interview with Big Jay McNeely - King of the Honking Saxophonists

 


McNeely’s solid musical training and activities within the Los Angeles music community, including a personal connection with jazz icons such as Charlie Parker (who, with Dizzy Gillespie, brought bebop to the city), gave him a strong foundation. Inspired by the emotional and exciting “honking and squealing” style of saxophone playing pioneered by Illinois Jacquet at the Jazz At the Philharmonic concerts and on Lionel Hampton’s recording of “Flying Home,” McNeely found his niche when his own “The Deacon’s Hop” became a hit in 1949. The hallmarks of his career are hard work and showmanship, and his deep religious faith has guided him throughout.

at left : the late Mark Tortorici

The interview took place May 2007 in his hotel room during Rockin’ Fest III held at the Oneida Casino in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the festival, Big Jay McNeely was backed by the Hollywood Combo, led by Mark “Torch” Tortorici, who helped set up the interview, clarified a few points, and kindly provided archival recordings. Big Jay died in 2018 at the age of 91 - read the obituary in the New York Times here. The official Big Jay McNeely website is here, and the wikipedia article is here.

at right : Big Jay McNeely at Rockin’ Fest III in 2007 - photo by Craig Morrison

Craig Morrison : I saw a documentary film that you were in [Legends of R&B, 1984]. Johnny Otis was in it too, and Lloyd Glenn was playing the piano. There was a big concert at the end. That was a beautiful film.

BJM : One year the BBC did what they called the history of black music. They did something with Chess [the record label], gospel, and Africa, and they came to Los Angeles. They interviewed me on the dawn of rock and roll, how we were before and how we created the sounds. [Vocalist] Margie Evans was in it too.

CM : They showed you working for the post office, packing up the mail, and practicing your flute.

BJM : In my apartment. And they came out to the club where we was working.

to see a classic photo of Big Jay playing while lying on the floor, click here

CM : I show that in my Rock and Roll and Its Roots class, the sequence where you’re taking a solo while walking around. You sit on a man’s lap, guys are putting money in your horn, and you solo while lying on your back on the floor.

BJM : The reason I lay on the floor, I was playing in Clarksville, Tennessee, and it was a black audience and I had Carl Perkins on piano, it was great. [The Carl Perkins that McNeely refers to is the jazz pianist, not the rockabilly guitarist.] I had a good singer, a good band, man ! But they didn’t respond until I lay down on the floor. After I got back to Los Angeles then everybody started copying me. A lot of times, because I lay on the floor, guys really don’t have the respect until I start playing. But I run into that quite a bit because they don’t know my background, they don’t know how much I studied.

I was born in Watts [a district of Los Angeles, California] on April 29, 1927. When I was 16 I decided to play ’cause my [older] brother Robert was an excellent musician. In fact he could have went with Cab [Calloway] but my mother thought he was too young. He played alto saxophone [and later baritone saxophone]. He’s on all my CDs. [Jim Dawson, the author of Nervous Man Nervous : Big Jay McNeely and the Rise of the Honking Tenor Sax !, kindly proofread this interview transcription and in personal correspondence in July 2008 made this clarification : “Actually Bob didn’t play on the second Savoy session, which included “Deacon’s Hop.” There was no baritone on “Deacon’s Hop,” so Joseph Ewing backed up Big Jay on trombone.”]

I started on the alto sax at school. I said there had to be a better way to make a living than working eight hours. A little Spanish kid put a little band together and I wanted to play and the guy said, “If you get a baritone we’ll let you play.” I think my mother paid $50 for the school baritone, but they still wouldn’t let me play so I formed my own band. I had a little band in ’44 we called the Earls of ’44, for [jazz pianist] Earl Hines. That was when I was at Jordan High School.

I liked [bandleaders] Duke [Ellington] and Jimmy Lunceford and all that type of stuff [big band swing]. I studied that when I went to Polytechnic High School. That’s where I met [pianist] Hampton Hawes and [alto saxophonist] Sonny Criss. We had a jazz band. I started out playing jazz. When Charlie Parker came to Los Angeles [in late 1945], he and Dizzy Gillespie were playing at Billy Berg’s [a nightclub on Vine Street in Hollywood], and [trumpeter] Howard McGhee was with them. That’s when they stole Hamp out of the band.

