Rock’s pre-eminent saxophonist as a solo artist (as opposed to a sessionist) who came along at the tail end of the sax instrumental peak but who wound up being the defining figure of that movement. In addition it was McNeely who pushed the boundaries of the flamboyant stage show in rock and capitalized on his live reputation to propel his career to stardom.

Cecil J. McNeely was born in Watts in 1927, making him just twenty years of age when rock ‘n’ roll came into being, winning an amateur contest held at Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in late 1948 where his unhinged style was already drawing notice. Soon he joined Otis’s band for a brief spell, recording with his outfit on a number of sides, and at the same time signed his first contract with Savoy Records to record under his own name – or rather the name company president Herman Lubinsky bestowed upon him: Big Jay. It was there that his first two releases were both national hits, the second of which topped the charts.

Unlike older established sax players who’d made the move from jazz to rock out of commercial necessity and often looked down upon the style they were required to adapt in order to appease the fervent rock fan, McNeely felt no such conflict. He was born a rocker and backed by his older brother Bob who’d given Jay his first saxophone and now played baritone in his band, the McNeelys formed the most explosive pair of horn players on the scene in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

McNeely gained a deserved reputation as the premier honker and squealer in tenor sax’s glory days, in fact his somewhat derisive nickname (much like “Elvis The Pelvis” in later years) was Big Jay McSquealy, but his records were far more diverse than almost all of his competitors, showing impressive compositional skills and a willingness to experiment in ways that paid off aesthetically on a consistent basis, including providing the means for which future luminary vocalist Jesse Belvin got his first exposure singing on one of McNeely’s tracks.

But Big Jay’s main draw was always his outrageous live performances highlighted by his fervent energy and relentless attack on the horn, famed for playing endless one-note riffs that put audiences in a religious-like trance and pulling out all of the stops as a showman, including laying on his back while playing with his feet in the air, using fluorescent paint on his horn to be seen when the lights went out and, most famously, parading through the audience, sometimes out in the street and once all the way to jail in the back of a paddy wagon when he was arrested for just such a display.

By the mid-1950’s the saxophone was just as ubiquitous as ever in rock, except now the best horn players were enlisted to anonymous back singers in the studio and on stage. McNeely, who’d had unrivaled solo success over the years, largely resisted that, although he always carried vocalists with him on the road and in 1959 scored his only pop hit with singer Little Sonny Warner on the original version of “There Is Something on Your Mind” which Bobby Marchan made an even bigger hit not long after. But it was to be McNeely’s final moment in the spotlight as a current artist. The torrid style of the sax, both on record and on stage, gave way to other developments in rock in the 1960’s as he put his sax back on the shelf and took a job in the postal service.

But of all of the horn players of rock’s first golden age McNeely was virtually the last man standing, as he came out of retirement in later years playing well-received shows even as he hit 90 years old with new records coming out periodically to remind one and all of his importance in rock’s rise and subsequent takeover of popular culture. When he died in September 2018 McNeely was one of the final links to rock’s birth, not to mention one of its greatest and most influential artists of any era.
BIG JAY McNEELY DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
(Savoy 682; December, 1948)
Stellar debut from the fast rising star of the tenor sax brigade in rock, a little more laid back than what he’d soon become famous for but already showing he had a gift for melody and with enough racy squeals to keep the audiences happy. (7)

(Savoy 682; December, 1948)
A milder approach that provides evidence that Big Jay was capable of toning things down, but which is more interesting for revealing Savoy’s ineptness when it came to bribing disc jockeys using the same tactics that failed in the past. (4)

(Excelsior 536; December, 1948)
As sideman… McNeely steals the show on Johnny Otis’s rock debut, delivering a frantic performance veering perilously close to the edge of sanity… so much so that when it was re-issued in early 1949 with a different flip-side McNeely became the credited artist. (8)

(Excelsior 536; December, 1948)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis.

(Savoy 685; January, 1949)
The apex of the tenor sax instrumental craze of the late 40’s rock scene, McNeely sets the standard with flamboyant energy while the inventive arrangement always maintains a sense of anticipation for what’s to follow. ★ 10 ★

(Savoy 685; January, 1949)
More improvised than written out which hurts it a bit as a record, but as a glimpse into the type of thing you’d typically see on stage at the time this would definitely suffice. (5)

(Excelsior 537; February, 1949)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis.

