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With so many instrumentals to cover in this era of rock the analysis can probably seem a little repetitive to some. After all there’s only so many adjectives one can conjure up to describe each honk, squeal and moan of an instrument and since I’m trying to keep these reviews from getting too deep in musical theory so as to be accessible to even those who can’t hum three bars from Stardust without wandering off-key the task becomes even more difficult.

Having so many of these instrumentals delivered by just one name in such a compressed time period as we’re now seeing with today’s featured artist (his eighth side – either as the primary artist or featured sideman – on these pages in the last four months alone!) would seem to compound that problem and lead you to think that it might be in everyone’s best interest, especially the thesaurus I’m in danger of wearing out, to perhaps skip one or two of these tracks altogether and focus on other artists, or at least artists who have the common decency to add vocals and lyrics to be able to wax poetic about in these reviews.

But that wouldn’t be fair to those who wielded the instruments that built rock ‘n’ roll in the first place, when the frantic nature of these records were in large part what set it apart from everything else that existed at the time and made it into the most exciting music on the scene and the voice of a vibrant community that was not content to remain silent.

For when you get right down to it, it was the rhythms, the beats and the grooves that formed the very foundation of rock and arguably nobody embodied that approach in rock’s formative years better than Big Jay McNeely, the high priest of honk.

Blow It Open
One of the routine errors of judgment in independent record circles of the 1940’s and 50’s was the short term contracts they felt were in their best interests. Because there were so many available artists and because nobody seemed to know what trends would surface in the still-forming market, they often merely paid artists to do a single four song session, giving them two records in hopes of seeing some returns. If those didn’t connect with an audience the company had no further obligations. But the downside to that was if they DID hit with something then the record label was at risk for having no artist to capitalize on long term, as they could then sell themselves to the highest bidder.

Which is exactly what happened with Big Jay McNeely.

Savoy Records had actually gotten two sessions, and thus eight sides comprising four records out of him rather than the standard four cuts in the waning days of 1948, but by not locking him up for a full year’s commitment their shortsighted decision cost them dearly when first The Deacon’s Hop blew the doors off the gates to the rock kingdom, hitting #1 on the charts, in the process sending fans of it scurrying back to the record stores to snatch up the record that had actually preceded it and kicked off Big Jay’s career, Wild Wig, which itself then cracked the charts as well.

One hit was a good return on such an investment, two hits including a chart topper was more than could ever be expected and Savoy owner Herman Lubinsky must’ve been elated… until he realized that McNeely now was free to go elsewhere.

Now it’s been suggested that it might not have come to this if McNeely had come to New York to promote his records as Lubinsky wanted. But Jay preferred to remain on the West Coast because he was wary of the booking agencies ripping him off (he was also told to come alone, not bring along his own band, which further rankled McNeely), and so upon his refusal to acquiesce to the demand to head east Lubinsky supposedly stopped promoting his sides. That part of the story doesn’t make much sense though, not when they were selling like crazy already and more sales meant more money for him.

Who knows though, Herman was a cantankerous sort to begin with and perhaps thinking that with so many horn players under contract, particularly the father of the rock sax style and its biggest, most consistent hit maker to date, Paul Williams, along with frequent Williams cohort Wild Bill Moore, they didn’t need anybody else on the roster and could afford to let a California kid stay in California. After all how long could this rowdy honking last?

Exclusive Records of Los Angeles didn’t care about the answer to that question either. Whether it lasted six more years or six more months they only cared that the local kid blowing his horn and causing all this commotion around town was free to sign with them NOW. He had two of the Top 12 hits in the country at the time and getting him in the studio right away meant they’d have the chance to capitalize on that immediately and might get a bunch of smash records out of the deal themselves.

Oddly enough they didn’t wind up with even one hit, but it sure wasn’t for lack of quality records, as Blow Big Jay proves beyond a doubt.


Full Blown
One of the reasons why Big Jay McNeely lasted as long as he did as a viable artist in a field that was seen as rather one dimensional (how many ways can you honk after all?) was that he was anything BUT one dimensional in his approach.

Yeah those honks and squeals and frantic performances are what he made his name on and that’s what he’ll go down in history as personifying, but his catalog ran much deeper than that (the flip of this, Midnight Dreams, sounds at times as if he was playing in an orchestra in a swanky club in tie and tails… at least until guest vocalist Clifford Blivens comes into the picture). But even on those stereotypically manic songs McNeely always featured tremendous arrangements with strong dynamics, varied tempos and a broad sampling from across the spectrum of available instruments.

