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Big Jay McNeely

Big Jay McNeely  April 29, 1927 - September 16, 2018

“What it was all about at the time is kind of summed up in that picture". 

"That picture where I’m lying on stage, playing on my back in front of all those white kids. That’s the greatest rock’n’roll picture there is … everybody included. That’s what rock’n’roll was all about back then.”

The great R&B tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely died on Sunday 16 September at Riverside University Health System Medical Centre in Moreno Valley, California. He had been ill for some time as the result of prostate cancer.

One of the great saxophone showmen, in the late 1940’s McNeely abandoned jazz and bebop to focus on the lowdown raunch of straight R&B. McNeely was the ultimate showman, whether he was playing to a handful of people in a tiny bar or to a crowd of several thousand in a concert hall. He would often jump off stage and continue playing as he marched through the audience. He once told me a story about playing a club in San Diego, when he honked his way out of the club into the street and onto a bus stopped outside, he was still playing when the bus driver dropped him off 100 yards down the road and he played his way back into the club and back on stage where the band was still wailing.

Cecil James McNeely was born on April 29, 1927. His father, Dillard, was a porter on a floating gambling casino off the cost of Santa Monica. Jay’s mother Armonia, a Native American, was a talented pianist as was his father and so it was natural that Jay and his three brothers would all become competent musicians. Jay began playing saxophone in high school and was soon jamming in clubs around Central Avenue where he met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as well as his biggest influence, the great tenor player Illinois Jacquet.

McNeely was hired by bandleader Johnny Otis and signed to Savoy Records where he had a hit record with his wild composition ‘Deacon’s Hop’, which topped the race records chart in 1949. Ten years later Jay had another top ten hit single ‘There Is Something On Your Mind’ on the Swingin’ label. (This recording featured the vocals of Little Sonny Warner).

In 1960 Big Jay married soul singer Jacqueline Baldain, better known as Jacky Day and retired from music to become a mailman. Jacqueline and Jay had three children, however  the marriage eventually ended in divorce.

After his retirement from the US postal service around 1980, Big Jay again took up his horn and began playing gigs in local bars and clubs in Los Angeles. In 1983 he travelled to England for a ‘1950’s R&B Spectacular’ at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town, London, where he headlined over Chuck Higgins, Young Jessie and Willie Egan. He recorded an album for Ace Records, “From Harlem to Camden”, and was also featured on a live album recorded at the Electric Ballroom. His popularity grew as he could be depended on to stage a great show and he continued to tour throughout Europe and the USA.

Despite his wild, larger than life image, Jay was a deeply religious man who remained a devoted Jehovah’s Witness right up to the end of his life.

Ted Carroll