CM : Did you see those guys perform live ?

book cover of Central Avenue Sounds : Jazz in Los Angeles, edited by Clora Bryant, Buddy Collette, William Green, Steve Isoardi, and Marl Young, published by University of California Press, 1999

BJM : Oh yeah, in fact I jammed with them. Central Avenue was the in thing then. I don’t know if you’ve read the Central Avenue Sounds book [a collection of interviews, subtitled Jazz in Los Angeles, with a companion box set of four CDs], but you had Club Alabam, it was like the Cotton Club [in New York], and all the movie stars used to come down there : Clark Gable, James Cagney. Then they had The Last Word on one side and Downbeat on the other. Then they had the Basket Room, after hours, [with] Scatman Crothers. He was a great singer and played drums great. He became a big actor. They eventually went down to First Street, when all the Japanese ran out. [McNeely is referring to the forced relocation of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, by Japan in 1941, and the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II.] They had Shepp’s Playhouse where Miles Davis all those guys used to play, and [tenor saxophonist] Teddy Edwards. We used to run for all of those guys playing jazz.

In Los Angeles you could go see the bands for 50 cents if you’d get in there before 12 o’clock. That’s when you could go to the show for 10 cents and see 10 movies. They had the Orpheum and all the big bands, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Lunceford and all the guys would come. When I first heard [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton with [tenor saxophonist] Illinois Jacquet, that’s when I heard him play “Flying Home” and he was riding the note. That really impressed me for that particular style. He’s a great jazz saxophonist.

CM : Around ’44 in Los Angeles there were the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.

BJM : Yes, I remember that. Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet. I don’t know if you remember a saxophone player named Corky Corcoran, he played with Harry James. Very good saxophone player, a white saxophone player. I remember all them, Jack McVea. Oh yeah, I went to all the jazz festivals with Bird and Howard McGhee. We stayed at a club. [Drummer] Roy Porter was out there, Howard McGhee, even Miles Davis on First Street. All the bands, like [pianist] Eddie Haywood, all the guys would come through there. That was a groovy time.

I told one of the teachers at the Poly, Mr. Green, I wanted to study, so he recommended a teacher called Joseph Cadaly who played first chair at RKO Studio. [The RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Studio was one of the top Hollywood movie studios, famous for a series of musicals and also for King Kong and Citizen Kane.] Excellent teacher. My brother and I took lessons together. It was five dollars an hour, a lot of money at that time. But we’d take three lessons : ear training and solfege, clarinet and tenor, and theory. He was the one that taught us how to play with non-pressure embouchure, with compact air, with big sound. Our sound was just like a cello on the saxophone, playing full vibrato at 100, intense air, like a flautist.

CM : What is non-pressure embouchure with compact air ?

BJM : You go to a faucet and you turn the water on, the water flows. Turn it off, it’s there. If it wasn’t, the water wouldn’t flow. You have to fill your whole body up and you have to have your body acting as a sound board so you can hear all the overtones.

CM : Your body becomes a resonating chamber.

BJM : You hear all the overtones. Like an opera singer, you play with that “e” sound, you just fill the whole room up. I don’t care if you’re playing at a whisper, you’ve still got that quality of sound. And he taught full vibrato at a hundred, metronomically.

CM : You would match your vibrato at 100 on the metronome ?

BJM : That’s fast, very fast. The sound would just sing, and we had basic exercises for the top and the bottom of the horn, because he felt that the fastest you could play there, you could play all the way through your horn. And we had to play long tones, melodies with lines, ballads where you didn’t have a lot of eighth notes or quarter notes.

CM : Sustained tones.

BJM : Yeah, and that way your horn just sang. Joseph Cadaly played dixieland. He had small lips and the way he played was great. Having large lips—blacks you know a lot of them have large lips—you have to make concessions, because the more lip on the reed the damper the sound is. So you’d go up two or three octaves using very little lip, just enough pressure to get the reed to vibrate.

