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The struggle for once mighty rock instrumentalists to diversify their sound in the face of the dwindling market for what they did best continues.

Though all of rock’s instrumental brigade was affected by this turn towards vocal records, the one who you thought might be somewhat immune to the across the board downturn was Big Jay McNeely, for his honking squealing saxophone was a voice unto itself.

In fact his records were often so over-the-the-top that it was not anything easily replicated vocally, so there should’ve been at least a niche he still had to himself – wild, unhinged and half-demented explosions of sonic fury.

Tastes change however and McNeely smartly tried to change with them, but this dashed-off second rate song ill-suited for its singer and without any of the instrumental fireworks Big Jay was known for sure isn’t the best way to go about it.


Baby, You Are The One
A lot of instrumentalists have taken on vocalists to make sure their sound, be it on record or on stage, doesn’t get too repetitive.

Vocals give listeners something different to focus on so that even songs that are constructed the same have a instantly recognizable identifying feature, whereas instrumentals are reliant on things which have fewer options, such as tempo, to set them apart from one another.

Yet bringing a great vocalist on board was sure to create a rift. If the singer hit big, then it’d push the headlining musician to the background. If the singer didn’t bring in enough returns in the way of added sales or spins, then it might be deemed a waste of time, effort and money to keep them on board.

Then there was the chance that it’d alter the musician’s sound too much. Though it was certainly good that someone like Kitty Stevenson had shaken up the more mannered approach of Todd Rhodes, it wasn’t the kind of music that Rhodes preferred, making him at risk for losing his unique identity in the bargain.

Finally you always ran the risk that if the singer did well, either commercially or artistically, maybe drawing the attention of another label, or just giving themselves the faith that they could make it on their own, there was the possibility that they might leave without warning, not only depriving you of someone you may have been counting on for future endeavors, but also removing the songs they’d already sung from your set-list on stage.

Such was the case with the arrival of Three Dots And A Dash behind Big Jay McNeely in 1951. Led by the untested, but phenomenally talented Jesse Belvin, they’d give the saxophonist his most potent record in awhile with All That Wine Is Gone, but when Belvin left in the midst of a Southern cross-country tour, McNeely was left to pick up the pieces.

Among the other singers in that group was Marvin Phillips, not quite as skilled as his buddy Jesse, but still a capable performer. Unfortunately on Tall Brown Woman, cut at the first session after Belvin’s departure, he doesn’t really get to show off his ability in the best of lights, as this is a lot of hot air in search of a song.


Make A Fool Of Me
Over time Marvin Phillips would figure out how to best showcase his somewhat limited voice.

It wasn’t exactly the easiest of tasks for the saxophonist turned singer, as his excessively nasal baritone threatened to render him a frustrating “wouldabeen” contender like Goree Carter or Floyd Dixon – singers with otherwise exceptional talents as writers and instrumentalists who always had to overcome their built-in obstacle on each and every song, leading many to think “they woulda been great if they sang through their mouths instead of their noses”.

But Phillips managed to pull it off eventually, not by correcting his technique as you would hope, but by better utilizing his limited range within the songs. On uptempo sides he found ways to emphasize the drawn-out parts which naturally settled in the back of his throat rather than his nasal passages, while he tended to lean harder on the slower chanted songs that let his voice simultaneously provide rhythm along with melody.

On Tall Brown Woman he does none of that and so it is bound to suffer greatly for it. For starters he’s singing a simple and endlessly recycled melody at an accelerated pace, trying to add some color with how he shades the crudely unimaginative lyrics that are basically just a hapless come-on to a beauty who we all know isn’t going to even give him the courtesy of glancing his way.

Maybe if Big Jay McNeely was to add something that would stop her in her tracks and force her to acknowledge him standing on the corner he might stand a chance of at least getting a momentary smile before she moved on, but instead McNeely is just as out of sorts as Phillips is, relegating the majority of the musical responsibilities to the band while he sits out or lays back.

Phillips manages a few moments of competency, the more rhythmic bridge isn’t bad and his enthusiasm never wanes at least, but the tempo is exposing all of his worst traits while the song’s content is hardly bringing anything interesting to the mix, meaning he’s going to have to rely on a strangely subdued Big Jay to help his cause.

When McNeely finally does consent to jump in, his solo is so brief, so indistinct, so piddling in its effort – sounding like a wheezy alto rather than a beefy tenor – that you wished he hadn’t bothered.

THIS is the man who had blown up a storm that shook the music world? What happened to him? I mean, it’s not as if this is some slow as death cut where he had no choice but to take it easy, this record is built on a fast tempo and an attempt to stir some excitement.

Instead it rolls over and plays dead, uninspired and barely making an effort to draw her gaze… or ours.


You’ll Never Want Another
We’re always willing to grant artists who are trying to fit in sessions between long arduous tours a little bit of leeway when it comes to how many really great tracks they can produce.

There’s bound to be some throwaways scattered amongst them and while we won’t go easy on the scores, we can at least understand the difficulties in trying to come up with nothing but potential hits.

But the basic content of the song isn’t the problem… not that it’s particularly strong either, but it’s certainly workable if they’d worked on it some more. No, the issue here is they stick this story to a generic melody that could be – and has been – played by countless other roadhouse bands and then rather than embellish it with some ferocious playing, they merely go through the motions.

No wonder this Tall Brown Woman walked away from them without a second look. She’s got pride in herself and high standards to uphold and can’t have a bunch of riff-raff thinking they’ve got a shot at her when they’re not even taking pride in their appearance.

We know full well that Big Jay McNeely, if he’s putting forth the effort, can get any girl to fall for him… at least look his way… but by the sounds of it, Jay just rolled out of bed after being laid up for a week with the flu, threw on some dirty clothes and headed out to the drug store for some medicine, eyes half closed, hair a mess and shoes untied.

No girl, even one not so tall, not so pretty and not so picky, would bother with him looking like that, nor would she pay any attention to this record that sounds like they all should’ve blown their noses before going into the studio.


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