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'Big Jay' McNeely, whose honking tenor saxophone style helped turn R&B into rock 'n' roll, has died

'Big Jay' McNeely, whose honking tenor saxophone style helped turn R&B into rock 'n' roll, has died
Rhythm & blues saxophonist and singer Big Jay McNeely in 1984. (Charles Paul Harris / Getty Images)

Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely, whose honking tenor saxophone helped define Los Angeles rhythm and blues and set the stage for the rock ’n’ roll explosion of the 1950s, has died. He was 91.

A singular figure in Los Angeles music, McNeely blew exuberant horn runs on songs including “Deacon’s Hop,” “Wild Wig,” “Nervous, Man, Nervous,” “3-D” and “There is Something on Your Mind” — works that drove legions of frenzied fans to dance, scream and shout.

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McNeely died Sunday of advanced prostate cancer in Moreno Valley. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Jacquelene McNeely. “He had a love that was certainly something incredible,” the family wrote in a statement posted on Facebook.

McNeely’s way with a horn echoed across the decades, and his influence can be heard in the music of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, the hits of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the early production of Phil Spector — and pretty much any time a big-breathed saxophonist barks out a wild, bridge-spanning solo.

“He came from what I call ‘the roots of rock,’” famed radio personality Art Laboe said Monday, recalling his decades watching McNeely rip through sets. “When he got out there, he would stand there and blow that saxophone and raise it and use it in certain ways. Let’s put it this way: He was an original.”

Or, as The Times put it, when describing his onstage antics in a 1952 review of a concert at the Shrine, McNeely “turned the event into a veritable hepcat jive orgy when he came off the stage into the audience.”

His onstage charisma may have been predestined. His two brothers were musicians, as were his mother and father.

With his death, a straight line connecting a South Los Angeles era that stretched back nearly a century — one that touched his Watts and Central avenues peers, including jazz bassist Charles Mingus, bandleader Johnny Otis, saxophone player Dexter Gordon, flautist and musician’s union activist Buddy Collette, singer Esther Phillips and dozens more — has broken.

“We were born on 110th Street,” McNeely told an interviewer in the 1999 book “Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles,” describing Watts at the time as “a mixed community, all nationalities were there. It was complete peace at that time. ... We all went to school together, no problem.”

While roaming the neighborhood chasing music, he and friends would watch neighbor Simon Rodia work on his Watts Tower.

McNeely had a musical epiphany as he was entering adulthood, he recalled. “I was working at the Firestone rubber company. I said, ‘Hey, there has to be a better way to make a living and working eight hours.’ So I picked up the saxophone.”

At Jordan High School, after being rejected from the band, he formed his own group called the Earls of ’44 while absorbing the nearby scene thriving on Central Avenue.

Said McNeely in “Central Avenue Sounds”: “The clubs were grooving, because money was popping,” adding that the venues “didn’t have this big racial thing going … Humphrey Bogart, all the big stars would come down there and were, what they called, slumming.”

During that time, McNeely met composer Duke Ellington, followed gigs from bebop horn players Charlie Parker and Miles Davis up and down Central, watched Gordon practice at the black musicians’ union, and played with groups led by Otis, all while making connections and drawing inspiration that would guide him toward his singular all-caps brass blurts.

While honing his style, McNeely drew the attention of Savoy Records’ Ralph Bass, who proposed a recording session and told him to figure out a song.

Said McNeely to biographer Marc Myers: “A kid I knew in Watts had a record shop. He gave me a record by Glenn Miller that opened with the drummer playing the sock cymbal. I can't remember the name of the song, but I built a blues [riff] off of it called ‘Deacon’s Hop.’”

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The song, released under his father’s name, Deacon McNeely, hit No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1949.

Big Jay McNeely went on to record a string of hits, all which starred his big-breathed tone. His boundless showmanship inspired Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and generations of performers adorned with peacock feathers sweating to crowds.

At his peak, he generated onstage energy that was captured in a now iconic photo by photographer Bob Willoughby. Taken from the stage, it shows the saxophonist lying on his back, his forehead slick with sweat, blowing as fist-clenched fans, lost in music, look on in wonder.

Photographer Willoughby recalled in a 2009 interview that the performance at the Olympic Auditorium took place in a boxing ring: "Big Jay stood in the middle of what normally would be the fight ring, playing his heart out,” he said, “and the crowd was exploding around him. He created some sort of resonance with the audience. In some weird way, he seemed to be playing them.”

“He loved performing. That’s what he lived for,” said his daughter, Jacquelene.

“I came on screaming,” Big Jay McNeely told longtime chronicler Jonny Whiteside in 2016. “I’d start walking the tables, lay down on the floor. I’d bring in my own black lights, 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 black light came on.”

With radio spins from influential disc jockeys Hunter Hancock and Laboe, the musician continued recording for Savoy and other labels, including Exclusive, King and Imperial, and remained on the road for much of the 1950s and ’60s.

After his musical style went out of fashion, McNeely became a postman with a route just south of downtown Los Angeles. When his music started drawing renewed attention in Europe, he returned to performing, and continued for the rest of his life.

Laboe said the last time he saw McNeely perform was about a decade ago, and despite his age, while doing a solo, McNeely “was on his back, of course, hitting those notes.”

The problem? “When he went to get up, he couldn’t get up. He used his saxophone as a kind of a stilt to be able to stand up.” His audience on its feet cheering, Laboe recalled thinking, “‘What’s he going to do?’ Using the saxophone, he gets up part way — then he’d flop back down and hit a couple of high notes.”

The life-long Angeleno is survived by daughter Jacquelene, son Richard McNeely and four grandchildren, Brian Benson Jr., Brittney Callhoun, Richard McNeely Jr. and Zakeisha Jones.

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