Big Jay McNeely

The trumpet-blaring priests in Joshua's biblical army blew down the walls of Jericho, and Cold War legend has it that Big Jay McNeely blew down the Berlin Wall in 1989 with his earth-shaking sonic sax torrents outside the Quasimodo Club in West Germany. Best bring a hard hat when this "king of the honkers" returns to the Ponderosa Stomp, because even though McNeely is in his 80s, his squawking and squealing nuclear sax is still more than capable of tearing the roof off the sucker.

Originally a jazz player in the Illinois Jacquet mold, McNeely also found inspiration in bebop, jump blues, and R&B, making his first recordings in Los Angeles with Johnny Otis. Infusing his style with a frantic preacher's intensity that paved the way toward rock 'n' roll, he topped the Billboard R&B chart in 1949 with "The Deacon's Hop" on the Savoy label. Along the way, the rabble-rousing McNeely became known for his outrageously flamboyant stage antics as much for his trailblazing (and sometimes glow-in-the-dark) sax, wandering through the audience or atop a bar in a pimped-out zoot-suit, playing with a jungle-like fever while spinning around on his back, and even taking the show outside at full volume - theatrics that no doubt inspired that other madman of the blues, New Orleans' Guitar Slim. By the 1950s McNeely began working with vocalists such as Jesse Belvin, who cut "All That Wine Is Gone" with McNeely, as well as Marvin Phillips (later of Marvin and Johnny fame), Tony Allen, and Mel Williams.

In 1959 McNeely charted once again with the blues-drenched ballad "There Is Something on Your Mind," featuring Haywood "Little Sonny" Warner on vocals. Lodged on the R&B charts for six months and soaring as high as #44 on the pop charts, the song has inspired numerous cover versions, most famously by the New Orleans cross-dresser Bobby Marchan of Huey Smith and the Clown fame, but renditions by Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Etta James, Freddy Fender, Gene Vincent, Albert King, and Professor Longhair.

Retiring from music for two decades (even becoming a postman for awhile), McNeely returned to the stage in 1983 and hasn't stopped blowing since. The Rhythm and Blues Foundation honored McNeely with its prestigious Pioneer Award in 2001 (along with New Orleans' own Allen Toussaint). McNeely tore the house down at the Apollo Theater, according to journalist Bob Davis' report: "This 72-year- old man ROCKED THE HOUSE with a WAILING, SHOUTING, HONKING SAX, the likes that I have NEVER experienced in my life, and had the Apollo crowd JUMPIN UP AND DOWN, CLAPPING THEIR HANDS and STOMPING THEIR FEET like they were in church!" Here's to the king of the honkers doing the same at this year's Ponderosa Stomp. Let's just hope he doesn't blow the levees down.

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