Big Jay McNeely, Pioneering R&B Saxist, Dies at 91

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His tenor saxophone playing style has been described as “honking and screaming” and it was a fixture on many early rock ’n’ roll and rhythm ’n’ blues recordings. Still actively performing in his last years. Big Jay McNeely died in Los Angeles of cancer, today (Sept. 16), at age 91.

Born Cecil James McNeely on April 29, 1927, in the Watts section of L.A., “Big Jay,” influenced by jazz musicians such as Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young, studied music formally and began playing saxophone professionally in the late 1940s. McNeely made his first recordings with singer/musician Johnny Otis for the Excelsior label before signing a recording contract under his own name with the Savoy label. McNeely and his group, the Blue Jays, scored a #1 R&B smash with the instrumental “The Deacon’s Hop” in 1949, which was followed to that chart by two more singles, “Wild Wig” that same year and “There Is Something on Your Mind,” in 1959, the latter (on the Swingin’ label) peaking at #5.

Big Jay McNeely

McNeely recorded other singles, and numerous albums, on labels such as Exclusive, Aladdin, Imperial, Federal and Vee-Jay, but further chart success eluded him. Nonetheless he continued to blow his horn until 1971, when he quit the music business to work as a postman. He returned during the rock ’n’ roll revival of the early ’80s and continued to work until just recently, mostly in Europe.

McNeely collaborated with Professor Longhair, B.B. King, Etta James, King Curtis, Gene Vincent, Buddy Guy, Booker T. and the MG’s, Albert King, Lowell Fulson, Conway Twitty, Nappy Brown, James Cotton, Ray Stevens, Freddy Fender, Barbara Lynn, Garnet Mimms, Little Johnny Taylor, Sleepy LaBeef, the Hollywood Flames, the Memphis Horns, Sam “The Man” Taylor, Lee Allen, Red Prysock, David Johansen of the New York Dolls and Bobby Marchan  of Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns, among others.

Related: A tribute to B.B. King

McNeely has been inducted into the R&B Hall of Fame and won the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 2001.

Listen to McNeely’s “Nervous Man Nervous” from 1953

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