On Blow Big Jay the intro has Charles McNiles laying down a conga pattern that is simply hypnotic. Months back we raved about that instrument’s use (well, bongos actually) on Joe Swift’s That’s Your Last Boogie (ironically also on the Exclusive label) and while it’s not as complex here its presence adds something immediately distinctive and unique to the mix. Right away it gives the song an identifying feature that would help listeners seek it out again, something which is then compounded by the band chanting the title which certainly doesn’t hurt a song with no lyrics when it comes to being remembered.

After a final yell commanding Jay to BLOW! McNeely makes his entrance and already the party is in full swing. Party is the right word too because the interlocking patterns – piano and drums playing one pattern, backing horns playing another with Jay going off on his own atop them – makes it sound as if there actually IS a raging bash being held. There’s no voices to give this impression at this point but it has the same hallmarks of a celebratory gathering.

Here’s a little test to take that’s appropriate for this time of year (on a review originally posted just before the Christmas holidays, in case you’re reading this well after the fact): When you find yourself at a party stand off to the side for a few minutes and try and concentrate on one specific conversation across the crowded room.

You can’t. You’ll pick out bits and pieces maybe but there’s so much else going on, so many more conversations and laughter and exultations, that it all blends together. Yet that combined buzz it creates has a rhythm all its own, rising and falling at different times, the tones of many disparate voices playing off one another almost seeming as if it’s being orchestrated by a great conductor.

The same is true here. Each part is precisely laid down but aside from the brief conga line (which returns at the end) none of the underlying textures is meant to be focused on individually for long. They’re merely adding colors to the picture. The centerpiece is still Big Jay who squeals more than honks on this, delivering multiple different riffs, each one with definite beginnings, middles and ends, all distinctive and yet all coming together seamlessly over the course of the proceedings.

There’s always something slightly different to catch your ear for a moment and while he may not return to them once each is done that’s okay for no matter how much you enjoyed the last passage the one that follows is equally captivating.

Only in the coda when he drops out, the other horns play their repetitive riff and McNiles conga returns to close things out, do we find our way back to the door through which we entered. Then, surprisingly for a kid who was now having his first drink from the fountain of success, McNeely is content to let others have the final word as he sits out. No need to come up with any death-defying feat of prowess here, he knows full well that the combined efforts of the band he’s leading is more than enough.

For all of the sax players now plying their trade in rock, including some of the most technical virtuosos the instrument has ever known in any genre of music, none were shaping up to be as gifted in the construction of unique, original and vibrant song arrangements as a kid barely out of his teens. Amazingly Blow Big Jay wasn’t a charted hit but it was surely remembered by all who heard it.


Blow Out
Though official recognition for its popularity may have been lacking the record sold well. Yes, it’s probably true that the Exclusive label was a step down when it came to national distribution and the ability to promote new releases than Savoy had been which no doubt hurt. But then again so too did the fact that the market was becoming flooded with McNeely releases not to mention other sax instrumentals. This is one of four new releases in that vein we’re reviewing this month alone and more than ten so far this year, including multiple others featuring Big Jay himself. There were only fifteen spots on the national Race Charts in Billboard so you do the math.

Oddly enough though McNeely’s days as a hitmaker – in the officially certified sense – were over, save for regional charts (he was always huge in Southern California) and a late career one-off shot with a vocalist in which Jay takes a subdued role that made the national Pop listings a decade down the road. But while gold records (not that they had such things then) may have been in short supply, his impact was only just beginning.

He now had made a name for himself and soon was to gain a towering reputation as a live performer to go along with it. Everybody who saw him play staggered out of the club – and soon larger arenas – dazed by the aural assault on the senses and the visual display he presented that went along with it.

Blow Big Jay was a calling card for such events. A prime example of his ability to create more than just mayhem, yet containing enough histrionics to get your motor racing all the same.

With other horn players we’ve met there was always a bit of trepidation, at least for me, going into their latest release. The nagging uncertainty when wondering if they really understood what their audience wanted and subsequently a fear that they weren’t always committed to giving it to them, or being able to do so effectively each time out.

Big Jay McNeely never had that problem. Oh, he’ll miss the mark a few times over the years, he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t, but his consistency and his creativity were as much hallmarks of his career as his legendary show-stopping performances were.

We keep saying that the younger generation of rock artists are the ones who intuitively grasped the market and believed in the music in its purest form and again that proves true with McNeely. Though beaten off the line by older horn players with more varied backgrounds behind them, many of whom provided great records in the rock field, Big Jay was the first among them who never seemed to have the urge to look elsewhere for musical fulfillment. He was going to rock until he dropped and now a spry 90 years old he hasn’t dropped yet.


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