He is known as the "King Of The Honking Tenor Sax" and for good reason, he is simply the best. His first hit, "The Deacon's Hop" occupied the number one spot on Billboard's R&B chart in 1949. He continued to record throughout the 1950s and 1960s on labels like Imperial and Vee Jay. He is a member of The Rhythm And Blues Hall Of Fame. We are talking about the one, the only, Big Jay McNeely.
Q - Since you are a sax player, have you ever cross paths with another sax player by the name of Jimmy Cavallo?
A - I don't know. There's so many people that I've worked with over the years. Some I remember. Some I don't. I have a picture with musicians and I don't even know their names. (Laughs).
Q - According to one magazine you were largely ignored in America. Is that true?
A - Yes
Q - Why would that be?
A - Well, it's amazing. I never intended to lay on the floor. I was working a little town called Clarksville, Tennessee. It was so small you didn't have to have the address, just the name. (Laughs). But we were working upstairs at a place and nobody responded to the music we were playing. So, after intermission I got on my knees and laid on the floor and that did it. It was crazy. I tried it in Texas. Then, when I got to Los Angeles, you see the great picture from the Olympics where all the kids are screaming and hollering. They are all Spanish and White. So, they brought me out to Los Angeles and I couldn't play. They didn't understand why the White kids were screaming and hollering, just like they were doing over Elvis and The Beatles. I was doing that way back in the '50s. They didn't understand why the kids were responding. They couldn't figure it out. So, they just barred me out of Los Angeles. I couldn't play, but that was after all the pictures were taken at the Olympics. They would let other nationalities do the same thing I was doing. I'd play at the high schools and we'd go into the little theaters like Huntington Beach or Huntington Park at 12 o'clock at night and pack the place. I had a real variety of a group. I had one kid who sounded just like Frankie Laine. He was a little White kid. I had a saxophone player from Santa Ana, a cartoonist from Walt Disney, a pudgy little White kid on guitar. I had The Hollywood Four Flames. We would pack the places. My manager put me with GAC (General Artists Corporation) which booked Nat King Cole. That's when I worked Birdland. I'd work all those big clubs because I was with GAC. But as far as being recognized, you'd have to say I was Black and too early. Put it that way.
Q - And GAC was a big booking agency back then.
A - Oh, yeah. My manager had a club with Gene Norman in Hollywood and then he opened a burlesque place. He knew all the people in Las Vegas. He knew Nat King Cole's manager. They were friends. He could call Las Vegas and say "Hey, I got a great act for you." They would take it unseen. He taught me how to program people, from the time I had the bandstand if I had to work five minutes, 10 minutes, regardless how long the set was. At that time I wasn't trying to sing like I am now. He told me how to change the different styles and rhythm of your music. When I came through the audience playing, I'm watching people and watching their clothes. If you got on a $300-$400 suit and screaming, I'll play louder, something that I feel is more suitable to you. I can look at people. When I did the Grammys, I sat on Whitney Houston's mother's lap. I sat on Tom Cruise's lap.
Q - How did this act of yours go over in Europe and beyond?
A - I took this girl on stage with me, and she had never seen my act before and so we were doing 3-D. I only had this one number to do in my act where I lay on the floor. So, I was trying to get on the floor and she was trying to hold me up because she thought I was falling. (Laughs). When we got to Adelaide (Australia), we had this footage and we put it on TV and she asked me "Is this girl a part of the show?" And I said "No!" It looks all real. I wanted to go to Paris. Boogie-woogie is really big in Europe. My manager tried to get me to France. The promoter of a boogie-woogie Festival said, "I'm booked. All the budget is gone. I'll give him free room and 10 minutes," thinking what can the guy do in 10 minutes? Three days of a boogie-woogie Festival. In my light act when I turned out all the lights, my arm is painted with all the florescent thing and I put on a white glove. When you turn out all the lights all you see is the keys and my fingers playing. So, the guy gave me 10 minutes. In Paris, people are very reserved. They sit up. So, we went into a tune I call "Big Fat Mama". I wrote it in Australia. Musicians are stuck up in Paris, so I said "Give me some Boogie in F" and I did that and then I did "Honky Tonk" and I started walking the tables. I told the guy, "Man, when you see me put on the white glove, a you turn those lights out?" He said, "Yeah", 'cause I kept my little black lights I put down in front. I walked around and people were jumping up on tables with me and screaming and hollering. When I got back, I laid on the floor and the guy turned out the lights and all they could see is the horn. It was exciting 'cause they had never seen anything like that before. The cameras were there shooting. I had a big spot on TV the next day. The club that we were trying to get in was there that night, downstairs, selling records. He said, "Oh man, why don't you come and play at my club?" I said, "I've been sending you stuff", but a lot of times people will just throw it, the mail, in trash cans if they don't know you. So, I stayed there for six years, working there. It was 10 minutes. You don't need an hour. You don't need a long time. You can do it in one number.
