By Dorany Pineda
LOS ANGELES — Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely, a South Los Angeles saxophonist and a 1950s rock ’n’ roll pioneer, died Sept. 16 at the age of 91.
McNeely, who died of advanced prostate cancer in Moreno Valley, was known for his howling rhythm and blues tenor saxophone that helped define the rock ’n’ roll sounds of the 1950s.
Hailed by many as the King of the Honkers, among McNeely’s most notable songs were “3-D,” “Wild Wig,” “Deacon’s Hop,” “Nervous, Man, Nervous” and “There Is Something on Your Mind” –– works that when played live, inspired his wild and exaggerated stage antics and drove crowds to dance and shout.
His frenetic saxophone playing helped spark rock ’n’ roll’s explosion and influenced many of the genre’s later legends, including Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, early Phil Spector, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“The love that Big Jay had for his Family, Friends, & Fans was boundless,” his family wrote in a statement posted on Facebook. “We have truly lost a legend and a leader.”
“He came from what I call ‘the roots of rock,’” Art Laboe, a famed radio personality, told the Los Angeles Times. “When he got out there, he would stand there and blow that saxophone and raise it and use it in certain ways,” he said, remembering the decades he spent watching McNeely rip through sets. “Let’s put it this way: He was an original.”
Born April 29, 1927 in Watts, McNeely described his neighborhood in the 1999 book “Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles” as “a mixed community, all nationalities were there.
“It was complete peace at that time. … We all went to school together, no problem.” In the book, McNeely recalled roaming the neighborhood with friends and watching Simon Rodia work on what became the Watts Towers.
It was around that time, before hitting adulthood, that he had a musical epiphany.
“I was working at the Firestone rubber company,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, there has to be a better way to make a living and working eight hours.’ So I picked up the saxophone.”
Eventually, in his wandering around Central Avenue’s bustling music scene, McNeely met composer Duke Ellington while making connections and drawing inspiration for his revolutionary playing style.
His hit “Deacon’s Hop,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1949, was inspired by a Glenn Miller record he got from a friend who owned a music shop in Watts. The song was released under his father’s name, Deacon McNeely.
He went on to record many hits, and in May 2017, Big Jay McNeely was honored at downtown L.A’s The Grammy Museum.
Although McNeely played and toured extensively throughout the 1950s and ’60s, his style eventually went out of fashion, at which point he became a postman. But when his music saw a renewed attention in Europe, he picked up his saxophone and began performing again.
Mohair Slim, a prominent DJ from Melbourne Australia, took to Facebook to pay tribute to the late saxophonist.
“In all the tributes to Big Jay McNeely that will rightly flow, what cannot be captured is the cult-like hysteria he could cast over an unsuspecting audience with an hour of honking and squealing and exhorting. It was thrilling. Elemental. Primal. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The McNeely family announced an upcoming public Jam Tribute on Facebook to commemorate his life and music, but said more information would be available in the coming weeks.
McNeely is survived by daughter Jacquelene, son Richard, and four grandchildren, Brian Benson Jr., Brittney Callhoun, Richard McNeely Jr. and Zakeisha Jones.