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)

(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 ★

(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)