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EXCLUSIVE 122X; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

In the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history there are really only a handful of names that can be called true Immortals. You know the usual suspects – Elvis Presley, The Beatles, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson … The number may be only ten or twelve, or if you want to be really broad you could stretch it to twenty or even twenty-five but at that point you’ve lost the meaning of the term.

By keeping it a much more exclusive club confined only to those whose impact spreads far beyond the musical realm and becomes embedded in the very culture of their times, it separates the Immortal tier from the Legends tier, or one step down from that, the Icons tier.
 

 
Chances are it’s one of these next two levels of the club that your all-time favorite artists reside in. These are universally known big names with a long list of accomplishments, songs which are still readily known across the generations, and with a recognizable image that brands them in the public’s mind. For the purposes of this study Legends consist of a smaller group of artists who transcend their era with ease but for whom there’s a clear-cut difference between their credentials and those in the Immortal realm. Sam Cooke and David Bowie, Nirvana and Public Enemy, Bruce Springsteen and 2Pac, that type of artist would be called Legends.

Below that sits the deepest roster of top flight artists, as you need to assume that everyone else in an All-Time Top 100 is going to be an Icon. Their musical reputations are unquestioned, but their penetration into the consciousness of a broader society is somewhat lacking in comparison to those above them. Think of artists along the lines of Al Green, Metallica, Van Morrison and Outkast. Hugely important, highly respected, all-time greats every one of them… Absolute Icons of rock.

Before anyone takes issue with this keep in mind none of this is set in stone, there’s no cut and dried formula to apply, no definitive right and wrong list that can be made. It’s just a way to categorize career achievement in a simple straightforward way taking into account qualifications based on objective criteria – their commercial success, their verifiable influence, the impact they had on the perception of rock to the public, that sort of thing. But the concept behind it, the dividing lines that separate the truly elite from the rest, is something that I think everyone understands. Certain artists ARE on another level and understanding who makes which level and why is part of anybody’s musical education.

Of course you can argue the cut-off points for each tier, which is part of the fun of being a rock fan I suppose. Are Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix the final names to make the Immortals sky box or are they the rather gaudy headliners of the Legends tier?

The point is these three classifications shouldn’t simply have open door policies for whoever scores a handful of hits, makes some magazine covers and have a clutch of songs spun endlessly on catalog radio. In other words, Journey, no matter how many weeks their Greatest Hits collection is in the Billboard 200, can not even crack the Icon bracket. But then again neither can Mary Wells, even though virtually everybody on the planet can hum along to My Guy and she’s got a catalog of hits beyond that to be envied.

So that leaves us with the overcrowded next level down which are the Rock Stars. This is the status that is more easily achievable yet also more fleeting by nature. Stars can be quite big at the time and can leave their mark on music history and remain well known years later, but there is a very palpable difference between those who are merely stars and those who rise to the next levels. It’s probably something that even when two people debate about what exactly should factor in to these tier rankings, the end results of who falls where would be much more readily agreed upon.

In other words, as soon as you come to accept the tier definitions in concept most who are well versed in rock history could come to a rather quick assessment of almost any big name you threw out there. Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan? Immortals, quite obviously. How about The Supremes, Elton John and Jay-Z? They’re Legends. Where do The Clash, The Drifters, Van Halen and The Notorious B.I.G. fit in? That would be Icons.

Whereas the likes of a few hundred other once upon a time big names like Gene Vincent, Percy Sledge, ZZ Top, Duran Duran, TLC and Artic Monkeys are all just Stars of varying magnitude in the rock sky.

So where does that leave Big Jay McNeely?
 


 
 
All the Stars Are Closer
The reason for this sudden broader evaluation of rock’s full scope of artists rather than our usual singular analysis method is due to the recent death (September 16, 2018) of one of the last remaining rock artists who recorded in the 1940’s. Cecil J. “Big Jay” McNeely. Tenor sax player extraordinaire.

Considering there were less than a hundred and fifty artists all told who cut rock records in the 1940’s and as that was now seven decades in the past it makes for very few who are still among us as we near the third decade of the Twenty-First Century (only Dave Bartholomew and Hal Singer remain). But rather than use his death as an opportunity to focus on the rise of the most popular brand of music America has ever produced, it was barely covered. His hometown Los Angeles Times wrote about him as did the New York Times but elsewhere there was only brief mentions of his passing, if anything at all. Even Billboard magazine, which purports to cover nothing but music these days, whiffed on it entirely.

I’m sure to them McNeely’s meager chart history in their pages – one single that hit #44 in their Top 100 Pop listings (in 1959 with Sonny Warner singing) – probably seemed insignificant. Though he did notch a #1 hit on the still titled Race Charts in 1949, The Deacon’s Hop, and another Top Ten at the same time with Wild Wig, that came long before the time the magazine wants to acknowledge music even existed, as most of their references to past hits only starts with 1958 and the debut of Top 100 charts.

This widespread snubbing would have you think he wasn’t even a star, let alone anything higher on the totem pole.

Yet as anyone reading the dozen or so reviews of Big Jay McNeely releases thus far knows it was he, as much as any individual, who shaped what rock ‘n’ roll became – a vibrant, exciting vehicle of self-promotion and musical daring that broke the mold for what was considered acceptable. His wild flamboyant stage shows set the standard that every rock act who followed would aspire to meet making his influence alone staggering. Now you can say that’s not so much a matter of “invention” as much as it is simply a matter of timing, as surely someone else would’ve come along to raise the bar high in the performance realm. That may be true in theory but in fact someone DID do that and that someone was Big Jay McNeely.

