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SAVOY 713; OCTOBER, 1949



Well you gotta hand to them… Savoy Records pulled this off the best could, all things considered.

The record company had been faced with a difficult decision when Big Jay McNeely, the new youthful face of the wild sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, left after just two recording sessions held at the tail end of 1948. When each of his first two releases for the label became national hits, one of them a #1 smash, Savoy was stuck. They had a few more sides in the can and they certainly were going to be released but the question was “When”?

This was when.

Seeking Another Smash, Cherry Or Not
The recap, for those who need a quick refresher course, is that in early 1949 Jay was perturbed that he was being asked to fly east to promote his records for Savoy in the Big Apple without his own band, since that would be cheaper for the company. Wary of not being paid at all and uneasy about performing with those who didn’t know his style McNeely stayed put in his hometown Los Angeles and since Savoy hadn’t bothered to sign him to a long term deal he jumped ship to Exclusive Records right in his own back yard.

They wasted no time in getting him in the studio and cutting as many tracks as they could, releasing singles in rapid succession to strike while the iron was hot. After all who knew how long this crazed style would last as a commercial powerhouse and who knew how many noisy honking saxes even the most devout rock fan could take before their heads exploded?

In fact, who was to say that McNeely himself might not rupture a lung blowing so hard?

So the actions of Exclusive Records were sensible considering the circumstances.

But what of Savoy, who now had to try to navigate the same terrain with far more limited options? They had four remaining sides of his to put out, but if they did so too quickly and McNeely’s popularity continued to soar they’d be left without any material to take advantage of it when interest in him peaked. Yet if they held them back too long and the sax-mania died down then they’d likely be costing themselves sales they might’ve gotten if they put them out in the springtime.

So for once Savoy did the right thing and were judicious in their release schedule, putting out the next single in May and were rewarded for it when California Hop reached the Top Ten on the local charts in Midwestern cities like Cleveland and Detroit. Then they waited, biding their time until the fall when they put out these last two remaining sides and hoped for the best, knowing that no matter how well they did this was the end of the line for them.

Well, that’s not QUITE true, but at this point they didn’t know that when signing Johnny Otis to a recording contract around this time, which incidentally would keep Savoy near the head of the rock label race for another year, that they’d have a few more sides on which McNeely would be heard blowing loud and clear, although it’s no sure thing that those at the label were even aware it was him and even if they did he couldn’t be credited for his contributions.

But that’s neither here nor there, because Cherry Smash marks the last time Savoy Records would get to promote a record as by Big Jay McNeely. The problem though is it’s the one song of Big Jay’s that flirts with musical sensibilities of an earlier era, something of a hybrid record stylistically which makes more sense when you realize it was now nearly a year old.

In other words they might’ve waited TOO long to release this one.


Back To The Start
Something we’ve tried hard to convey in these reviews is a sense of the surrounding cultural and musical environment when these songs came out. That’s easier said than done however. Not that I want to mock the demographic that might be most interested in this period of music but I gotta be honest, I don’t even know anyone who was alive in 1949. That was a LONG time ago! Seriously… to have bought this music when it was current seventy years ago means you’d be in your mid-80’s at this point and chances are you’d have lost your marbles a good fifteen years back by now.

But that makes it all the more important to try and establish the context of the era and show what rock ‘n’ roll first was fighting to carve out its own identity.

So let’s go back to the waning days of 1948, December 15th to be exact. We’re in a studio in Los Angeles where Big Jay McNeely is cutting just his second session as a leader, coming up with the biggest hit of his long career and the song he’d forever be known for, The Deacon’s Hop.

Yet as ahead of its time as that must’ve sounded as it was played on the studio floor – damn, can you imagine being there watching it being cut? – it’s crucial to remember what you’d have heard on the radio or in any one of the clubs around town.

The blaring brass section of Buddy Johnson’s You Had Better Change Your Ways, the sweetly swaying horns of Roy Milton’s New Year’s Resolution and Arbee Stidham’s My Heart Belongs To You with its massed horns leading the way were all on the best seller charts around that time, just as popular in the black community – albeit maybe different listeners WITHIN that community – as the pure rock horns of Hal Singer’s Cornbread that had just left the #1 position on the local L.A. Cash Box charts.

Therefore it’s hardly surprising that McNeely would draw from these current sounds. I don’t mean he ripped off any melodies or even swiped a lick or two, but Cherry Smash has elements of these types of songs from other genres floating through it – subtle maybe, but definitely apparent.