Q - It's better to play less. That way you keep people wanting more.
A - That's the key. It's learning how to program people. When I go to play, guys will say, "Give me a program." I say, "I can't give you a program." I run over the numbers and I play according to the audience. Every number I do, it's part of an arrangement, but an introduced number. I do a thing called the "Insect Ball". As I was coming to work last night, they had a club that said "Insect Ball, Fat Bug, Skinny Bug, Long Bug, Funky Bug." I looked in the club and saw someone who looked like Chuck Berry. When I originally recorded it, "Insect Ball", it was on a groove, Bop, Bop, Bop, on a Swing type of gig. But, I do it on a Chuck Berry style. You change the rhythm around, the words, because people love Chuck Berry's rhythm, especially rock 'n roll. I'm Black and believe me, I do all the Rock-a-billy shows. I'd be the only Black on the whole Rock-a-billy show! (Laughs), because I know what to do.
Q - If we go back to 1952, you wore bright banana and lime colored suits, you played under black lights that made your horn glow in the dark and you used strobe lights. You were theatrical before anyone use that term. Where did you come up with those ideas?
A - I was in Clarksville, Tennessee, okay? I had Carl Peterson on piano, a great Jazz pianist and brother. I had a good band. A great singer. I had no idea to lay on the floor. That was the furthest thing from my mind until that night. My thing was to try to entertain the people. If I felt that the people weren't enjoying themselves, it bugged me. I said I'm gonna do something tonight that's going to cause these people to respond. And so, I ended up laying on the floor. Then, I got the people involved. I got them singing. This is the thing. That's why I can work with any band. I don't care what they are. I get the people involved. Once you get the people involved, they forget about the band. They are part of your show. The better the band is, the better you are.
Q - You would be playing your sax on stage, walk off the stage, out the door and your audience would follow. The San Diego police actually arrested you for that. What did they charge you with?
A - This is what happened that particular night: at that time I didn't have a wireless. Now you know they have the wireless for the guitar. I have a wireless. I don't use it anymore. At that time I didn't have a wireless. The place was so crowded, my brother on baritone and the trombone player couldn't get out. I was able to slip through the door and get outside. It was downtown San Diego and all the businesses were closed. A cop off-duty saw me outside blowing my horn. Evidently he called the station and said, "Hey man, this guy is out here blowing his horn." The squad car came down, picked me up and put me in jail. They didn't tell me what I was doing wrong. I'm out on the street blowing my horn and they put me in jail. My brother came down with $50 to bail me out. I was gone so long the band wanted to know what was going on. Somebody said, "Hey man, this guy is in jail." (Laughs). They wanted to come down and protest. No, no, no. Don't do that. They probably won't never let him out. So anyway, I had to go back to court. I said, "Not Guilty." And they said "You have to be judged by a jury." I had to go out of town the next day. I went to afternoon court the next day and pled guilty and the guy said, "$50 fine. Don't go out in the street anymore and blow." But that happened in San Diego. It was a true story.
Q - When you would tour the South in the '50s, were you playing to segregated audiences?
A - Well, like in Los Angeles they were mixed. Mostly White and Spanish. All the big concerts we were doing at the Olympic Auditorium, Long Beach and also The Orpheum, most of them were Hispanic and White. Very few Blacks. Played the 54 Ballroom. There would be a lot of African-Americans there when I was laying on the floor, I had guys who were copying my act. So, I was trying to think of something different. I was in a club called The Nitecap, where all the musicians would come out and jam after hours. And this girl came out in a florescent. I said "That's it!" I went downstairs and said to the man, "Paint my horn florescent." He said, "We ain't never did that." I said "I want florescent!" So they did. So, my whole horn was florescent. With the black light I lay on the floor. It's like the type of florescent where you have to have the black light to see it. When I got ready to do the movie for BBC they liked it, but I hadn't had the horn done in a long time. It wasn't vivid enough for them. They liked when I did the black light act at the Palomino (Club). I took the neck of my horn and I painted it gold and then I painted it with the florescent, the invisible kind and then the very vivid kind. They took a picture of it and sent it to London. They said "That's what we want." So, I had the guy paint my whole horn. In fact, that horn is in a museum in Seattle Washington.
Q - Did Elvis ever come out and see your act?
A - No. Elvis never did come out to see me. Jimi Hendrix did come out to see me in Seattle Washington. His father used to come and see me.
Q - When the electric guitar became popular, it pretty much ended the popularity of the sax, didn't it?
A - Yeah, it did. There was Rhythm 'n' Blues and they said this is not appropriate for White kids. They couldn't stop them from accepting the music. So, what they decided to do is change it from Rhythm 'n' Blues, call it rock 'n roll, put the guitar into it. Now it's accepted by the Whites. They just turned it around.