A lot of guys ask me, “What kind of mouthpiece you play ?” Mouthpieces have certain characteristics but I can pick up a stock mouthpiece and have the quality sound. All my earlier records was with a rubber mouthpiece and then one day I decided I wanted to go with a Link mouthpiece [the Otto Link brand] and when I [did] “Stardust” with a metallic sound, I really got into it. I didn’t practice at home like I should have, so when I went on the road my embouchure was down. I was in Osterbrook [Germany] and this guy had the mouthpiece I’m playing now. I traded mouthpieces with him ’cause his mouthpiece was so loud. I had another mouthpiece by the same guy, paid about $350 for it, it was loud, no pressure at all. It didn’t have the roots sound that I wanted. I would change back and forth as I would play. It all depends on what strength reed you use, about a 3, 3 ?, is real brilliance where you can play all over your horn. I didn’t have a perfect ear, perfect pitch, but he taught us, he would play fourths or something, to develop our ears.

CM : They call that relative pitch.

BJM : At that time other guys would just pick up the horn and just hear something and play it right away. I had to develop my own thing. That’s why I created my own style. After I studied with him for about a year I could sound like a cello, ’cause everything was legit. I just studied. I’d taken off from anything else and took study. My brother and I was also able to study with Gene Byron, he’s an opera singer, he taught the McGuire Sisters and the Hi-Los, and Judy Garland. If she got hoarse he’d fly in.

CM : What did you learn from him ?

BJM : We learned the same thing we was learning from our teacher about how to breathe from the diaphragm, how to sing so you wouldn’t get hoarse, open your throat. They was very very good instructions, and you apply it to your horn.

This kid asked me, “Did you want to record ?” I said yes. A fellow in Watts had a number by Glenn Miller with just the drums [sings a bit that sounds like swing cymbals], and that’s when I wrote “Deacon’s Hop.” [Jim Dawson clarified this point also : “Actually, Big Jay took the tune itself from “Broadway,” a song recorded by many artists, including Count Basie with Lester Young.”] I forgot about all that study and just played soul, from my heart. The sound that I was developing with a very small lip was good, I just took the same principles that my teacher had taught me and applied it with a different embouchure in order to get the sound for what I was going to play soul music, so it worked out.

After I made “Deacon’s Hop,” that’s the only way they would record me. They wouldn’t record me with anything else because that’s what was selling. Once you develop that style it’s hard to get away from it. You get known for it and it’s very difficult to make a transition to something else, ’cause no company’d want to record you. At that time record companies had the in on records and nobody had independent labels like they do now. So that made it difficult. And if you started asking too many questions they would try to blackball you. Everybody was trying to get records out, get their name out there.

CM : “Deacon’s Hop” was in ’49.

BJM : Yeah, 1949. Yeah, big big hit. If I’d had the right manager I probably could have went on the road and made some money. Bardu Ali [a singer, guitarist, and promoter]—he’s the one who discovered Ella Fitzgerald at the Apollo Theater—he was with [drummer and bandleader] Chick Webb. He told me how them guys sign you up, put a little money in your pocket, and take you on the road. When you end up, you’re broke, you don’t have no money, they got everything. There was this guy Ralph Cooper, the heavy guy at the Apollo Theater, “Man, we want you to come back East.” I said, “Let my brother come too.” He said, “Oh no no no, we just want you.” So I didn’t go, which was the best thing because I seen later how Shaw [the Billy Shaw Agency of New York] and all the agents would rob musicians on the road, take their money. They overcharge them for everything, then when they come off a tour and the record dies they don’t have another record, they owe the government tons of money. So it was best that I didn’t go.

