Photo credit: Bob Willoughby
Los Angeles, CA – One of the most innovative music performers to ever set foot on the stage, Big Jay McNeely, passed away on Sunday morning at Riverside University Health System Center after battling prostate cancer and a hip injury. The Cleopatra Records family extends its heartfelt condolences to the McNeely family and encourages all to remember Big Jay for both his incredible music as well as his boisterous personality and warm heart. Cleopatra Records president Brian Perera issued this statement about Big Jay McNeely this morning:
Big Jay was such a professional to work with, it was always a pleasure to see him come in our office or see him out playing a show. When he came through the front door his big smile & energy really put a positive effect on our whole staff. He will truly be missed.
Big Jay McNeely’s career began in the ‘40s and saw him play with several major R&B and blues legends of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s such as Little Richard, B.B. King, Etta James and Jr. Wells. He scored his first major hit with the 1949 smash hit instrumental “Deacon’s Hop” and scored again with a R&B vocal ballad “There’s Something On Your Mind” featuring Little Sonny Warner. He pioneered the flamboyant playing style called “honking” and is widely acknowledged as one of the first musical entertainers to make showmanship an important element of the live concert experience. His music continues to be an important signifier for that early era, earning McNeely gigs at major festivals both here and abroad as well as having his music featured in the 2013 Sean Penn film Gangster Squad starring and last year’s biopic Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston.
In 2014, McNeely teamed with Los Angeles-based indie label Cleopatra Records for a new set of recordings as well as some old favorites for the album Blowin’ Down The House – Big Jay’s Greatest & Latest. That was followed by the live 1989 concert CD/DVD set Honkin’ & Jivin’ At The Palomino. McNeely continued to perform live around the Los Angeles area where he was as captivating and charming as ever. His final recordings for Cleopatra, a blues project, is set to be released in the coming months.
Big Jay’s songwriting partner and producer, Richard Ihara, states “Big Jay McNeely’s talent and career is a vital link between yesterday’s traditions and today’s popular styles. His 70+ years of creative, dynamic performing and songwriting, innovative, masterful showmanship and stratospheric soloing inspired top music stars, fellow performers and countless audiences alike. He will be truly missed but his music and artistry lives on in his recordings.”
The McNeely family has announced a public tribute to “celebrate his life and legacy for all those who love and adore him and his music.”