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SAVOY 682; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

As has been mentioned many times here in the wonderful world of Spontaneous Lunacy there’s an art to naming instrumental records. Without lyrics from which to derive a title it was left to the artist, or (more likely in this era at least) to an A&R man or label owner, to come up with a name that would be intriguing enough to convince someone to want to invest a nickel to hear it on a jukebox or the 79 cents that was the going rate at the time to purchase it in a store.

For a curious fan wondering about the musical contents the title was the most prominent example of the creativity of those involved you could derive from the record without actually having listened to it. It could be whimsical or direct, meaningful or meaningless, or – as we’ve seen in many cases – merely used as a bribe to get a particular deejay to play it on the air.

Savoy Records did that here in fact with the flip-side of this, and for the second time the beneficiary of their largesse was Chicago DJ Al Benson who’d gotten a similar gift from Paul Williams back in February called Bouncing With Benson, though it did neither Al nor Paul (or Savoy for that matter) much good.

Never one to be deterred by such misguided attempts Savoy chief Herman Lubinsky tried again with one half of the debut of Los Angeles saxophonist Cecil McNeely by naming the mellow jazzy riffs he delivered Benson’s Groove.

Again, nobody really noticed… except OTHER deejays not named Al Benson who were reluctant to play yet another homage to a competitor, forcing Lubinsky to later re-title it for sale outside of Chicago.

But as bad as his instincts were on that appellation the same couldn’t be said for the other side, Wild Wig, which was an entirely appropriate term with which to spring the fire breathing fury of the similarly re-named (by Lubinsky himself) “Big Jay” McNeely on the world.

Rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same again.
 

 
Blow Top
Though the saxophone revolution in rock had been the story of 1948 and could arguably be said to have already reached its commercial peak, that peak was still a long ways from being over. In fact it wasn’t so much a brief jagged peak as much as it was a high plateau that lasted for roughly two full years and only in 1950 did it start a slow descent, though there were still plenty of sax-led instrumentals being made.

That they weren’t quite as dominant on the charts from that point forward really was more due to the other rock styles (vocal harmony groups of all kinds, solo singers and more diverse instrumental experiments) coming into their own and thus grabbing a bigger share of the pie. The saxophone’s prominence in rock actually remained steady throughout the 1950’s as it quickly became the prime accompaniment for vocal groups and would frequently get blistering solos in the midst of them to show off their wares.

But those who tended to be featured in that era rarely got the chance to cut solo – at least not to the extent and with the notoriety for their instrumental records – as those from THIS era, and arguably nobody from this era became more renown for his solo records and for his overall performances than Big Jay McNeely. The undisputed King Of The Honking, Squealing, Screaming Saxophone and the man who was probably more singularly responsible for the showmanship aspect of rock ‘n’ roll than anybody.
 

 

Goin’ Wild
Cecil McNeely wasn’t that big at all. He was 5’10, average size, but in terms of taking up the spotlight he was larger than life.

He’d gotten his start playing saxophone when his older brother Bob went off to war and gave him his alto sax that he’d been playing in bands around L.A. The younger McNeely learned how to play it well enough but admittedly didn’t take music all that seriously until a summer job sweating his ass off in a tire factory convinced him that sweating his ass off on stage was the better career. Maybe it’d wind up only being for the same pay considering the royalty rip-offs of the day but at the tire factory there usually weren’t frantic crowds exuberantly cheering you on for your work.

Like most horn players of that time McNeely had been knocked out upon hearing Illinois Jacquet blowing up a storm on 1942’s Flying Home and after switching to tenor sax later in high school the seeds of McNeely’s own flamboyant style were planted.

He had other influences as well. Big Jim Wynn, who we’ve met already, was the one who began the wild stage histrionics – playing on his knees, on his back, feet in the air, walking the bar and creating a ruckus with his antics as much as his horn itself – and McNeely was taking copious notes. But as we’ve seen with Wynn when it came time to aurally replicate that excitement on record he was largely unable to do so.

Thus it was left to McNeely to unleash the saxophone’s raucous image to mankind and unlike other veteran musicians who looked down on such antics, even as they were complying with the requirements for commercial purposes, the younger and less inhibited McNeely took no such issue with the supposedly low-brow style and used his flamboyant act and powerful lungs to create a name for himself.
 