(Exclusive 90X; March, 1949)
Another crazed sax instrumental by its leading practitioner, this one featuring a complex interlocking arrangement highlighted by congas and topped off by McNeely’s suitably varied riffs and squeals galore. (8)

Excelsior 540; April, 1949)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis.

(Excelsior 540; April, 1949)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis.

(Exclusive 96X; May, 1949)
The original source of Louis Jordan’s immortal “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, McNeely, with vocalist Ted Shirley, hold a similar party but one which doesn’t end in arrest as McNeely’s mighty sax playing corrupts even the law that shows up at the door. (8)

(Exclusive 96X; May, 1949)
A pretty successful attempt to bridge the jazz/rock divide without alienating either fan base nor appearing schizophrenic in the process thanks to an intelligent arrangement that hints at each style without giving itself over completely to either one. (6)

(Savoy 698; June, 1949)
Weakest rock release by Big Jay to date, not that he plays badly but rather he doesn’t have quite enough to do, letting the other horns carry the main riff and without his brother Bob anchoring them on baritone the sound is too fleeting to work. (4)

(Savoy 698; June, 1949)
Another solid effort from The Deacon, nothing out of the ordinary nor out of this world, but plenty of honking and his usual melodic variations scattered throughout providing listeners what they’ve come to expect from McNeely. (6)

(Excelsior 541; June, 1949)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis.

(Excelsior 541; June, 1949)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis.

(Exclusive 108X; June, 1949)
More notable for who it honors – Hunter Hancock, famed L.A. dee-jay who was among the first to play rock ‘n’ roll over the air – than for the music contained within which is somewhat of a rehash from Big Jay, albeit with some typically impressive solos. (5)

(Exclusive 108X; June, 1949)
An exotic, almost sinister feel highlighted by another inventive arrangement by McNeely with suitable explosions to let you know whose record this is. Mood music for those who lurk in the shadows. (8)

(Exclusive 122X; September, 1949)
A strong ensemble piece led by a rollicking piano, Big Jay himself doesn’t make his first appearance until it’s more than half over, yet because of the tight arrangement it works just as well to keep the party jumping. (6)

(Exclusive 122X; September, 1949)
Another excellent inventive arrangement from McNeely who rounds up some of the most haunting background vocalists yet heard in rock, but the lyrics and singing of Clifford Blivens can’t quite hold up his end of the deal. (6)

(Savoy 713; October, 1949)
His last release from his first sessions on Savoy cut almost a year ago can’t help but show its age to an extent, as this has been surpassed in excitement by much of what followed, including his own later efforts, but it confirms his instincts were present from the start. (6)

(Savoy 713; October, 1949)
One of his more basic arrangements without much variation offered compared to much of his better work, but McNeely’s strength remains his ability to keep a song focused and moving without letting the energy flag, all of which is done here to good effect. (6)

(Exclusive 149X; December, 1949)
Jay turns in his usual fine work, blowing strong and throwing in some really nice lines, but he’s only in the featured spot for a minute and the rest of it, while fitting musically, doesn’t equal his parts enough for this to stand out. (6)

(Exclusive 149X; December, 1949)
A perfectly acceptable instrumental containing most of the ingredients necessary to enjoy, but lacking moments to make this truly unique and identifiable makes it seem like something of let-down in contrast to the high standards he’s set in the past. (5)

(Savoy 732; February, 1950)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis. Though uncredited on the label, Jay and brother Bob are the musical engine driving this two part record with Jay’s extended solo the intoxicating centerpiece of Side Two. (9)

(Regent 1017; February, 1950)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis.

(Aladdin 3050; March, 1950)
An apt title for the sounds of musical anarchy put to record, a typically over-the-top performance done to replicate his live show, but better editing by Aladdin Records in cutting this extended performance down and giving it more coherent structure would’ve helped greatly. (5)

(Aladdin 3050; March, 1950)
A truly awful beginning as the band gets in each other’s way while Jay hits plenty of bum notes making it sound as if they all were drunk, but while they right the ship somewhat in the second half it never fully comes together making this one record you can do without. (3)

(Savoy 743; May, 1950)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis. McNeely’s glassy-toned sax dominates the second half of this moody instrumental, sharing the spotlight on the song with Pete Lewis in an atmospheric minor gem of a track. (7)

