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Big Jay McNeely, R&B sax player whose rollicking style helped lay foundations of rock, dies at 91

The album sleeve for “Blowin' Down the House” by Big Jay McNeely. (Cleopatra Records)

Big Jay McNeely, a tenor saxophonist whose crazed stage antics and honking style of rhythm-and-blues presaged the rise of rock-and-roll in the 1950s, died Sept. 16 at a hospital in Moreno Valley, Calif. He was 91.

His son, Richard McNeely, confirmed his death from prostate cancer.

Beginning with the 1949 R&B chart-topper “Deacon’s Hop,” Mr. McNeely recorded a string of hits — “Wild Wig,” “Nervous, Man, Nervous” and “3-D,” among others — whose titles telegraphed a gleeful frenzy within the grooves.

His style, built on fast repetitive riffs with honking low and screaming high notes, was rock-and-roll in all but name. And Mr. McNeely brought an outsized showmanship to the proceedings. Horn in hand, he’d blow his way through the crowd from the back of the venue to the stage. Once there, he’d often strip down to his shirt in mid-solo and finish playing on his back while kicking his legs in the air.

Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman once saw Mr. McNeely, who was African American, perform in the black section of Fort Worth and recalled him as a musical pied piper.

“I saw this big-looking guy, all dressed up in this fine-looking zoot suit, and he was honking one note, over and over, with one of the biggest saxophone sounds I’d ever heard,” Coleman said, according to the New York Times. “He came walking out of the theater, still playing, and a whole line of people came marching out after him. The band inside the theater was wailing away, but Jay led his people around the block and inside the club again.”

The theatrics were not lost on the wave of rock performers who followed. A Seattle teenager and aspiring guitarist named Jimi Hendrix saw Mr. McNeely perform in 1958 and later adapted many of the saxman’s moves into his own stage show.

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By the mid-1950s, Mr. McNeely found his music embraced by white and Chicano teenagers at Los Angeles venues such as the El Monte Legion Stadium and Grand Olympic Auditorium — though the pandemonium created at the height of segregation did not go unnoticed.

“I was raised in Watts and we had about three miles of comfort there. We couldn’t come out of that comfort zone, you know,” Mr. McNeely told the Ventura County Star in 2011, referring to the Los Angeles neighborhood. “We’d go to South Gate, Lynwood, Compton and we’d get locked up. It was very, very prejudiced.”

He added, “There were 5,000 or 6,000 white kids really going crazy [at concerts] — just like the pictures that you see and they couldn’t stop it. So they just barred me out of Los Angeles so I couldn’t play. My manager was able to get me into the Apollo Theater and Birdland in New York and the Band Box in Atlantic City.”

Cecil James McNeely was born in Watts on April 29, 1927. His father worked as a porter for a shipboard casino near Santa Monica. His mother, of American Indian heritage, made and sold Indian blankets. Both parents played piano.

Mr. McNeely aspired to be a drummer or trombonist, but the family couldn’t afford the instruments. Instead, after a cousin died, the family inherited an alto saxophone that he shared with his older brother, Robert.

In later years, his brothers would join his band — Robert on baritone sax and Dillard on bass.

While working in a tire factory, Mr. McNeely purchased a tenor saxophone and performed at night with future jazz luminaries alto saxophonist Sonny Criss and pianist Hampton Hawes.

One of Mr. McNeely’s early influences was Illinois Jacquet, the electrifying tenor saxophonist. Bandleader Lionel Hampton’s 1942 recording of “Flying Home,” featuring Jacquet’s hard-charging solo, left an indelible mark on his playing, and the song became a vehicle for competitive jamming.

“Every time we picked up our horns we were just elaborating on that, trying to make it bigger, wilder, give it more swing, more kick,” Mr. McNeely told writer Jim Dawson in the biography “Nervous Man Nervous: Big Jay McNeely and the Rise of the Honking Tenor Sax!” (1994). “If you want to know where rhythm-and-blues began, that’s it, brother.”

Bandleader Johnny Otis hired Mr. McNeely after hearing him at an amateur night contest. The success of “Deacon’s Hop,” recorded with members of the Otis band, enabled Mr. McNeely to form his own group.

He gave an early break to doo-wop baritone Jesse Belvin and recorded the oft-covered blues ballad “There Is Something on Your Mind,” a 1959 hit with Washington vocalist Haywood “Little Sonny” Warner.

By the 1960s, the electric guitar had supplanted the saxophone as the lead instrument in rock-and-roll, and the new sound in rhythm-and-blues was Motown. As his bookings declined, Mr. McNeely became a mailman and put his full-time music work on hiatus. He reemerged in 1983 for a European tour and, in later years, performed at blues and oldies festivals.

As an active entertainer into his 10th decade, Mr. McNeely released the album “Blowin’ Down the House — Big Jay’s Latest and Greatest” in 2016 and had recently done an as-yet unissued record of blues vocals.

His marriage to Jacqueline Baldain, a soul singer who recorded under the name Jackie Day, ended in divorce. In addition to his son, of Los Angeles, survivors include a daughter, Jacquelene Jay McNeely of Moreno Valley; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. McNeely’s antics didn’t always go as planned. At a 1953 engagement in San Diego, he walked out of a club while wailing on sax but didn’t come back.

The local authorities had arrested him for disturbing the peace.

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