What’s going on here?

Or maybe the more appropriate question to ask is: Why are record companies so stupid?

Okay, I know, that one answers itself… they’re stupid because they’re all run by idiots.

Case in point Imperial Records who for the last year have had Big Jay McNeely under contract and after spacing out his singles in 1951, have inundated us with one release after another, sometimes just a few weeks apart, throughout 1952.

Now while it’s hard to complain about getting too much of a good thing, this avalanche of singles means none of them have gotten the requisite time to build sales across the country, thereby not only hurting his chance to revive his commercial fortunes, but also hurting Imperial’s chances of securing a hit.

Talk about self-defeating.


Traffic Signals
Though we’ve lamented the decline in popularity of the honking tenor sax instrumental in rock over the past few years… the general consensus being that listeners eardrums needed a break from the non-stop noise those artists provided in the late 1940’s, none more loud or unrelenting than Big Jay McNeely… the fact remains that there was still gold to be found in them there records.

McNeely himself is proof of this, as his last release – the sizzling Blow, Blow, Blow, soared up the Los Angeles charts, peaking at #6 and has been entrenched in the Top Ten of his hometown all winter, even as that came out right on the heels of his last record… which itself had been released just weeks after the one before that!

Now Jay Walk becomes the third single of his in three months which will force jukebox operators to either replace his last record which was looking like a budding hit for this new release, or to perhaps hold off on adding this one altogether, because while the jukebox ops themselves might see no problem in stocking them with two wild instrumentals by the same artist, surely the proprietors in whatever juke joint, drugstore or soda shop those jukeboxes are sitting in are going to protest having their craniums bombarded by more of Big Jay’s honking.

But what this clearly shows us is that Imperial Records were now viewing McNeely as a regional artist who was sure to get them sales and spins in Southern California where his live shows are still creating pandemonium, but they lost faith in his ability to draw interest nationwide.

Again, we’ll ask a variation of the question we led off with which is: How stupid were they?!?! A good record is a good record and with it hitting big in one region you have the added ability to entice jukebox operators in other locations to take a flyer on it to see if it’ll have the same effect. Furthermore, after McNeely’s national numbers cooled off in the latter half of 1949, he still managed to score regional hits in Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis and Virginia with four different songs that didn’t chart elsewhere, showing that he had the ability to catch the ear of anybody no matter where they got their mail delivered.

Now granted he still notched a lot more hits – and for longer runs – in L.A., but considering that Imperial wouldn’t exactly be hurting local sales by spacing them out, there’s no excuse for their flooding the market with Big Jay records other than the default explanation… sheer stupidity.


Running Across The Street
One thing is almost certain, unless this record literally catches fire, explodes or melts on the turntable it’s unlikely to be hotter than the last single, but it starts off as if it’s got the intention of at least trying to match that scalding performance before slowing things down for a different approach.

We all know that Big Jay McNeely was far more than just a musical exhibitionist and that he towered above most of the rock saxophonists when it came to writing and arranging which is where Jay Walk stands out.

That dramatic opening – Jay’s clarion calls that are responded to by the rhythm section putting an exclamation point on them before he unwinds a melody from the wreckage, ironically by taking it faster than the first few times around – kicks this off in grand fashion, but while what follows is inventive, it’s not quite as captivating as what drew us in.

But keep in mind that’s largely by comparison as we segue into a series of riffs that share the same shuffling back and forth patterns full of hesitation moves to build anticipation before stretching out just enough with the other horns, brother Bob’s bawdy baritone out in front, adding their two cents worth.

We don’t get traditional solos here, but Jay’s tommy-gun attack midway through is an obvious highlight but if he hadn’t eased off on his trigger finger to inspect the damage it’d have made a bigger impact, as evidenced when he does come roaring back after that subdued interlude and gives us more of the grimy tone and paint peeling screeches we’ve become accustomed to.

Most of what is offered up here sounds really good and the arrangement features multiple sections that are creative as can be with how he adjusts the pace, staggers the instruments and builds to a series of mini-climaxes… but without a memorable hook that pulls you in and sticks in your brain, this is more something to admire than to groove to.

Let’s add one more fairly obvious bit of reasoning to the benefit of spreading these records out a bit. With general decrease in sax instrumentals over the past few years, the appearance of a new one after a long draught allows that record to seem like an unexpected treat to listeners who have gone without this kind of thing for awhile resulting in greater interest, or at least more curiosity to hear it.

While it’s still up to the artist themselves to come up with something worth hearing, a record like Jay Walk has enough going for it to stand out amidst a slate of vocal group sides, female torch songs and guitar boogies that proliferated the scene at the time.

But if it’s gotta compete with not just more sax instrumentals by Big Jay McNeely himself, but demonstrably better ones that are still selling big in one area, it’s almost a forgone conclusion that this would be at risk for being lost in the shuffle.

Seven decades later it doesn’t seem to matter on the surface. We can listen to all of the Big Jay McNeely songs we want at the touch of a finger and weed out the weaker cuts and focus on the best sides. Depending how deep we want that playlist to go, this is more than good enough to make the grade, so who really cares when it came out.

But when looking back at the winter of 1952 with these piling up on one another we’re left asking ourselves whether rushing this one out so soon after the last few sides of his might’ve cost him if it prevented other parts of the country having enough time to catch on to the local buzz of his previous single.

Had they waited and let the last single claw its way onto the national charts, even if just for a week or two, his résumé, while the same in terms of the songs themselves, would look a lot better in retrospect with another hit to his name.

There’s your reason why someone should’ve issued Imperial a ticket for jaywalking and locked them – and this record – up for thirty days.


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