Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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McNEELY, Big Jay

(b Cecil McNeely, 29 April 1927, Los Angeles CA) Tenor sax, bandleader and legendary showman in R&B, playing a coarse, exciting horn while rocking on the floor on his back, etc; he was one of the original bar-walkers, influential for his live performances, despite not having many chart hits. He sometimes dueled with rivals saxophonists. One critic has written that some of McNeely's recordings, such as 'Real Crazy Cool', made for Aladdin in 1950 but not released for four years, 'achieve an ecstatic frenzy that anticipates not so much rock'n'roll as the ululant free jazz of the 1960s.'

He recorded for Exclusive '46 and Savoy '49: 'The Deacon's Hop' was a no. 1 R&B hit that year, adapted from Count Basie's 'Broadway', and 'Wild Wig' was no. 12. His small band usually included his brothers, Bob and Dillard McNeely. He went on to record for Aladdin, Federal and other labels; his third and last chart hit was a decade later, with his own oft-revived ballad 'There Is Something On Your Mind', a no. 5 R&B, top 50 pop '59 on the Swingin' label, with vocal by Sonny Warner, but his own recording of his own song was beaten to no. 1 by that of Bobby Marchan. Meanwhile he had painted his horn so that it glowed in the dark under ultraviolet light, and used a strobe light in his act; he toured with the Penguins, and with a big show in 1956 with Little Richard and other huge R&B stars, but the saxophone was losing out to the guitar in American popular music. There was a live album from WB in 1963.

He worked for the post office in the late 1960s, but made a comeback in the '80s, touring and recording all over the world. His album Party Time was made in Holland in 2009.