UPDATED: 7-19-2023


Lookin' sharp in 1948.

Tenor saxophonist Cecil "Big Jay" McNeely has been "the king of the honkers" for over 50 years, and he's still going strong. Born in Watts, California, on April 29, 1927, he formed his own band with jazz legends Sonny Criss (alto sax) and Hampton Hawes (piano) while still in high school. But in late 1948, when he was asked to record for Savoy Records, he abandoned jazz for something more raucous and struck paydirt when his second release, a honked-up instrumental called "Deacon's Hop," went to #1 on the national R&B charts in February 1949. For the next several years, Big Jay, according to The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, "was famed for his playing-on-his-back acrobatics and his raw, hard-swinging playing." During his act he'd leave the stage, walk across the top of the bar, and sometimes walk out the door of the club, often with a line of people following him. Once, in San Diego, during one such "walk," he was arrested on the street for disturbing the peace; inside the club, his band kept playing until someone could rush down to the police station, post Big Jay's bail, and bring him back to finish his song.

Savoy Records issued this 10-inch album around 1949-50.   A vintage P.R. 8x10.   Poster for a 1950 concert in South Gate, south of Los Angeles.

Big Jay (left) and brother Bob McNeely (on baritone) rock a Pittsburgh club in 1955 or '56.   Ready to honk in '52.

In the early- to mid-fifties, Big Jay added vocal groups to his act, beginning with Four Dots & Dash, which included, at one time or another, 16-year-old Jesse Belvin, Marvin Phillips (later of Marvin & Johnny fame), Tony Allen and Mel Williams. In fact, Belvin made his first recordings with Big Jay, including "All That Wine Is Gone." Big Jay also worked extensively with The Hollywood Flames, The Penguins and The Medallions up and down the West Coast. In 1955-56 he shared the stage with the Clovers, the Harptones (at the Apollo Theater), Bill Haley and His Comets, the Moonglows, Little Richard, and others.

In 1959 Big Jay enjoyed his biggest hit, a blues ballad called "There Is Something on Your Mind," featuring Haywood "Little Sonny" Warner on vocals. The record stayed on the R&B charts for six months and reached as high as #44 pop. The song was later a hit for Bobby Marchan. Other artists who have recorded Big Jay's song include B.B. King, Etta James, Freddy Fender, The Hollywood Flames, Gene Vincent, Albert King and Professor Longhair.

Rehearsing for the blues segment of the 1987 Grammy Awards: Ry Cooder (left), Big Jay, B.B. King, Etta James and Albert King. Photo by Mary Katherine Aldin.   Hoppin' with Ry Cooder, Robert Cray and B.B. at the Grammy rehearsal. Photo by Mary Katherine Aldin.

Big Jay retired from full-time music for 20 years, but in 1983 he returned to performing and hasn't looked back. In 1987 he played in a blues jam with B.B. King, Robert Cray, Etta James, Albert King, Junior Wells and others on the internationally-televised Grammy Awards. Two years later, he was honking outside the Quasimodo Club in West Berlin on the night the Berlin Wall came down--and the German press jokingly called him "the modern Joshua" after the rumor went around the Big Jay helped blow it down with his horn. In 2000 the Experience Music Project in Seattle installed a special Big Jay McNeely exhibit that includes his original Conn saxophone; the Smithsonian magazine put the horn on its June 2000 issue cover, along with Jimi Hendrix's hat, Janis Jopin's feather boa, and Eric Clapton's Stratocaster. Big Jay is also the subject of Jim Dawson's Nervous Man Nervous: Big Jay McNeely & the Rise of the Honking Tenor Saxophone (Big Nickel Press, 1995), the only book ever written about the R&B sax and its influences.

Groovin' with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (center) and Plas Johnson backstage at the Music Machine in West L.A. in the late 1980s. Photo courtesy Eddie Archer.   A reunion at the Long Beach Blues Festival between Big Jay and B.B. King. Big Jay played on B.B.'s famous Lucille album. Photo by Jim Dawson.   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.

These days (2007) Big Jay McNeely spends a good deal of time playing in Europe, Australia and Japan, but he has also had time to honk and shout at several Doo-Wop Society concerts to remind our audience that '50s rock 'n' roll and R&B shows featured not only vocal groups but honking sax men, who, it should be remembered, usually soloed in the middle of the great doo-wop records.

In a filmed performance at Babe & Ricky's Club in L.A.'s Crenshaw District in 1998, Big Jay talks about his career for a video exhibit in Seattle's Experience Music Project. Courtesy of Paul Spencer & Steven Wren.   Big Jay rocked the House of Blues in 1998. Photos by Lucia.

Big Jay fronts the Johnny Otis Orchestra at the 1984 Monterey Jazz Festival. Photo by Jim Dawson.


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