Blowin’ My Wig
The newly minted “Big Jay” McNeely (J. was at least his middle initial, for those interested) introduces himself with all the assertiveness his horn would become famous for, kicking off Wild Wig with fire engine siren-like refrain, maybe clearing the streets in the process but filling the dance floor at the same time.

He quickly eases back and settles into a more restrained mellow riff, well-played, both harmonic and hypnotic, which gives an early example of his versatility, something that he’d soon be accused of not possessing, but this shows he was perfectly capable of his playing cool and easy and still remaining captivating.

Though McNeely’s rapid rise to fame came as the poster boy for the crude sounds of the most guttural sax led instrumentals, he was never so one-dimensional. It’s just that those raunchy sides became SO well known that it obscured the rest of his arsenal, which is shown off to full effect throughout the many changes of Wild Wig.

From the laid back mysticism of the second passage he starts ramp it up more, with brother Bob – an almost equally good and revolutionary player in his own right, now back from the Army and handling the baritone behind Jay – adding cappers to each line before they take off once again.

Jay’s next featured spot is entirely different than the first two, his playing is insistent and gritty, spiraling upwards as he goes along, holding some notes, cutting others short, layering the record with different textures as the other horns keep up the repetitive riff beneath him.
 

Riffin’
More than any other featured sax-man in rock’s first decade, McNeely seemed to intuitively grasp the importance of maintaining a groove that was well-thought out, not merely an excuse for off-the-cuff bedlam that was frantic but directionless, but he also knew how to ramp things up over the course of the record so that it actually led to an even more explosive climax.

In other words he always had a game plan.

At their worst, or really even at their most typically average, many sax players never consistently mastered the art of composing. They were merely improvising, embellishing what most easily came to mind, but without it leading anywhere. It was disorganized chaos at times, where one really good section might be bookended by two that let the excitement lag, none of it fitting together with any sense of order. All of the big names, Paul Williams, Wild Bill Moore, Hal Singer you name ‘em, even Earl Bostic, fell prey to this. The more they were asked to create something out of thin air the more likely they were to offer up things that were hit and miss within the same song.

When they DID hit it right the results could be astounding of course and those records reaped the rewards for it and kept the demand for these sounds going strong, but their batting average in this regard was decidedly lower than we’re even making it out to be, as we’ll often skip the lesser flip-sides for that reason alone.

But McNeely rarely had this problem. Almost all of his songs – for all of their seemingly out of control mayhem – had very real structure to them that never allowed the listener’s mind to wander, always kept the song’s forward momentum intact as he built the excitement with precision rather than ever let it slip away.

In a deep catalog over a long career which one would assume might get repetitive and thus boring hearing one sax instrumental after another with little to break up the parade of honks and squeals (though the flip of this one DID have a vocal, and he would include vocalists on his records from time to time over the years), McNeely’s work always remained fresh and varied.

Wild Wig proves this skill was there from the very start. He came into the game in full possession of his prodigious musical gifts. He may have been borrowing parts of his style from others, but his ability to craft something unique from those disparate origins and create a body of work that was as deep as anybody, instrumental or not, was what made McNeely special.
 

Wiggin’ Out
The saxophone had been THE sound of 1948 with three such songs holding down the #1 hit on the Billboard Race Charts for a combined two solid months since mid-July while the ten biggest rock sax instrumentals of the year were on those (five, ten and eventually fifteen spot) listings for more than 75 weeks overall, competing for their placements not only with other rock styles but also every other black musical genre from jazz to blues to gospel to pop and the still thriving pre-rock swinging jump blues style of Louis Jordan and all of the stars in his vast orbit.

Though Wild Wig came out too late to join them there in this calendar year it would make it on the charts in the first months of 1949, by which time McNeely’s NEXT record would be raising the bar even higher for the sax instrumental field of rock ‘n’ roll.

Needless to say the King Of The Rockin’ Sax will be with us here for a long, long time and it’s entirely fitting that in the year of the sax instrumental he’d be the one to put the final exclamation point on the cacophony before the New Year rang in.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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