(Regent 1028; December, 1950)
As sideman… to Johnny Otis. Though he gets the majority of the soloing spots, McNeely doesn’t have enough of a song to work with and because he’s not honking up a storm there’s no real distraction from the lack of hooks in the composition itself. (5)

(Imperial 5115; March, 1951)
An engaging change of pace for McNeely who takes a back seat to a vocal group led by Jesse Belvin on this simple but infectious song featuring great singing and a carefree spirit hinting at a teenage rite of passage that surely resonates with their audience. (9)

(Imperial 5115; March, 1951)
The fact that it’s basically a reworked version of a pre-rock side by The Ravens isn’t the problem, but rather the fact that Jimmy Huff handles the majority of the lead with Jesse Belvin reduced to just a few lines while McNeely gets a good solo but little else to do. (4)

(Imperial 5130; June, 1951)
An interesting idea maybe, trying to bring levity into rock ‘n’ roll with a comedy team delivering a silly story about bugs having a party, but it’s not quite funny enough to work that way and not quite rousing enough musically to satisfy on that end. (4)

(Imperial 5130; June, 1951)
Only vocalist Jesse Belvin comes out of this looking okay as McNeely practically sits out entirely, handing over the lead instrumental chores to trumpeter John Anderson who thinks it’s a pop song and mars the record with his mere presence. (3)

(Imperial 5164; November, 1951)
A bad idea, or at least poorly executed, in that they try and artificially refer back to Jay’s biggest hit in the lyrics while attempting to name a dance after it, but it’s insipid, poorly sung and while McNeely’s sax is fine, it’s mostly buried under the rest of the stilted arrangement. (3)

(Imperial 5164; November, 1951)
A strange record in that it is essentially a pure pop arrangement in both the instrumental and vocal backing, yet it’s fronted by Marvin Phillips singing in what can only be deemed a laid back yet soulful rock vocal approach, creating a weird dichotomy that is interesting if nothing else. (3)

(Imperial 5169; January, 1952)
An ill-conceived record in that the faster pace is not ideally suited for Marvin Phillips’s vocals, while the story is rather limited as well, but the fact that McNeely and company just go through the motions in their playing is what is most disappointing. (2)

(Imperial 5169; January, 1952)
Considering their weaker returns on more recent vocal performances, it’s odd that this instrumental which is well played if somewhat derivative of their biggest hit without the fireworks, seems ideally suited to be a backing track for a good singer. (5)

(Imperial 5170; February, 1952)
A song that works better as a performance than a record, even though it doesn’t ramp up the histrionics much it’s a good display of the band’s interplay but without a recognizable hook or impressive solo it’s rather unmemorable despite its overall quality. (6)

(Imperial 5170; February, 1952)
An onslaught of sound, fast and furious, yet amazingly sticking to a melodic thread that never dissipates even as it rarely drops below 100 MPH in what has to be the tightest and most exhilarating musical arrangement seen in rock to date. (9)

(Imperial 5176; March, 1952)
An inventive arrangement and a few moments of fierce blowing highlight this variation on his usual theme and it sounds good while playing but lacking a memorable hook it’s not going to make a deeper impression and stand out from the pack in spite of the overall quality (6)

(Imperial 5176; March, 1952)
More showing off of McNeely’s arranging skills as this makes use of four distinct riffs played by four different horns, including two trombones, all of which overlap and yet come together nicely as well, making this a very busy but enjoyable track. (5)

(Imperial 5186; May, 1952)
An utterly pointless record meant to give Three Dots And A Dash a lively but completely inane song to sing that features a modestly decent arrangement but no excitement vocally or instrumentally… though the pop flip side is somehow even worse! (2)

(Federal 12102; October, 1952)
Though everything here fits and is played alright there’s nothing inventive or interesting about this mid-tempo cut… no wild honking, no deep grooves, no addictive melody and no evocative atmosphere… just a standard by the numbers approach easily forgotten. (4)

(Federal 12102; October, 1952)
Despite being one of his most frantic sides with a higher tone throughout and more reckless speed in his playing than we’ve seen before, this still manages to remain under control despite the chaos thanks to a well-conceived arrangement and precise execution. (9)

(Federal 12111; December, 1952)
A dual workout for Jay’s tenor and Bob’s baritone, the latter actually taking on more responsibility here, both honking away enthusiastically, trading off seamlessly while the drums add even more of an explosive element to the proceedings. (6)