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Normally any sighting of a renowned instrumentalist releasing a vocal record is cause for concern.

It’s not that skilled musicians weren’t capable of adapting to different contexts, but rather that musicians who commanded as much attention as Big Jay McNeely did suddenly taking a back seat to singers sort of seemed like a demotion.

But in this instance, even if that were the case, it would hardly be a slight against McNeely, because making his singing debut on wax was somebody who was just as skilled as a vocalist as Big Jay was as an instrumentalist.


California Sherry
The market for wild saxophone instrumental records had sure dried up over the past fifteen months.

Whether audiences had grown tired of the noise or if record companies felt it was easier to establish a vocalist as a consistent seller, or if too many older sax players who’d consented to these exhibitions decided against demeaning themselves with honking and squealing, or if it was simply harder to come up with memorable original instrumentals than vocal records, the fact is rock ‘n’ roll had already moved on from the commotion that had marked the late 1940’s.

The sound itself was still omnipresent in rock, but now it was just part of the ensemble, no longer than most dominant feature.

Perhaps no greater indication of how far it’s fallen is that incredibly – and implausibly – the January 1951 session for Imperial Records was Big Jay McNeely’s first time in a studio in a full calendar year since laying down a four songs for for Aladdin in January 1950, and even THAT had been his only time recording since April of 1949!

He was still a huge draw as a live act, especially around Los Angeles, and so Imperial Records took a chance on him and were amply rewarded when he came in with a group of kids still in their late teens in an effort to diversify his sound.

All That Wine Is Gone may not have been a hit and Lew Chudd may not have secured the services of the sleepy-looking lead singer Jesse Belvin who’d go on to be a chameleon like star on the scene for the rest of the decade, but in terms of getting some great music out on his label and reviving McNeely’s career on wax by at least showing there was more to him than noise, this was hard to beat.


Sitting In The Corner
If you were to say that Jesse Belvin was the single most talented singer/songwriter of the 1950’s the average music fan would look at you with confusion if not outright scorn. He wrote just a handful of hits, only two of which are still widely known today and his catalog can’t stack up to the major names like Berry, Domino and Holly who satisfied both requirements as well.

Yet were you to ask other artists from that era many of them would emphatically agree with the assessment that nobody could write songs as well as he could.

But Jesse Belvin was so casual about his work that his own worst habits – selling songs for no credit, composing on the fly in the studio rather than polishing things up, singing with far more labels than is recommended forcing him to record under fictitious group names which scatters his catalog to the wind – hurts his case. Yet he could sing anything and make it sound good and was revered among other artists in ways that even many bigger names were not.

He was seventeen years old when he found out from pianist Richard Lewis that Big Jay was looking for a vocal group after his promoter, Howard Oxley, had gotten him the session with Imperial Records as 1951 dawned. Belvin had already appeared on a few sessions as a pianist in December but this was going to be his first chance to sing, which is what he did best.

Another teenager, Jimmy Huff, wrote All That Wine Is Gone and gave it to Jesse to sing with the group that had been put together, which featured the two of them along with Marvin Phillips, (who’d backed The Great Gates on saxophone back in 1949) and Undine Harris who was the female Dash of Three Dots and A Dash as they were credited on the record. But while Huff may have indeed come up with the song, Belvin’s fingerprints are all over the finished product.


Bad As I Can Be
Starting off with a fanfare from the full horn lineup – trumpet, alto, baritone and Jay’s tenor – this is the kind of thing that rock bands had screwed up in the past, trying to bring old school sensibilities into play, but McNeely and company pull it off by playing concise and rhythmic parts as the drums crackle to ensure there’s something to keep them grounded.

When the vocals start the horns are emphasizing the bottom throughout which gives it a nice solid base, but from now on All That Wine Is Gone is a Jesse Belvin record whether McNeely likes it or not.

Jesse’s vocal charm is evident from the first notes he sings, a warm mellifluous baritone whose phrasing is already head and shoulders above virtually any rock singer you can find, managing to both ride the rhythm and use space to deviate from that rhythm at the same time. Belvin was a master at changing inflections to suggest untold meanings such as how he emphasizes different syllables on the various flavors of wine he’s sampling, like a seductive sales pitch. The technique itself might not seem impressive for non-vocalists but the more you know about the craft the more impressive his skills become. Yet even for the novice there’s a casualness and natural flow to his singing that is plainly evident.

The others answer him repeating the title after each refrain, then set the set the scene with a minimum of lines but a clear picture in their heads that, if you’re familiar with such activities, are easy to imagine. Harris’s higher vocal really sets this simple harmony off and the unreserved camaraderie of their voices is remarkably engaging.

When it comes to the story here’s where the age of the group factors in and helps to show why rock ‘n’ roll will always be connected to youth, as all they’re doing is scoring some wine – swiping it from their parents, maybe getting someone older to buy it, using a fake I.D., whatever the case was back in 1951 – and then sitting around drinking it with their friends, laughing, joking, flirting, singing, just having a good time.

This is one of the most important rituals when coming of age, as it provides the incubated environment in which you learn what works and what doesn’t socially and how to interact and relate to people. Every kid does it… and if you didn’t at that age chances are you didn’t develop proper social skills as it requires the kind of careful navigation that can only be gotten in a situation where the only audience are those in your peer group you’re trying to impress. Because they already know you so well you’re merely tweaking your already established attributes to get a better response, not inventing a completely new persona and losing who you are in the process.

This doesn’t delve into that aspect lyrically, but it does establish that environment perfectly and for an audience that was made up of kids in similar situations they would have no trouble relating to it making it one of the first real soundtrack to your life records for teenagers in rock.


I Didn’t Stay Long
Throughout this we’ve barely mentioned McNeely, but maybe that was his intent. He still got lead artist credit, still had soloing spots that showed his ability to play really catchy, inventive and effective parts that were more modest and discreet, and he showed again what an underrated bandleader he was in bringing all this together.

Though not an official hit, All That Wine Is Gone sold well and they toured together throughout the South on the back of this single, but along the way Belvin left the group when they were in Texas (where his family was originally from) after some trivial dispute lost to time. McNeely admitted later what a huge loss it was, not that Belvin was the kind to stay tied to any other artist, label or musical approach exclusively for very long.

He did however get his name listed separately on the label and did deepen his friendship with Phillips who would join him in a vocal duet that got them their first hit down the road, while the record also got McNeely back in action in the studio, so it was hardly an inconsequential release by any means.

Big Jay may not be the centerpiece here but he can hardly complain when the end result is as effortlessly infectious as this one is.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Jay McNeely for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)