Big Jay McNeely

During the late 60's in Los Angeles my father played with one of his childhood heroes, legendary saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, "king of the honkers". I knew his name and some of the larger than life stories surrounding him before I had heard any of his records. In late 2012 as I was preparing to return to the U.S. my father, also a Tokyo resident, informed me that Big Jay was doing a Japan tour and that we were going to go see him. We got backstage before the show and after a brief reintroduction they were reminiscing even as Big Jay was changing clothes to get ready for the show. With him was his granddaughter Brittney and he good naturedly commented that she just had to go to Japan with him so of course he had to oblige her.

Soon it was showtime and the 84 year old legend had to get to work. We left the dressing room and found our way to a nice position near the front of the stage. The place was packed. Japanese swing band Bloodest Saxophone was his backing band for the tour and they kicked off the show by themselves. Big Jay's sax came honking out of nowhere and before anyone could figure out was going on he came out from the back of the hall making his way through the crowd while wailing away. The room went nuts. He made his way to his seat at the front of the stage and addressed the audience with his trademark "Children! Father's going to preach to you!" He held the audience in the palm of his end throughout the entire show and wore the band out. By the end of it they could barely keep up. During the closing number he left the stage and made his way through the crowd, taking his time, and out the door.

Following the tour he and the band played a small club to a select crowd. You had to be in the loop or know somebody who was to even know about it much less where it was. We had a table to the right of the stage and halfway through the show, while another horn was soloing, he motioned me to come over. I assumed something was wrong and rushed right over as inconspicuously as you can run onto the middle of a stage in a small club during a performance and with more than a hint of concern in my voice asked Big Jay what he needed. He asked, "What Blues number do you want to sing?" and my mouth fell open. Scrambling to maintain my composure I said, "How about Freddie King's See See Baby? Bb with a quick IV." He said OK and that he would call me up. The band played a couple more and then he introduced me and called me to the stage. He handed me the wireless mic that he clipped to his horn, which he also used for vocals. I gave the band the key and so forth and counted it off and away we went!

I'm not used to singing without a guitar strapped around me and felt a little awkward being simply a vocalist, especially when I handed the mic back for his solo, but I was invited up by Big Jay McNeely to sing a number with him and in a situation like that you set aside whatever hangups you might have and pinch yourself to make sure you're not dreaming. The song was over, I thanked him and handed back the mic, and returned to my seat completely flabbergasted.

After the show we hung out with Big Jay and Brittney until it was time for everybody to vacate the premises. Not only was it a gas to hang with Big Jay but Brittney was a sweet kid, a teenager then, into everything Japan and was having the time of her life. Sometimes when Big Jay and my father would get going reminiscing us kids would be hanging and chit chatting by ourselves. She's in her twenties now and is quite the entrepreneur with a social conscience to boot.

While working on Irreverent Dissident during the first half of 2017 I decided that Stinky Twinky absolutely needed a sax solo as well as a horn section for the head. Since it was my tip of the hat to all the great Jump Blues guitarists including Pee Wee Crayton, whose instrumental Twinky was the initial inspiration for the song and where the title originated, I thought it would be really cool to have Big Jay solo on it. We had recorded it once already but due to a stiff drummer who couldn't swing we had to recut it. The first recording had trombone, tenor sax, and trumpet for the horn section and although they did a decent job it just wasn't quite the sound I was looking for. We worked out all the details with Big Jay's recording engineer Richard Ihara who recorded the parts at Big Jay's house. Big Jay did a first take and played the head along with the guitar. He then did a second take this time also playing the head with the guitar but playing a harmony to the first part. Richard sent me a rough mix with both horns going at once including the two solos at the same time. They offered to redo anything that I'd like, flying in tracks can be tricky because you don't have the leader/producer in the studio with the musicians, but I declined. The two saxes wailing away over top of each other perfectly summed up the spirit of the honkers and what they were all about. This was significant to me since Big Jay was the last living original. Plus I had the horn section! It may be a cliche but the old adage applies; if it ain't broke don't fix it! We pasted the two sax tracks in and mixing it was easy as pie. Just balance the volume right, pan them a little to spread out the sound, and that was it. I don't remember if we EQ's them or added any reverb. If we did it was minimal.

