Big Jay McNeely, R&B Legend Who Defined the Honking Tenor Saxophone Style, Dies at 91

Sep 17, 2018

Big Jay McNeely, a rhythm-and-blues legend known as “King of the Honkin’ Sax,” died on Sunday, according to multiple sources. He was 91. Bob Porter, the author of Soul Jazz, remembers him here.

Big Jay McNeely burst forth in 1949 with “Deacon’s Hop,” a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Race Records chart. The instrumental was a tour de force for McNeely’s tenor: a medium-tempo workout involving honks, squeals and smears in a solo that defined the soon-to-be-named rhythm and-blues saxophone style.

Big Jay McNeely playing on his back at the Olympic Theater in Los Angeles, 1951
Credit Bob Willoughby / willoughbyphotos.com

That success determined his future playing style, which also involved such antics as lying on his back onstage, and walking through the crowd. Many of the extracurricular activities of R&B tenor players can be traced directly back to Big Jay.

He was born Cecil James McNeely in 1927 in Los Angeles, and spent his entire life as a California resident. Early musical associates were alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, a high school classmate, and pianist Hampton Hawes. Upon hitting the big time, he formed a five-piece band that also featured his brothers, Bob and Dillard. The band was exceptional popular with the Mexican-American community of Los Angeles.

He toured nationally, playing clubs like Birdland and often headlining R&B concert packages. He recorded for a constellation of labels: Savoy, Exclusive, Aladdin, Imperial, Federal (1952-’54), Vee Jay and Atlantic. In 1959, he had another hit with “There Is Something On Your Mind” — yet his first album for Warner Brothers wasn’t recorded until 1963. By that time things had slowed to the point that he had taken a job with the United States Postal Service.

An early 1980s R&B revival in England brought McNeely to Europe for the first time. Now retired from the post office, he recorded for the Ace label, and his career kicked back into high gear. He parlayed this success into more than a dozen recordings and annual European tours right into 2016. He was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2014.


His last album, Honkin’ and Jivin’ at the Palomino, was recorded live in North Hollywood in 1989 and released, on the Cleopatra Blues label, just last year.