LOS ANGELES (CelebrityAccess) — Big Jay McNeely, a tenor sax player whose raucous “honking” style helped define the early sound of rock n’ roll and jump blues, died on Sunday in Moreno Valley, Calif. He was 91.
According to the New York Times, McNeely’s passing was confirmed by his granddaughter Brittney Calhoun, who said the cause of death was advanced prostate cancer.
A Los Angeles native who drew inspiration from jazz legends such as Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young, Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely scored his first breakout hit in 1949 with “The Deacon’s Hop,” on Savoy Records, after the label’s notorious owner Herman Lubinsky signed him to a recording contract. “The Deacon’s Hop” topped the Billboard R&B charts in early 1949 and would remain McNeely’s biggest hit.
Over the course of his career, he played with several major R&B and blues legends of the period such as Little Richard, B.B. King, Etta James, and Jr. Wells.
e pioneered the flamboyant playing style called “honking” and is widely acknowledged as one of the first musical entertainers to make showmanship an important part of the live concert experience.
However, his on-stage antics, which prefigured the frantic playing style of artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, was not always popular with his colleagues.
“I played with Nat King Cole up in Oakland one time, and I came on powerhouse, the crowd was screaming,” Mr. McNeely told the publication LA Weekly in 2016. “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,” he added.
As the tastes of the music consuming public changed following the British Invasion and the arrival of the Motown sound, McNeely’s star faded until he retired from music and found work as a postal employee in 1971. However, a revival of the early rock n’ roll sound in the 1980s opening up opportunities for McNeely, who returned to recording and performing full time, primarily in Europe.
Big Jay’s songwriting partner and producer, Richard Ihara, states “Big Jay McNeely’s talent and career is a vital link between yesterday’s traditions and today’s popular styles. His 70+ years of creative, dynamic performing and songwriting, innovative, masterful showmanship and stratospheric soloing inspired top music stars, fellow performers and countless audiences alike. He will be truly missed but his music and artistry lives on in his recordings.”
McNeely’s final recording was “Honkin’ & Jivin’ at the Palomino” in 2017.