Born: April 29, 1927 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
Big Jay McNeely brought the tenor sax to prominence in the golden age of R&B, known as the “King of the Honkers,” for his wild style and outrageous showmanship..
Tenor saxophonist Cecil Big Jay McNeely was born in Watts, California, on April 29, 1927, he formed his own band with jazz legends Sonny Criss (alto sax) and Hampton Hawes (piano) while still in high school. But in late 1948, when he was asked to record for Savoy Records, he abandoned jazz for something more raucous and struck paydirt when his second release, a honked-up instrumental called Deacon's Hop, went to #1 on the national R&B charts in February 1949. For the next several years, Big Jay was famed for his playing-on-his-back acrobatics and his raw, hard-swinging playing. During his act he'd leave the stage, walk across the top of the bar, and sometimes walk out the door of the club, often with a line of people following him.
In 1959 Big Jay enjoyed his biggest hit, a blues ballad called There Is Something on Your Mind, featuring Haywood Little Sonny Warner on vocals. The record stayed on the R&B charts for six months. Other artists who have recorded Big Jay's song include B.B. King, Etta James, Freddy Fender, The Hollywood Flames, Gene Vincent, Albert King and Professor Longhair.
Big Jay retired from full-time music for 20 years, but in 1983 he returned to performing and hasn't looked back. In 1987 he played in a blues jam with B.B. King, Robert Cray, Etta James, Albert King, Junior Wells and others on the internationally-televised Grammy Awards. Two years later, he was honking outside the Quasimodo Club in West Berlin on the night the Berlin Wall came down.
In 2000 the Experience Music Project in Seattle installed a special Big Jay McNeely exhibit that includes his original Conn saxophone; the Smithsonian magazine put the horn on its June 2000 issue cover, along with Jimi Hendrix's hat, Janis Jopin's feather boa, and Eric Clapton's Stratocaster. Big Jay is also the subject of Jim Dawson's “Nervous Man Nervous: Big Jay McNeely & the Rise of the Honking Tenor Saxophone” (Big Nickel Press, 1995), the only book ever written about the R&B sax and its influences.
These days Big Jay McNeely spends a good deal of time playing in Europe, Australia and Japan, and is recognized internationally as a seminal figure in R&B. The greatest honker of them all!
Source: James Nadal