All of that brings us to what has become an ongoing theme here on Spontaneous Lunacy that wasn’t altogether intentional when starting out, or at least wasn’t an overriding factor in the site’s creation… which is correcting the historical oversight of rock’s entire first generation, circa 1947-1949 (and soon rock’s second generation from 1950-1953 as well).

The so-called “pre-crossover” years have suffered for decades in not only getting credit for their accomplishments, but even being acknowledged for accomplishing them to begin with. Rock history has largely been the realm of white historians focused on music they experienced firsthand, which meant 1954-onward. As a result the cultural perspective of its actual birth as the voice of Young Black Post War America has been systematically erased from existence, as has widespread recognition and acclaim for the true architects of this music called rock ‘n’ roll.

Hence we come full circle to the recently departed focus of today’s review… Big Jay McNeely, who during just ten months on the rock scene thus far has revealed himself to be one of the most forward thinking, experimental and well-rounded rock artists of not just the 1940’s, but ever.

 

 
 

Image Isn’t Everything
Whenever any artist from any era gets an image that overwhelms everything else about them they’re always in danger of having the full scope of their work diminished, but when it comes to McNeely, in some part due to the perceived limitations of instrumentals themselves, this has especially been the case. In many ways he’s actually been MORE diverse with what he’s done so far than the biggest vocal stars in rock to date and K&H Boogie reinforces this belief.

Though on the surface the song seems pretty basic, containing no moments of manic playing or explosive interjections that he’s already become widely known for, upon closer inspection this shows just how varied McNeely’s scope was becoming.

For starters Big Jay himself doesn’t make his first appearance until the song is halfway over! There aren’t many examples in any form of popular culture, be it movies, books or music, where the main character takes so long to be introduced and since he himself wrote the song it shows Jay to have an abundance of confidence to delay his appearance this much.

But what’s more astounding is that the song manages to work in spite of this because of everything else he gives you to keep your attention. If anything K&H Boogie isn’t so much a reflection of all of the dominant rock sounds of 1949 so much as it’s a look at all of the prevailing rock sounds of five or even ten years down the road.

The first section is propelled by Jimmy O’Brien’s boogie piano, his left hand laying down the repetitive solid rhythm while his right smashes the ivories in more declarative fashion than a lot of what we’ve come to seen thus far in rock settings. It’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, nor was it intended to be, but for putting you in the right mood it’s more than effective.

When the headliner comes swaggering into view at the 1:27 mark – more than halfway through the 2:37 playing time actually – you expect an explosion from his saxophone, but instead of tearing the roof off right away to announce his presence McNeely works with O’Brien to simply bolster the atmosphere that’s already been set.

He and the other horns, including brother Bob on baritone, are playing a rousing churning groove that doesn’t try to do too much other than keep the party loud and boisterous. Some fans of the more elaborate McNeely histrionics might even be a little let down by the fact Jay never so much as steps in front for a hair raising solo, but there’s no need for it here. What he’s doing instead is providing the back drop for whatever party is already underway.
 

Iconography
You could go so far as to call this generic but we’re forgetting our favorite word here – context – because that’s where it starts to shape up as something ahead of its time in a modest way.

When Big Jay and the other horns enter the frame so too does a prominent electric guitar which is something not yet widely seen in rock. Since this was cut in his first April session, just around the time of Goree Carter’s initial release which brought more attention to the instrument’s possibilities, the move to incorporate this sound was even more prescient on McNeely’s part.

The guitar is played by Candy (or Prinze) Stetzel, someone who was on other recent McNeely releases without making his presence known in any notable way. Yet here Jay has Stetzel answer each horn refrain with a harsh, slashing, jagged guitar riff that adds immeasurably menace to the piece, sharpening your senses and keeping you on the edge of your seat.

It never gets a solo but doesn’t need one any more than Jay does, as now the entire second half teeters on the edge of sanity. Yet nobody has done anything at all outrageous as would normally be expected, and as Jay himself as already proven capable of. K&H Boogie achieves its sense of mayhem based on merely a well-thought out arrangement featuring a very propulsive drive to the rhythm track and well-timed – and judiciously used – accents.

This isn’t McNeely’s best record, far from it, but like almost everything he did it contains so many strong elements which are planned out with an attention to detail that is remarkable for such a young kid who was cutting a ton of sides over the first six months of his recording career, for multiple labels to boot, and yet still figured out ways to come up with something new and inventive each time out.
 

 
The sound of this would fit just as well in 1952, 1957 or even 1961 for that matter, which is its biggest accomplishment, its timeless nature. Maybe it IS a somewhat generic sound, but its generic in part because of what rock has proven itself to be already. This checks off all of the boxes for 1949, then adds in an extra element that was slightly ahead of its time, even as none of those are highlighted over the others.

This was a true ensemble approach led by someone who was DEFINITELY a star, and I mean all-time star, not just of his era, and he was that rare star who was always amazingly comfortable ceding the spotlight to others. Yet when he commanded that spotlight, as he did so often during his career, he proved himself to be more than just a star, he was an absolute Icon and if not quite a Legend it’s only because too many people looking back in history didn’t look back far enough.

R.I.P. Big Jay
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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