By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Debra DiPaoloFUROR, TUMULT, MADNESS: ALL CALLING CARDS FOR rhythm & blues tenor-sax originator Big Jay McNeely, a man who exudes uncommon power. Known during his 19491955 peak as "The Go Go Go Man," "The Deacon of Tenor Sax," "King of the Honkers," "Pied Piper," even "Big Jay McSquealy," he found his mutinous brand of R&B derided by jazz critics as freakish, the work of a deranged exhibitionist, but his audience response was unprecedented. As Ebony magazine reported in May 1953: "A young white lad got so hepped up over Big Jay's music that he jumped out of a balcony onto the main floor where he miraculously landed without hurting himself and went into a riotous dance. In Redondo Beach . . . last summer, a teen-aged white girl was sent into raging hysterics by the violent sounds of Big Jay's horn. She did not recover her balance until her boy friend had slapped her face vigorously about a dozen times."
The exotic sway McNeely held over a crowd was so notorious that his managers once circulated a tale that he'd been hauled before a psychiatric board of examination. The reality was just as far-fetched: wild crowds of black kids, drape-shape pachucos and white teenagers all going nuts at Big Jay's shows at the Shrine and Olympic auditoriums. "He'd play 'Dirty Boogie,'" fan Chris Strachwitz recalls of McNeely's early-'50s gigs, "and the kids would be unzipping their flies." After McNeely began to draw armies of white youths -- who, according to one local paper, invariably began "acting like Watusis" -- he was forbidden to perform in most of Los Angeles County. Even today, says promoter Ronnie Mack, when Big Jay plays at Mack's Barndance, the girls lift up their shirts and flash him.
The 72-year-old musician, born in Los Angeles on April 29, 1927, has some tales to tell. Mohair tuxedos. Green, red and yellow suits so garishly colored "they glowed in the dark." After seeing a stripper adorned in fluorescent paint, McNeely had his saxophone coated with the stuff. He was famed for an almost hypnotic effect, sometimes playing the same song for an hour straight. For McNeely, there were no rules. He was one of the first to walk the bar, to lie on his back kicking and honking, to stroll right off the stage and onto the street, wailing away. (In San Diego once, the police nabbed him in midchorus, and, he recalls, "The band was still playing when the cops phoned to tell them where I was!")
"I was from a very poor family, and we needed money," McNeely says. "I'd started off playing jazz with Sonny Criss, he had a little band, but then I went and studied with Joseph Cadaly at RKO studios, he played first-chair saxophone in the RKO orchestra. Studied a little bit of theory, harmonics, and got so legit that I felt like I was playing cello on the saxophone." His RKO training placed the cherry on top of McNeely's musical confection; he'd been bebopping throughout high school, and had occasionally recorded and jammed with the Johnny Otis band at South-Central's Barrelhouse. When he was approached by Savoy in late 1948 with an offer to make his own record, all of these experiences collided, with phenomenal results.
"I had no idea what I was gonna do," he says, "but I went to see Pete Canard, he had a little record shop down on Compton Avenue, talked to them, and they gave me a record by Glenn Miller ['Nothing but Soul'] that had that sock cymbal on it -- chh-chh, chh-chh-chh -- so I developed the number from that. I went into the studio and forgot all about the training I'd had for a solid year and just went completely in the other direction."
McNeely's debut release, "Deacon's Hop," with the saxophone alternating a glorious mix of drawling tease and gutbucket abandon, was an artistic and commercial ideal and launched the honking-sax craze, a direct outgrowth of Illinois Jacquet's frantic mid-'40s soloing on "Flying Home." "Deacon's Hop" reached No. 1 on the R&B charts, swiftly giving way to hits like Paul Williams' "The Hucklebuck" (which knocked "Deacon's Hop" from the No. 1 spot after two weeks) and Hal Singer's "Cornbread," a radical handful of instrumentals that inspired a gaggle of insta-honkers (Los Angeles' Joe Houston and Chuck Higgins among them). After Big Jay, Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker seemed hopelessly tame.
For a guy with a hit record, McNeely played it extremely cool: "I didn't go on the road at the time," he says, "because Bardu Ali, who was with Johnny Otis, told me what it was like -- how these gangsters treated black artists. They'd buy 'em a Cadillac and sign them for a huge percentage of their money, but when the party's over, they stole all your money, you find out nobody paid the income tax and you end up broke. So, because of that, when I was No. 1, I didn't work at all!"
At home in L.A. in 1949-50, he was packing them in. For Big Jay, "It was tremendous. At the time, people were so prejudiced, they couldn't understand why the white kids responded the way they did, and there'd be Mexican kids by the thousands watching us jam. People thought the kids must all be on drugs, and it got to the point where I was blocked out of Los Angeles -- either the cops would come and shut us down or they wouldn't give me a permit."
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