‘Big Jay’ McNeely, 1927–2018
The hard-honking saxophonist who inspired rock ’n’ roll
Big Jay McNeely’s honking, wailing tenor saxophone and over-the-top theatrics were so shocking in the early 1950s, some nightclub owners called the police, out of fear young audiences would be driven to hysteria and riot. One reviewer wrote that McNeely’s playing generated “a veritable hepcat jive orgy.” Beginning with his 1949 R&B chart-topper “Deacon’s Hop,” McNeely built a unique musical style based on repetitive riffs with blaring low and screeching high notes. The sound set the framework for rock ’n’ roll, and his wild onstage antics—stripping down to his shirt mid-solo, blaring on his back with his legs in the air—would inspire many rock performers. A young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix saw McNeely perform in 1958 and later incorporated the saxman’s moves into his own live show.
Born in Los Angeles in 1927 to an African-American father and a Native American mother, McNeely “started playing in bands in high school,” said The New York Times. He met bebop icons Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in L.A. clubs, and after an “unhinged appearance in an amateur night” was invited to join bandleader Johnny Otis’ ensemble. The success of “Deacon’s Hop” led McNeely to form his own group, and black, white, and Chicano teenagers flocked to his shows.
When the electric guitar replaced the sax as rock’s lead instrument in the 1960s, McNeely found himself “out of fashion,” said the Los Angeles Times. He took a job as a postman but started touring again in the ’80s after European DJs rediscovered his music. Los Angeles radio DJ Art Laboe said he last saw McNeely perform a decade ago. Despite his age, McNeely was still soloing “on his back,” said Laboe, and “hitting those high notes.”