Every year in rock seems to have a song that defines it historically. Mostly these are huge hits, actually they almost exclusively are, as it won’t be until probably 1988 that we get to a year in which N.W.A released the songs that had the biggest impact in rock ‘n’ roll without actually making any charts.

But it’s not JUST the size of the hit at the time that leaves the biggest dent in the musical consciousness it’s the sound that record exemplifies.

Well, at the risk of jumping the gun and making the ensuing eleven and a half months of reviews to come on Spontaneous Lunacy either irrelevant or at least massively anti-climatic, welcome to the defining rock song of 1949, courtesy of Big Jay McNeely… a huge hit but an even bigger sound.


The Deacon Blows Hot
If 1948’s sax instrumentals had been the sound of jazz cats slumming in rock ‘n’ roll, Big Jay McNeely was something different. A rock act with absolutely no reservations about BEING a rock artist who therefore had no inhibitions, no guilt about blowing up a storm.

This was no seasoned veteran making the uneasy transition to a potentially more commercial style at the behest of his record company, his manager, his wife or his bookie in hopes of pulling in more coin, McNeely was a legitimate true believer from the start. His performances at Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club were unhinged in their intensity and he felt the room shake when everybody was dancing in rhythm to what he was laying down and he was determined to bring that same feeling to a piece of sterile wax.

When Ralph Bass came into the club, either scouting talent or just to dig the scene, McNeely’s showmanship worked wonders on the hip West Coast A&R man/producer for New Jersey’s Savoy Records and he immediately signed him to the label. Perhaps for the first time with such a prominent black label it wasn’t jazz acts they were looking for now, instead it was what McNeely was already playing every night that drew their interest.

However with one recording session under his belt McNeely was faced with an unexpected obstacle at the session for The Deacon’s Hop when his older brother Bob, who’d first given Jay his old saxophone when Bob went off to war, then who backed his younger brother on baritone for his initial solo studio date, decided he didn’t want to be in the shadow of his younger sibling and quit the band.

For all of the historical importance Big Jay McNeely can claim, and that’s plenty, Bob McNeely’s supporting role over the years can’t be underestimated. The two of them had an uncanny sense of interplay and it was Bob who not only held down the bottom with the same fervent attitude that allowed Jay to riff over the top of him, but who also contributed mightily to the sense of pandemonium with his own guttural honks and subterranean blasts.

Though they’d reconcile very quickly and Bob would rejoin his brother and they’d remain together for years it’s almost cruelly ironic that on McNeely’s signature hit Bob is nowhere to be found, his place taken by a trombone of all things which played by Britt Woodman who was instructed to replicate Bob’s low notes as best he could. Maybe knowing the effect wouldn’t be as authentic more responsibility fell on Big Jay’s shoulders to carry the load and in that sense he didn’t disappoint.


The record kicks off with a very distinctive rim shot/cymbal combination that sounds like a ticking bomb about to go off, an entirely appropriate intro to the explosion which follows.

But Jay himself starts off fairly subdued, lurking rather than assaulting the senses as hand-claps take on the backbeat, almost as if they were offering a warning for when Jay suddenly ramps it up, honking and squealing in a staccato progression which hits you like piston-like jabs to the face. When he draws his notes out at the end the other horns come in, the trombone playing a droning passage which acts as the underpinning, or an air raid siren – take your pick.

By the bridge you almost swear that Bob McNeely heard the commotion, grabbed his baritone horn and climbed through a window to join in, so effectively does the unorthodox replacement mimic the sound.

What gives The Deacon’s Hop its appeal is McNeely’s perfect distillation of virtually everything that previous sax instrumentals (in all of their stylistic diversity) had featured, wrapped in one surprisingly coherent package.

We’ve focused on the primary dueling attributes before – the slow grinding riff and the manic extremes. Prior to this they’ve been mutually exclusive for the most part and had even seemed incompatible with one another in the context of the same song. You may start with the slower riffs and build to a frantic climax, but that was about the only way the two had shared space on the same record.

But McNeely manages a rare balancing act here, first by giving the supporting horns the role of the riff, which itself is not too unusual, but then by alternating the melodic pattern so they only come in at specified times after he’s blown his lungs out. They alternate in such a way that builds tremendous anticipation, not JUST for the squeal-fest that awaits you the next time Big Jay takes the spotlight, but even while he’s ripping the loudspeakers to shreds you’re just as anxious to hear that grinding refrain the others lay down come back for an encore.

That push/pull dynamic never ceases throughout this and because the two sounds are seamlessly switched off you don’t get the sense of it being two different records as might otherwise be the case. Instead it has a very organic, natural feel to it.

Like a boat on rough waters once your sea legs are under you it just becomes second nature to roll with the tide. McNeely pilots the craft through storms of his own making and runs perilously close to some reefs, not to mention letting the others steer it to shallow waters and nearly run aground, but they maintain their course and drop you safely back in the harbor when it’s all said and done.

There were more explosive displays on the horn shown prior to this by other sax players, not to mention Big Jay himself, and there would be even more wild antics to come from him, but The Deacon’s Hop has a sense of pulling everything together and leaving you with an instantly identifiable song, something even many of the best instrumentals failed to do.

Even the title itself seems to convey a sense of higher purpose in the name of rock ‘n’ roll. A voluntary corruption of the divine – much in the same manner of Roy Brown’s Good Rocking Tonight – where the spiritual release that once was found only in the sacred music of the church was being appropriated for the earthly pleasures of the flesh. Drinking, dancing and screwing were now almost being offered up as reason for worship with McNeely’s stirring up the masses like a shepherd leading his wayward flock.

At the dawn of 1949 the sax instrumental was a hot trend, but to outsiders that may have been all it was, unsure as to its ultimate destination. When Williams scored with The Hucklebuck at this same time, crossing into the mainstream pop realm, there was a very real chance its enormous success would almost invalidate that which preceded it and had been more squarely entrenched in the rock field. Who was to say that the sax might not start aiming for the same mainstream goal from now on, leaving the rowdier rock styles behind in the process?

But McNeely ensured that wouldn’t happen, not only with this record which would never be acceptable in pop circles for its crudity, but also with the accompanying hysteria his live performances engendered which gave the music its unsavory reputation and outlaw image that branded it as undesirable to begin with.

This was nothing like you found anywhere else in popular music at the time. McNeely pranced through the aisles amongst the throngs of screaming fans and laid on his back on stage with his feet in the air blowing to the heavens. When he dropped to his knees as if worshiping a righteously down and dirty rhythmic god it caused a generation of followers to find something akin to religious ecstasy in these unholy displays, fellow congregants at the altar of rock ‘n’ roll.

Those performances grew in stature and with that the shows were increasingly covered by the press in part because of the name recognition this hit guaranteed and they in turn reported in sensationalistic headlines the pandemonium McNeely was creating in audiences. The music, the wild performances, the crazed reactions of the fans and the stunned reaction to it all by the media fed off one another and firmly established rock’s notoriety in the process.

It’s not for nothing the banner for Spontaneous Lunacy has Big Jay McNeely eliciting that response from a crowd in 1951. Rock music was always only partly about the music, the rest was always the cultural changes it foretold of, inspired and ultimately reflected. In 1949 nobody embodied the potential to change the musical landscape and all it enfolded more than Big Jay McNeely and this was the song which delivered that message to the masses.


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