Big Jay McNeely at 87 years old
Celebrating his 87th birthday today is the great sax player Big Jay McNeely. I was lucky enough to meet him, along with Paul Waring and Gordon Fleming, while I was in Los Angeles last week where, over a plate of pancakes at the IHOP, Jay showed that although physically infirm these days he is still as mentally sharp as can be. He continues to record, including some experimental music with an Austrian band and a more typical item called You Don't Have To Go Home But You Can't Stay Here. Jay is off to Memphis next month to be inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame, along with other sax men Eddie Shaw and Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson.
Jay is happy about that but less so about the continued failure of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame to honour him. This is the man who began his career in the late forties and played as big a role as anyone in the birth of rock and roll. In addition to his exciting sax style, Jay was an innovator in terms of showmanship, lying on his back while honking his horn and painting it with luminous paint so that it would shine under black lights. His walkabouts mid act were, and still are, amazing to behold. I saw him at the Jazz Cafe many years ago when he wandered out into Camden Parkway still blowing, while the band played on. And on one occasion he was arrested mid act, later released, and all the time the band continued. I saw him most recently at the Ponderosa Stomp a couple of years back.
Jay could really get the crowd going and this did not go down well with some of the performers he travelled with, including Johnnie Ray amd Nat King Cole, who were afraid that he was stealing the limelight from them and banned him from their shows.
If anyone deserves to be a member of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame it's Big Jay and a campaign to get him the respect he deserves has been started by journalist Marc Myers, who recently wrote a major article in the Wall Street Journal. People inducted this year included Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens and Kiss and Myers points out that only a small proportion of inductees were active pre 1955, when rock and roll was born. Apparently the sub committee who decides these things is neutral, but the fact remains that most of them were born long after people like Big Jay made their initial mark. Hopefully he will have better luck next year if Mike Stoller's comments have any impact. 'I was aware of Big Jay when Jerry (Leiber) and I began writing songs for R&B artists in 1950 - we saw him perform and he drove the audience crazy. Rock and roll grew out of black popular music, and Big Jay was important. He excited the passions of the teens - black and white - and they responded to what he was doing."
Today Big Jay lives in a small bungalow not far from Watts where he grew up and has vivid memories of the ups and downs of his career. These days he mostly plays in Europe and has a number of trips planned, although none to the UK. Apparently he played at a small venue in London in December but sadly it went by unpublicised at the time. Let's hope it's not long until his next visit.