RIP: Big Jay McNeely – rhythm & blues /rock n’ roll saxophone legend!

Our friend Jim Dawson shared some sad news on Sunday…

“My longtime friend Big Jay McNeely passed away at 6:15 this morning in Riverside, CA. He made his first record in 1948 and played his last gig last June. Our hearts go out to his family.”

Big Jay has been a friend, supporter and participant in the LOUIE documentary project, and we’re all very saddened by his passing.

Jonny Whiteside provided a proper perspective of Big Jay’s legacy in the L.A. Weekly:

The death of saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, felled by cancer at age 91 on Sunday, Sept. 16, shuts the door on Los Angeles’ world-changing postwar R&B explosion. McNeely was the sole surviving artist from that profoundly revolutionary era, and he epitomized it with an elegantly aggressive musicality — known as honking — which laid the foundation for rock & roll and kicked off a national craze via a horde of sound-alike responses to his electrifying 1948 debut “Deacon’s Hop.”

An unrivaled showman whose delirium-inducing shenanigans — blowing his tenor sax laid out flat on his back, prowling across the dance floor midsong, walking along the bar or out to the street — represented a perfected methodology which he executed with an almost surgical precision that reliably overstimulated listeners to a shocking degree.

Domenic Priore, author of “Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood,” shared high praise for Big Jay…

THEE transitional figure from Central Avenue’s nationally-crucial Jazz scene, into what became Rock ‘n’ Roll. Until this morning, I considered Jay the most important living musician in Los Angeles.

Domenic also added this story about Big Jay..

Dale Smallin, manager of The Surfaris and voice on “Wipe Out,” told me this: “The guy at my high school in charge of booking talent for the assemblies, slipped one past the Faculty in 1954; they hired Big Jay McNeely, under the pretense that he was a Jazz artist and was therefore giving the kids a little culture. So when Big Jay takes the stage, the entire auditorium went berserk, rocking and rolling and the Faculty was totally caught by surprise, and did NOT know what to do. This was the same year we kids were all tuning in to Vampira on KABC, hot rodding and surfing was popular, everything that became popular during the late ’50s and ’60s was in place and happening with us, but it was still kind of a secret, it wasn’t in Time magazine or the newspapers yet, so we could get away with this kind of thing, still.”

If there was one big magic moment that put Big Jay on the map of pop culture consciousness, it might have been this unforgettable photo of Jay, taken by Bob Willoughby at the Olympic Auditorium in 1951.

Marc Myers of reached out to photographer Bob Willoughby for his impressions on that very special night, and here’s a few paragraphs from that exchange:

“This was really something! It was 1951, and I had been listening in my darkroom to the late-night disk jockey, Hunter Hancock. He was advertising a jazz concert at the Olympic Auditorium (the local Los Angeles fight arena) starting at midnight! The idea of starting a concert that late was really so intriguing that I had to see what it was all about.”

“As I walked in, the concert had already begun, and the main hall was rocking on its foundations! I could see the audience on their feet screaming. You could taste the energy in that air. To this day I have never seen or heard anything to match it. It was my introduction to the amazing Big Jay McNeely!”

“Big Jay stood in the middle of what normally would be the Main 4-fight ring, playing his heart out, 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!”

It’s a fascinating story, and you can learn more about that event and the photographer by visiting the page and the official Bob Willoughby website. (Bob passed away in 2009).

I’m grateful to have known Big Jay, who provided an interview for the LOUIE documentary, as well as various musical performances that I was able capture for posterity. Like Richard Berry, author of LOUIE LOUIE, he was an alumni of Jefferson High School of Los Angeles.

Jim Dawson, Buddy Collette, Richard “Louie Louie” Berry, and Red Callender. courtesy of Jim Dawson

There will be more stories of Big Jay, but we’ll save them for later.

If you’d like to learn about Big Jay, I’d recommend this..

Nervous Man Nervous: Big Jay McNeely and the Rise of the Honking Tenor Sax“- a book by Jim Dawson (ISBN 10: 0936433175 ISBN 13: 9780936433172), which is still available at the coolest book stores.

I’ll leave you with a never-before-seen clip of Big Jay performing live at the West Coast Live 2010 event in San Jose, CA.

MORE Big Jay McNeely reference links:

Big Jay McNeeley – brief bio by Jim Dawson –

L.A. Weekly obit on Big Jay McNeely

Los Angeles Times obit on Big Jay McNeely

New York Times obit on Big Jay McNeely

Bob Willoughby on photographing Big Jay –

The official Bob Willoughby photo page

Big Jay at Rockin’ Race Jamboree – excellent photos at

Nervous Man Nervous: Big Jay McNeely and the Rise of the Honking Tenor Sax”- by Jim Dawson –

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