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IMPERIAL 5130; JUNE 1951



How do you describe this one?

Is it an experiment, which tends to be given some leeway when judging it, or is it a gimmick, which tends to be less appreciated?

Or is it just an artist who doesn’t sing looking to shake things up with vocal records of different types since the rocking instrumentals he specialized in have faded from the best sellers lists over the past year and a half?

In truth it’s probably all of those things.


Ants In Their BVD’s
If you look closely on the label you’ll see it says the vocals are by Dope and Skillet, two Los Angeles based comedians who get their shot at rock ‘n’ roll infamy by singing about… bugs.

Skillet had been working at The Brass Rail with his former partner, Pot… get it, Pot and Skillet… this is what passed for entertainment back then, I swear! Meanwhile McNeely had worked with a different comedy team – Dope and Mope (again, in retrospect the mid-century period was not quite as sophisticated as we tend to think) as openers for him at various clubs. When both teams broke up Dope and Skillet got together and began working at Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club where McNeely still played on occasion.

It appears that Insect Ball was the comedy team’s idea, as Skillet – Ernest Maynard – wrote it, reportedly with an uncredited Mercy Dee Walton, a songwriter and pianist currently at Imperial Records who soon reportedly went on the road with McNeely for awhile, either as an opening act or a member of the band.

The idea itself is fairly good, describing a party where all of the revelers are insects rather than humans, even though they’re doing all of the same things people tend to do at these soirees – wine, women and carousing.

The question though is whether the comedy aspects and the musical elements will mesh well enough to make it a worthwhile record, or if it’s just a case of the sax star being a guest on his own single.


Doin’ Things Bugs Never Done Before
The two of them, Skillet leading off with the slightly deeper voice, handle the musical elements fairly capably on this record which loosely adapts the Saturday Night Fish Fry vocal structure… a huge hit for Louis Jordan in 1949 using that semi-spoken fast-paced patter which itself was based on McNeely’s own Road House Boogie from earlier that year.

My guess is this approach for the song was their idea, not McNeely’s, simply because these two weren’t singers and needed a familiar cadence to make sure they stayed on track and Jordan’s record was a good fit, especially seeing as how both set the scene of a house party with all sorts of colorful details.

As for those details which give Insect Ball its distinctive character, they’re more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. I think it’d probably make a good six minute cartoon if Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng had been so inclined to take up the idea for Looney Tunes, but as a SONG… well, it’s about what you’d expect I guess, frantic and silly relying on Skillet’s more harried tone to convey some of the humor while Pot (Little Arthur Matthews) is more under control and sounds a little closer to an actual singer.

But no matter how you deliver it, there’s only so many laughs that can be gotten from trying to imagine insects at a human-like bash – and remembering what various insects look like to make the jokes work better. The best line arguably is the fate of the poor gnat who “stepped to the bar for a drinkin’ spree/but whaddaya know, it was DDT!”.

Now what bug poison would be doing at an insect’s own party I have no idea, but you can see the kind of the laughs they’re going for.

It’s harmless enough… unless you’re the gnat I guess… and it’ll be easily remembered for its unusual concept, but beyond that it’s hardly more than a mildly entertaining trifle.


You Should’ve Heard The Band When He Struck Up
But wait a minute, isn’t there somebody ELSE we’re forgetting? Some guy named Big Jay McNeely whose record this actually is?

Doesn’t he get to have a say in any of this, or is he just stuck in a corner talking to a flirtatious lady bug and can’t pull away to pick up his horn and start blowing.

Fear not, because McNeely and crew carry a pretty big responsibility on Insect Ball to make it more than just a stage routine, sans visuals.

For much of the song Jay is using his horn, as well as the other horns – specifically the trumpet – to replicate insect sounds behind the vocals, or at least that’s the impression it gives. It’s not quite humorous sounding but it definitely suggests the topic musically, if that’s a good thing.

Luckily the breaks are more traditional and its here that McNeely gets to really play, although with the focus on the comedy skit the soloing spots are still rather limited.

The best musically speaking is the first, right after the one minute mark, where McNeely delivers the kind of effortless rhythmic riff he was famous for, something that’s melodically interesting and has a nice fat tone to give the record a little more gravity than it was shaping up to feature.

The next time around though he’s compelled to lighten the mood after a more normal interlude he segues into a back and forth exchange with the duo using a flutter tone to answer them as if he were a bug himself… effective for its rather limited aims I suppose. He does get to carry the record home in a more predictable fashion though as Dope and Skillet urge him to “Rock, Jay, Rock!” as if he were the featured entertainment for a bunch of crickets and flies.

Let’s just say that while there’s nothing wrong with it, you wouldn’t cry if your invitation for this party got lost in the mail… or eaten by moths.

Hopped Back Out
Maybe because of its unusual nature, this is at least one of the more recognizable titles in McNeely’s catalog, though not one of his best records.

There’s too little Big Jay on it to meet the demands of those who want to tear it up while he honks away and though the vocal exchanges are by no means awful, they also aren’t as clever as the idea itself purports to be.

The fact that Insect Ball was something of a left-field attempt to bring a dose of levity into rock means it’s not irrelevant to rock’s larger story, but in time this kind of idea specifically, where the concept itself is the extent of the humor, would be seen as sort of juvenile.

Though everyone here acquits themselves well enough considering the circumstances, a party with bugs is still something that’ll leave you itching uncomfortably when all is said and done.


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