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SAVOY 698; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

One of the enduring questions faced by artists, not to mention record labels seeking hits from those artists, is just how far out to venture stylistically from what was already successful versus how close to stick with something well-established that’s proven to have commercial legs.

In the case of Big Jay McNeely during his brief time with Savoy Records at the dawn of his career that wasn’t a question posed directly to him because the songs he cut at two sessions at the tail end of 1948 came before any of them were released and thus the two hits that came out of those sides couldn’t very well be used as proven prototypes based on their eventual returns.

But that doesn’t mean that they all didn’t have SOME track record to go on when stepping into the studio, for the sound of 1948 in rock was unquestionably the sax instrumental. McNeely had already shown on stage at Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in Watts that he was particularly gifted in coming up with wall shaking, paint peeling, roof caving displays on his instrument and so if anybody was likely to get free reign to come up with whatever they wanted to try right out of the gate it was probably going to be Big Jay McNeely.

When he left the label on the heels of his two hits in the winter of 1949 Savoy was left with just four remaining tracks (out of eight cut) and thus had little choice about what they released. What they DID have a choice in however was in what they promoted and it’s odd that they didn’t choose Sunday Dinner, which was the more typical rock instrumental, for the A-side.
 

 
I wouldn’t call it a major decision or a huge misstep by any means, after all, the promotional material was generally confined to Billboard and Cash Box magazines which weren’t aimed at the general public but rather record distributors, the guys who stocked jukeboxes, and since it would be kind of hard to put a record on a jukebox with only one side of said record available to hear it didn’t likely matter much which they advertised as the A-side.

Nor would it mean much to the handful of radio stations who played such smut as rock ‘n’ roll in 1949. There weren’t program directors who were making song selections then, it was left up to the handful of disc jockeys who had either an existing familiarity with the artists material and how that fit into their audience’s interests, or they had a working relationship with the record company heads themselves in the means of a Jackson Handshake, IE. twenty bucks or so changing hands to play whatever the label sent over.

So A side or B side as designated on that label was often little more than a meaningless designation.

At times though, and this can serve as one of them, it also provided a glimpse into the thinking of the industry at the time, particularly in relation to their supposed expertise when it came to what the record buyers craved. If Savoy hadn’t known which side of Big Jay McNeely had the most appeal six months ago with his first two releases Wild Wig in December 1948 and The Deacon’s Hop in January 1949, they surely knew NOW! They even went so far as to issue this as by Deacon McNeely & his Blue-Jays to alleviate any doubt about the connect between the artist and his Number One hit.

So why did they instead plug the lighter sounding California Hop as the A-side and leave the song more closely aligned with his previous successes, Sunday Dinner to languish as the B-side when this was one of the last chances they would have to earn money off his efforts for them?
 

 
 

Ring The Dinner Bell
I don’t want make TOO much out of this, though I suppose it’s too late for that now after spending 600 some odd words on the subject, but we did need a way to differentiate one non-hit instrumental from another and while neither side of Savoy 698 was up to the standards set earlier, both for the New Jersey label in question as well as McNeely’s subsequent work on Exclusive, or for that matter those sides he’d contributed to which had been issued under Johnny Otis’s name on Excelsior, it IS the first thing that catches your ear when listening to both sides back to back.

Sunday Hop simply sounds more conventional when it comes to the dominant rock sound in 1949.

For starters it’s probably cruder, which is hardly an insult considering the context of the times and the music which was in the process of connecting with young rock fans.

There’s a thrust to the main underlying riff which is strongly emphasized, conveying something not quite sexual but certainly full of hormones all the same. It’s repeated in an insistent manner throughout and is courtesy of Bob McNeely on baritone sax who was missing altogether on the A-side which was cut at the second session a few weeks later.

We’ve gone into the mini-break up of the brothers McNeely already on those other reviews so there’s no need to revisit that here, but while Savoy showed good sense in pairing one track from each session so as to prevent the sides from both suffering from Bob’s absence (as they’d smartly do again with their final release of these sessions) what was it that prevented them from seeing, or more accurately HEARING the difference in the two songs chosen for this release?