After it was done and I sent him the final mix I called Big Jay and thanked him profusely. What I got was far beyond what I'd asked for or expected and it added a whole new dimension not only to the song but to the entire album itself. He told me how much he really dug the tune and I couldn't believe he dug it that much. I thought it was kind of simplistic, it's Jump Blues but it has a sort of Link Wray simplicity that I thought might be frowned upon. Over and over again he kept saying, "That's what those Rockabilly kids in Europe want to hear!" He was big in Europe and knew I had my sights set on the European market. He played the head because he dug the song so much and reiterated the point about the European Rockabilly kids. This was but one example of his kindness and generosity as a human being and also his way of passing it on.

While we were on the phone he asked me who the guitar player was on that and was surprised when I told him it was me. I even had to repeat it! Somehow all this time he thought I was a vocalist. I told him that I was primarily a guitarist, that I sang because I fronted my own group but regarded it as secondary, and that I also doubled on bass which I played as well as guitar on Stinky Twinky. He was impressed. I told him how the tune was my tip of the hat to Jump Blues in general, starting with the guitarists but eventually to the whole genre, which is why it needed a honkin' sax solo on it, and named off all the guys I liked from T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton to Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. He thought it was really cool that I was steeped in the originators of the style and asked how I got into it. All I could say was that it was really good music and that I was fortunate to be exposed to it early on .

One thing he wasn't so sure about though was the title. He asked me, "Do you think that's a good name for the song?" with some doubt in his voice. I told him how the title came about starting with Pee Wee Crayton's Twinky and that the "Stinky" part was my ex-wife's cat I nicknamed Stinky who lived to the ripe old age of 22 years old and was in perfect health until her last four months. She was a mean critter who would scratch the hell out of you if you put your hand out to pet her or anything else but after I helped her up to the sink for some water (she'd only drink out of the sink and not a bowl,) she was my buddy. When I was hammering out the song at the kitchen table one afternoon I was thinking I couldn't call it "Twinky" and then she popped out wanting some attention and it hit me; Stinky Twinky! He got a chuckle out of that. When I said that it's one of my most popular compositions and how I always introduce it on the bandstand as "a song for the ladies." He cracked up and after all that explanation agreed that it was a good title.

Stinky Twinky was one of the songs that we performed at the Blues Challenge about that time which we won and therefore took us down to Memphis for the IBC earlier this year. Blind Racoon was doing an artist showcase and had a drawing for various prizes. The big one, at least for me, was a full on marketing campaign. I stuffed the ballot box with all my tickets and my father's, won the drawing I wanted, and Betsie Brown worked Irreverent Dissident which did quite well on the charts for being a second debut of sorts. Then Carolyn Gaines, daughter of Roy Gaines, put out an album that featured Big Jay as a guest and Blind Racoon was working that one at the same time. What a coincidence that Betsie would be working two album with Big Jay as a featured guest!

The afternoon of this writing we're driving back to Ohio from a gig in western New York just above Pennsylvania when I receive a group message from Richard Ihara that Big Jay passed away at 6:15 in the morning. It's sad but at the same time I'm thinking of what a great run he had, 91 years old and playing right up til the end. I'm telling Keith, my partner in The Muleface Brothers who's driving, the stories recounted in this blog and a strange irony occurs to me, that of all my tunes Big Jay played on the Jump Blues number that just happened to be named "Stinky Twinky" after Stinky who lived to be 22 years old, 15-18 being high average for a cat, and was her usual healthy mean self right up until the last few months. The similarity between the song's namesake and its saxophonist is ironic, if slightly bizarre. As I'm musing this bizarre irony I recall something interesting that happened. In Japan they believe that if a pet is attached to a place or a family that three years after their death they come back. One day the mother-in-law, Tattoo of the bumbling pygmies, was walking the dog who found a litter of kittens that had been dumped in the park near our house. All died but one. She brought that lone survivor home and we nursed her back to health. Same breed, same color, and same mean disposition. It was three years almost to the day. All of this flashes through my mind as I'm recounting these stories and for a moment I feel a sense of omnipresence about the whole thing. I've seen enough things in my life that can't be explained by conventional thought to know that there's more to the world than just the tiny sliver of it that we perceive. Big Jay MacNeely has transcended and I'll see him again. For now I have a gift that he gave me to be shared.

1 comment

  • Petra Manuela Damico
    Petra Manuela Damico
    R.I.P Big Jay McNeely * to all friends & family

    R.I.P Big Jay McNeely * to all friends & family

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