Cecil James McNeely, better known as “Big Jay” McNeely, was a legendary saxophonist and bandleader who played a major role in the development of rhythm and blues and rock and roll music. Born in Los Angeles in 1927, McNeely was known for his high-energy, honking saxophone style and his explosive live performances.
McNeely’s career began in the late 1940s when he joined Johnny Otis’s band as a saxophonist. He quickly became known for his raucous, bluesy playing and his showmanship on stage. He scored his first hit in 1949 with “The Deacon’s Hop,” which featured his signature honking saxophone sound and became a template for the emerging rock and roll style.
Throughout the 1950s, McNeely continued to record and tour, building a devoted following among fans of rhythm and blues and early rock and roll. He scored several more hits, including “Wild Wig,” “Nervous, Man, Nervous,” and “There Is Something on Your Mind,” which became a classic of the genre.
In the 1960s and 1970s, McNeely continued to perform and record, but his popularity waned as musical tastes shifted. He also struggled with personal issues, including drug addiction and financial difficulties.
Despite these challenges, McNeely remained an influential figure in the world of music, and his contributions to the development of rhythm and blues and rock and roll were widely recognized. He received numerous honors and awards for his work, including induction into the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
McNeely passed away on September 16, 2018, at the age of 91. His legacy as one of the most dynamic and influential saxophonists in the history of popular music lives on, and his honking saxophone style continues to inspire and influence musicians around the world.
Page last updated 4/3/2023.