At 89, tenor saxist Big Jay McNeely is the sole surviving practitioner of Los Angeles’ postwar rhythm and blues conflagration. His explosive contributions represent some of the most original, successful and influential in all of midcentury American music. His 1948 debut, “Deacon’s Hop,” was an unprecedented one-two punch of playful, laconic tease and H-bomb–scale R&B pyromania. It went to No. 1 on the R&B charts and codified an aggressive, mutant strain of blues known forever after as “honking.”
“Deacon’s Hop” immediately spawned a horde of sound-alikes, and McNeely enjoyed success as one of the blues’ biggest stars of the 1950s. Today, he is anything but retired, having just released new album Blowin’ Down the House: Big Jay’s Latest and Greatest (Cleopatra), a set that ably spotlights McNeely’s still-adventurous, authoritative zeal. It’s split between an A side of new material driven by McNeely’s strikingly powerful, expressive vocals and a B side loaded with some of his most famed, incendiary honking workouts.
“This album came out great, because it’s got that big sound,” McNeely said. “A couple of the tunes, we did the vocals in Switzerland last year, but for this I came in and added all those big horns. And a lot of people don’t think of me as a singer, so it worked out really well. I think the A side is as strong as the other, and a lot of those old tunes have been in movies lately. ‘Big Jay’s Hop’ and ‘Blow Blow Blow’ were in Gangster Squad and ‘Willie the Cool Cat’ was in Trumbo. We had to use these — I still haven’t left my rock & roll people behind.”
The new songs range from the steamy, declarative soul of “Love Will Never Fail” to the stomping, almost apocalyptic “Party,” an impressively wild blast of characteristic McNeely madness that’s as infectiously extreme as any of his 1950s classics.
Somewhat surprisingly, McNeely, born in Watts on April 29, 1927, began his musical life as a stone bebop head, one who formed a band with high school buddies Hampton Hawes and Sonny Criss.
“I started out doing jazz, but I didn’t have a great ear like Sonny did,” McNeely said. “So after I graduated I studied with Joseph T. Cadaly at RKO Studios, learned a little bit of theory, harmonics, and he taught me how to get that big sound.”
After he unleashed “Deacon’s Hop,” McNeely was the most in-demand cat on the West Coast, and he wasted no time in matching his show to his sound.
“I came on screaming,” McNeely said. “I’d start walking the tables, lay down on the floor. I’d bring in my own blacklights, put on a pair of white gloves and have them kill the lights — all you could see were my hands. I saw an exotic dancer at an after-hours club, she had fluorescent paint on her body, so I decided to use it on my horn. Got transparent, fluorescent paint — you didn’t even know it was there until the blacklight came on.”
The untamed honk sound — a combination of guttural chugging and sustained shrieking single notes, usually performed at frantic, high-velocity tempos — infuriated critics, who dismissed McNeely as a buffoon. But it drove teenagers berserk. McNeely’s crazy bandstand antics ignited a furor of controversy that spilled over from the strictly musical into larger sociocultural terms.
“A lot of black people didn’t like my show, laying on the floor, but they’re the ones who caused me to start doing it,” McNeely said. “I was in Clarksville, Tennessee, did the first show [and] they just did not respond to my music. So the next set, I started walking around the club, got down on my knees — nothing. Third show, when I lay down on my back, they went crazy. Did it in Fort Worth the next night, same reaction, everyone went wild. Came back here and did it and you know how big it got here in Los Angeles. Joe Houston started doing it, all of ‘em.”
It wasn’t long before McNeely, who drew massive, mixed-race audiences, fell afoul of the authorities.
“I’d do my own shows,” McNeely said. “Book them myself, just like Art Laboe and Johnny Otis did, and it was OK for them because those guys weren’t black. I’d bring in Bobby Day, The Hollywood Flames, all these groups and we’d just pack the places. People would see these huge crowds and think all the kids were on drugs, they said, ‘Oh those white kids were all dancing like Watusis!’ And I got barred from playing here, I couldn’t work anywhere in Los Angeles.”
With LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff bans in place, McNeely hit the road.
“I was with [prestige booking agency] GAC. And with them, you could play all the best spots, Birdland, Wildwood New Jersey, wherever you wanted,” McNeely said. “I was very fortunate. Went to New York, opened at Birdland on a bill with Ben Webster and Milt Jackson — I was nervous. But I didn’t change my style, and it worked.
“I played with Nat King Cole up in Oakland one time, and I came on powerhouse, the crowd was screaming. I ran into him later that night at Bop City, an after-hours spot, and he said, ‘You’ll never work with me again.’ I thought he was joking — he wasn’t. I was supposed to go on the road with Johnnie Ray, but after I broke up the first show, they said, ‘You’re not going.’ Many times they’ve pulled me off the stage — I’d still get paid but I didn’t even play. You just can’t put too much pressure on the main act.”
McNeely’s refusal to compromise completely redefined R&B. The poet Amiri Baraka characterized the honker as a “Black Dada Nihilismus” and McNeely immolated the 1950s with his incomparable brand of blues tumult, gracefully capping it off with the forlorn ballad R&B chart topper, “There Is Something on Your Mind.”
“You know, all the heavy guys who did my kind of stuff, they are all deceased.” McNeely said. “And I’ve got a lot of things I want to do. I’ve written some beautiful songs, ballads. There’s this kid [with a label] over in Cologne, we’re gonna put ’em out as The Mellow Side of Big Jay. Last December, I recorded 14 sides in Tokyo, and I have a live album ahead of that. We bring out those at my shows, and they’re gone before I even get onstage. I mean, I’ll turn 90 in April and I want to get all these things out.
“When you play, it keeps you alive. If I stop, what else am I gonna do?”
Big Jay McNeely appears at Cody’s Viva Cantina, Saturday, Dec. 10, at 8:30 p.m.