My guess is they weren’t listening so much as they were reading the returns that showed The Deacon’s Hop, cut without Bob yet with Britt Woodman’s doing his damnedest to replicate the missing sound with his trombone, as being the biggest hit and perhaps assuming that the altered lineup was one of the reasons.

It wasn’t. It was the fury with which they played which made The Deacon’s Hop so vital and while Sunday Dinner doesn’t quite replicate that, it certainly comes closer than the flip.

Most of this is due to Big Jay who takes a much more prominent role here than he did on California Hop, letting his tenor horn blast away like it was bombarding an enemy encampment in the heart of Germany during World War Two. There’s nothing sophisticated about it, merely repetitive shelling interspersed with small arms fire from the other horns. But the cumulative effect is jarring, they never let up, even when Jay slips in a more melodic passage along the way the others simply keep up the barrage from their side of the bunker.
 

Clean Your Plate
The record picks up in intensity as it goes on. The first half was a little more subdued, giving the other horns more of the responsibility for the main melody, letting them establish the overall mood. It was essentially an elaborate set up so that during the second half McNeely can go to work on deconstructing that mood with all of the many tricks he has up his sleeves.

He lets you know the tone is changing with a sort of back and forth reveille call of sorts with the supporting cast forty seconds in and then heads off on his own, letting the others carry the now familiar riff while he breaks things up with various exercises that range from lung shearing power to more refined melodic twists. As always with Jay they work well together, never coming across as anything haphazard or ill-fitting, and each small section contains at least something interesting to catch your ear.

When the call and response returns at 1:43 to signify entry into the home stretch Jay starts to ramp things up more, staccato notes cascading on top of one another followed by notes held at length from dramatic effect, and now the results are typical (some might say stereotypically) Big Jay. A conclusion worthy of his reputation, which at the time he recorded this back in December of ’48 was of course one he was only just starting to build.

By the time this came out the following spring McNeely’s reputation as a leader in the loudest and most unapologetic brand of rock was assured and this fulfilled those expectations.

What this type of noisy onslaught represented to the rock fans who embraced it was a confirmation of their collective identity and an affirmation of the value of their interest. For so long the music industry, envisioning themselves as guardians of the societal status quo in terms of morals and taste, would resist issuing records that challenged those standards. Rock ‘n’ roll was almost designed to challenge those standards and songs such as Sunday Dinner openly flaunted it.

There was nothing here to be savored by those with a more erudite musical upbringing. It was low brow music delivered unapologetically and if anything Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky was merely guilty of not realizing the cultural need for such things in the widely ostracized community it was intended for and promoting it accordingly.
 


 

Second Helpings
Which brings us back to the beginning of this review, the part about how far out an artist was expected to venture stylistically and still remain commercial.

In the case of Sunday Dinner McNeely didn’t stray far from the expected at all. On the surface that may seem like a criticism, an insult even, a sign that he’d used up his best ideas on the other tunes and was now just churning out interchangeable songs in the hopes the audience wouldn’t notice.

But that’s not the case here.
 

 
Setting aside the timing of the recording, the second track they ever cut, which may mean they were simply seeing what they could pull off in the confines of the studio, the bigger takeaway is that they knew all along what audiences responded to and did their best to give it to them.

For all the criticisms of this type of rock that existed at the time – that it was repetitive, simplistic, non-musical, garish and offensive – it was also exciting. It was designed to get the listener moving and if that listener stopped moving then they’d failed in their task.

You don’t stop moving with Sunday Dinner. It might be far from the best side they ever released but it was emblematic of their goals all along. There were, after all, only so many variations to the prototype that one could come up with and these guys were only just beginning. By the time they got through, years down the road, they’d managed to uncover, if not out and out invent, dozens of variations nobody had previously thought of.

That this isn’t one of them is nothing to hold against them. Generic though it may be, it still gets the job done.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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