By Marc Myers
As thousands take their seats Thursday night at New York’s Barclays Center to watch Kiss, Cat Stevens and other artists be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely will be preparing dinner in his one-bedroom apartment in the Baldwin Hills section of central Los Angeles. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Mr. McNeely helped pioneer rock ‘n’ roll. His wailing blues saxophone and feverish R&B concerts set new showmanship standards for many rockers who followed—including Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and James Brown. He also helped integrate R&B, paving the way for rock’s mass-market ascendancy in the second half of the 1950s.
But despite Mr. McNeely’s achievements, the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has repeatedly overlooked his contributions—and those of many other early rock pioneers. Today, the 86-year-old Mr. McNeely performs mostly in Europe, and on May 7 he will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, a much smaller institution. “I don’t know why the Rock Hall keeps forgetting about me,” said Mr. McNeely by phone. “I just hope they remember Big Jay one of these years, while I’m still alive.”
Since the Rock Hall’s induction ceremonies began in 1986, roughly 200 groups and individual performers have been inducted, but only a handful, like B.B. King and Fats Domino, date back to the pre-1955 era. In the Rock Hall’s “early influences” category, there are just 30 inductees, including stretches like country yodeler Jimmie Rodgers and jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong but omitting R&B forces like Lionel Hampton and Wynonie Harris.
Rock admittedly has a long tangle of influences, as evidenced by inductees Charlie Christian, Bobby Darin and Bob Marley. But the music does have a distinct past that can be traced back to the late 1940s, when small independent record labels in cities like Los Angeles sprang up to record black dance music, which jazz had largely abandoned after World War II. With the popularity of jump-boogie—a danceable form of blues that typically showcased the saxophone—R&B acts became more flamboyant to engage and energize young audiences.
“I was performing in Clarksville, Tenn., in 1950 and the kids were just sitting there,” recalled Mr. McNeely. “So on the next set, I got down on my knees and played the saxophone. Then I went further and played lying down on my back. The kids went crazy, so I started doing that wherever I played and it worked. I also opened my shows from the back of the audience, playing while walking down the theater aisle toward the stage. Audiences loved that, too.”
At first glance, Mr. McNeely’s failure to be inducted into the Rock Hall might seem like some shadowy plot by powerful music-industry interests intent on promoting contemporary artists who generate the most recognition and revenue. But such conclusions are unfair. The Rock Hall has a rather meticulous process for selecting nominees and inductees that was designed to avoid such biases. Whether that process is working as intended, however, is another matter. The mix of inductees since 1986 certainly has shortchanged early R&B artists who helped make rock what it is today, and the process could use a tweak to ensure that originators are inducted more routinely going forward.
“Having more early R&B artists inducted would be great, but ultimately it’s the decision of the subcommittee,” said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation president and CEO Joel Peresman. “Then their recommendation needs to garner enough votes among nominating-committee members to get on the ballot.”
The Rock Hall’s nominating process starts in July, when a list of eligible artists is sent to its 40-member nominating committee of music experts. Artists are eligible for nomination 25 years after the release of their first recording, so new ones are constantly joining the list. The committee, chaired by manager-producer Jon Landau, meets each September, when members are asked for three names. The meeting is held in a conference room at New York’s Wenner Media, the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. “It’s a convenient place to gather but there’s no pressure by the magazine to sway votes,” said Mr. Peresman. “Jann Wenner is not on the committee and has no influence on the outcome.”
All of the names are placed on a ballot, and each committee member is asked to pick 10. The top 15 vote-getters become the final nominees. In early October, the list of 15 nominees along with their biographies is sent out to a diverse group of 700 music experts who are asked to choose five. The five winners are announced in late December, and the induction ceremony takes place in April.
With any luck, Mr. McNeely’s name will surface this year. “I was aware of Big Jay when Jerry [Leiber] and I began writing songs for R&B artists in 1950—we saw him perform and he drove the audience crazy,” said Mike Stoller, who, along with Leiber, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. “Rock and roll grew out of black popular music, and Big Jay was important. He excited the passions of teens—black and white—and they responded to what he was doing.”
Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about music at JazzWax.com.