Now part of this surely had to do with the fact they were in the process of cutting eight songs over the past two weeks, all original compositions no less, meaning his reservoir of unique ideas might’ve been running a bit low and so you tend to look around you and be subtly influenced by certain sounds that catch your ear.

But the other, probably far more substantive, reason was that for this session his big brother Bob was not playing alongside him after a dust up over the pecking order in the musical family once Jay began getting more acclaim than Bob who had given his younger brother his old horn and in essence introduced him to music. Like many family spats this one didn’t last long and thankfully Bob was soon back alongside Jay holding down the bottom with his baritone, but in the meantime the group had to compensate for his absence somehow.

This was no easy task because in the annals of rock history there probably were no more than two men, Mike Terry of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers studio band, and Alvin “Red” Tyler, the New Orleans stalwart who manned the role for the best 1950’s session band in rock, who could claim to have made a greater impact with that instrument than Bob McNeely.

On The Deacon’s Hop they’d leaned heavily on trombonist Britt Woodman to plug the hole left by Bob’s temporary defection and Woodman wasn’t a regular band member either, as he took the place of Streamline Ewing for this one session. But there’s only so much that far different horn is capable of and so rather than repeat the effect on Cherry Smash they go in a different direction altogether, one leaning just slightly backwards in terms of thinking.

But as evidenced by the current hit parade already alluded to, that aging style was seemingly in no danger of being disregarded and forgotten altogether when they cut this… but unfortunately this was now almost a year AFTER they cut it, which is bound to come into play with how it’ll be received.


Last Year’s Model – Half Off
The song starts off firmly and unmistakably in the present rock landscape, as the force of McNeely’s tenor sax rips through the speaker cones like a machete through rice paper. His squalls are answered in due time by the drums, making maximum impact in the arrangement with limited room, and then the other horns which seem almost grafted on from another record.

In spite of this they make it sound cohesive somehow. It’s almost as if the older outdated horn ideas as embodied by the rest of the crew are being forcibly introduced to this brash young kid’s newfangled approach to music. Rather than completely resist it and push back, sending the entire production into a chaotic tangle, they do their best to go along with him and let the child lead them as it were.

Now it’s not an altogether seamless fit between the two entities, and how could it be when the one represents order and precision and the other is the definition of unruly commotion, but their destination is the same and so if you balk at hearing the bleating interludes during the main thrust of the melody in response to Jay, or even the trumpet take a brief turn at the microphone during the coda, you’re mollified by the fact that McNeely never gives away his spot at the front of the band. Cherry Smash is his show and the others are merely along for the ride.

But while it’s an exciting ride it’s also unfortunately one we’ve been on before with Jay at the wheel. It’s basically a pastiche of his better work from the same session. Though this was actually cut right before they laid down The Deacon’s Hop it has many of the same elements at play, kind of like it was being used as a test run for arrangements they’d quickly improve upon with that next cut.

Now just to be clear it’s hardly the same song, far from it, but at this point they were still refining their technique, seeing what worked, what didn’t, how far they could push things and so it was only natural that certain ideas got multiple workouts. Taking into account the reconfigured band they had for this session it also makes their choices a little more understandable, though simply understanding its circumstances still won’t give them a pass if the end results aren’t up to snuff.

The End Of Their Road
Though by no means a tame sounding record by any means as McNeely blows up a storm for much of this, it’s not quite a hurricane either, certainly not in comparison to everything else that’s happened in rock in the ten months since this was cut.

Which brings us back to Savoy’s unique dilemma. The longer they waited to issue this final record the more its brand of excitement risked being surpassed by other records, including other records by McNeely himself. But they couldn’t flood the market and risk having it lost in the shuffle when his earlier sides for them were still selling like crazy and of course they also had to contend with whatever Exclusive Records were putting out on him during the course of the spring, summer and fall – newer material, different approaches perhaps, maybe a more self-assured sound.

While it’s safe to say that had Cherry Smash come out early in the year it would’ve been more alarming to those not yet used to this brand of musical pandemonium they did the right thing by leading with his best sides and building up his name recognition which couldn’t help but sell this, even a year down the road.

Yet because it didn’t come first it lost its shock value which in turn undoubtedly cost it some sales and the historical recognition that went with having a legitimate hit. As it stands this is merely one of many examples of the bedlam he created – not the best, not the most innovative, not the one anyone would point to as a defining piece of work, but one that manages to reconfirm his commitment to stirring the masses in ways that seemed alien to the type of music that preceded this.

That this one performance allows you a chance to experience both of those perspectives, even if just in brief glimpses, helps to put it in context if nothing else and shows why that in the ever escalating competitive environment of cutting edge music rock ‘n’ roll had the inside track.


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