12151 in late October. In February of 1954 "Mule Milk" and "Ice Water" on Federal # 12168 is released. In late March of the year the Embassy Ballroom in Los Angeles was the site of the ultimate sax battle which featured Big Jay McNeely and Joe Houston, the top two tenor gun slingers on the West Coast. In April Federal issues the newest by McNeely with "Whipped Cream" paired with "Hot Cinders" on # 12179. In May Aladdin Records comes out with a Big Jay record from off the shelf from a few years before with "Let's Split" and "Real Crazy Cool" on # 5249. In June "Hard Tack" and "Let's Work" is released by Federal on # 12186. During the summer McNeely plays a number of dates with The Flairs at the Carillo Ballroom in Santa Barbara, and also plays Gibson's in L.A. In August Federal is on tap with another Big Jay record - "Beachcomber" and "Strip Tease Swing" on # 12191. In November the two titans of the tenors join forces on a number of show dates in Southern California - Big Jay and Joe Houston together on stage ! McNeely closes out the year with a tour of the Pacific Northwest.

In April of 1955 Vee-Jay Records announces the signing of Big Jay McNeely to their label. In June "Big Hay's Hop" and "Three Blind Mice" are released by Vee-Jay on # 142. In July The Penguns join McNeely for a number of in person dates in the Los Angeles area. In September Big jay jumps to a new label again, this time to Dootone Records in L.A. In November the Los Angeles Paramount Theater presents an all star R & B show with Big Jay, also featuring The Platters, Penguins, Colts, Dinah Washington, and Joe Houston. The show is hosted by local radio dj Hunter Hancock. In late summer of 1956 Vee-Jay finds one on the shelf with "Jay's Rock" paired with The Delegates clever spoof called "The Convention" on Vee-Jay # 204. After nothing materializes from the Dootone signing, McNeely is signed to Atco Records. In November King Records issues an LP album consisting of instrumentals by Big Jay McNeely. The album is issued in January of 1957 called "Big jay In 3-D" on Federal # 395-530. King also releases a four part 45 rpm EP series called "Go! Go! Go!" on Federal # 246-9. Big Jay continues to perform at a number of clubs and theaters all across the country such as Chicago's Cream City and Crown Propeller Lounge through May. It is reported that he broke all attendance records for the Crown Propeller night spot with his band. In October McNeely appears at an all star R & B show presented by Art Laboe in Long Beach, California. In 1958 McNeely does very little in the recording studio except for news of a marathon recording session that takes place in Portland, Oregon. McNeely's late fifties band consists of brothers Bob on baritone sax, Dillard on bass, and Wendell Johnson on guitar, Len Hardiman on drums, and Haywood Warner on piano and vocals. Warner is known as "Little Sonny" on record dates and in person appearances.

In 1959, Jay McNeely signs on with Swingin' Records, owned by Los Angeles radio personality and long time R & B producer Hunter Hancock. The first release in "Back . . .Shack . . .Track" and "There Is Something On Your Mind" (with vocal by Little Sonny Warner) on Swingin' # 714. Almost immediately "Something", which is a departure for McNeely, gathers attention. Rather than a blasting sax rocker, it is a slow atmospheric blues sung by Warner. The record takes off on the West Coast and then breaks nationally and becomes the biggest seller in McNeely's career. He and his band appear on TV shows across the country such as Buddy Dean's in Baltimore. The record is a huge seller in the R & B field and crosses over into the pop charts during the summer. By October Swingin' is ready to release a follow up record. "I Got The Message" and "Psycho Serenade" are issued on Swingin' # 618. Into the new decade, as the move away from traditional R & B to pop flavored rock music and teen idolatry takes hold. Big jay McNeely and his band carry on with a combination of tenor sax powered jump tunes and blues ballads featuring Little Sonny. "Minnie" and "My Darling Dear" are released on Swingin' # 622, followed by "I Love You Darling" and "Oh What A Fool" on # 627, and the two related tunes "Before Midnight" and "After Midnight" on # 629. The final record on the Swingin' label pairs "The Squat" and "Without Love" on # 637. Two additional records appear during the nineteen sixties - "You Don't Have To Go" and "Jay's Count" on Warner Brothers # 5401, and later "Rockin The Reeds" on his own Big J Records on # 105.

In late 1963 McNeely saw the writing on the wall (and other places) and left the music business where he remained for twenty years working as a mailman and doing work for the Jehovah's Witnesses. In the summer of 1983 he was asked to appear at London's R & B Jamboree and appeared with Chuck Higgins and Young Jessie in a revival of L.A. R & B performers. Buoyed by the reception and fun of pplaying again, Jay McNeely began to pplay clubs again, this time in a more jazz influenced style but still retaining that famous fire on the tenor sax. He entered the new milennium still at it, keeping the signature sound of the rocking horn alive. He remains one of the greatest showmen the music has ever produced, and is certainly an American original.

The sound of Big Jay McNeely has survived owing to a number of available cd recordings. This is only a partial listing of them, attempting to keep duplication as few as possible. The list is also presented in chronological order. "Big Jay McNeely : 1948-1950" on Swingin' from 2007 contains 20 tracks; "1950-1952" from Classics in 2003 contains 20 tracks; and "1953-1955" from Classics in 2006 with 20 tracks covers Jay into the mid fifties. "Big Jay in 3-D" is a cd version of the original King LP of Federal sides; "Golden Classics" from Collectables in 1990 with 16 tracks covers the Swingin' label; "There Is Something On Your Mind" for Collectables in 2002 with 17 tracks covers the entire decade of the fifties, as does "Central Avenue Confidential" for Atomic in 2000 with 10 tracks. Two interesting live cds are "Live At Birdland : 1957" for Collectables in 1992 contains 16 tracks many with Little Sonny Warner; and a later live cd "Live At Cisco's" from Collectables in 2006 with 11 tracks recorded at Manhattan Beach in California from the mid nineties.

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