Get ready for some hair raising Rhythm & Blues.
Big Jay is part of a generation of legendary rock and rollers who, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, James Brown, and others now well into their golden years, established their reputations by outrageous stage antics and relentless, sweat-drenched energy. Big Jay at the height of his headlong career played flat on his back or while bumping and grinding among frantic audiences in packed sizzling nightclubs.
In 1954, already five years after Big Jay's first big hit, "The Deacon's Hop," one newspaper noted that McNeely had "changed Minneapolis notions about saloon music considerably," during one tour of the American Midwest, turning one bar into "a tearoom of neurotic gypsies." McNeely,the article added, had not balked at "wiggling out of his coat while playing. He didn't stop at prancing or crawling across the bar. He didn't stop at wandering among the tables, [but] tap-danced while playing on a wiggly piece of plywood that was slapped down to form a bridge between the stage and the bar." In other words, the article affirmed, "Vic's [was] the place to go to see a big man reduce a $200 suit to a pile of wet rags every set."
After Big Jay's meteoric rise to fame, his all-out playing style (a clear influence on Junior Parker & the Allstars, among other, later soul greats) was eclipsed during the 'sixties by the zany, fanatical stardom of those four people from Liverpool.
A look at Big Jay's résumé shows this is no old washed-out lounge-warbler beleagueredly navigating the cocktail-trash circuit, but an artist at the full rippling surge of musicianship.
Through his career McNeely has played alongside and occasionally stolen the show from Little Richard, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Lional Hampton and Jerry Lee Lewis not to mention Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. As that list suggests, Big Jay is no stranger to jazz, having initially tried to carve a niche for himself in that genre, but giving up the attempt after abandoning himself to the sweat-intensive apotheosis of his R&B roadshows.
24. Apr 1997 at 0:00 | Tom Reynolds