After “The Deacon’s Hop” I was playing to 5 to 6,000 white kids every week. I played at the high school, then we would go to a local theater and close it down. At 12 o’clock when everything opened, they’d pack the place. I had a little riot. We had a mixed group : I had one kid that sang like Frankie Laine ; I had another little saxophone player, a Spanish kid, he’s a big cartoonist for Walt Disney now ; I had Porky [Porky Harris], a little white kid played a guitar. And the Hollywood Four Flames, Jesse Belvin, and Marvin and Johnny. We did all these shows together. This was way before rock and roll ever came on the scene. The community couldn’t figure out what was happening. They’d come around and take pictures, trying to analyze it. We played a gig once in Huntington Beach and the paper came out and said the white kids dancing looked like the Watutsi [an African tribe] dancing. They didn’t understand it.

I outdrew [pop singers] Ray Anthony and Kay Starr in San Diego. I was in the Ebony [magazine] in 1952, in NBC magazine, Look magazine. I got with this guy Chuck Landers—he was in a club with Gene Norman who was a big disc jockey—he put on a lot of shows. He opened up a burlesque place down the street, so I signed up with him [for a manager]. My manager put me with GAC [the General Artists Corporation agency], but they didn’t book me on what they called the chitlin’ circuit.

Landers knew Las Vegas, they would just take his word. If he’d call and say, “This is a great act,” they’d take you right in without even a question. He was the one who said I needed to be staged. Cost me $500, the best money I ever spent. Whenever an act went to Vegas you had to play certain tunes like “When You’re Smiling,” basic tunes. It was a certain thing for Vegas at that particular time. A lot of artists don’t know how to perform. One time I was with a young white kid, he had a top hit so we were traveling with him, and he told the piano tuner to tune his guitar. He just didn’t know. We’d try to help them out. There’s a lot of artists go on the road and they’re not prepared and so this guy really prepared me. Very good for me, because when I opened at Birdland in New York, I opened up with the Modern Jazz [Quartet] and [saxophonist] Ben Webster and [pianist] Earl Garner as the headliner. They had the hotel right across the street, the Avalon ; you start and then go lay in the hotel until the time to come back down. But it was a tremendous help because you can be talented but it has to be organized.

CM : You call that getting staged.

BJM : The guy came and watched me for a whole week. I used to take my coat off and lay on the floor, but then I’d go back and pick it up. The guy said, “Don’t do that because you’re letting people know you’re an amateur. Have somebody else go pick it up.” He taught me how to program people. If you going to play 10 minutes, five minutes, half an hour, or an hour, when you hit the stage : “This is me, this is what I have to say. You have to listen to what I want, not what you want.”

A lot of people don’t know how to really entertain. Some people just pick it up from other people but basically, before any manager, before they would go to Vegas or any big time club, they would take them to a coach. You have to know how to walk on the stage, how to walk off the stage, how to take your bows and all that’s very important. ’Cause you can insult people if you don’t. A guy could be very talented but he doesn’t know a lot of these things. They don’t know what I know. Fortunately enough I had a manager that realized that was what was happening, and I trusted him and so I spent the money and it was worth it.

A lot of guys when they play, they’re sitting around on the stage and they’ll start talking and they lose the people, or either they’re segueing from one tune to another tune that has no relationship to the other tune whatsoever and you lose the people. You’ve got ’em and then you lose ’em. You can’t be moving in one direction and then turn around and go in another direction. At that time I wasn’t trying to sing, but the principles that he taught me, now I can really use, introducing tunes and getting people involved into the music. It’s very very important.

It isn’t how many notes you play, it’s how you play the notes that you do play, that’s the key. When I used to work in Birdland, Charlie Parker and all the guys’d come up and talk to me. A lot of other guys they look at him and say, “Why you talking to that one note guy ?” But all these guys they knew me from the past. Charlie Mingus, Buddy Collette, we all came up in Watts together, so they knew what I started out to do. There were a lot of great musicians back there at that time. Now I do a lot of different things. Times are different now than they was then. I was from a poor family. We had love and plenty of food but we didn’t have no lot of money. This other thing was to try to make some bread. So that’s when I went into the soulful thing. Artie Shaw and them criticized me about playing one note, but they never did criticize the sound. They couldn’t, that sound, they knew it was there. I don’t care, if a person’s got that sound.

Certain portions of your instrument has certain response on people. Some high notes, some low notes. A person wearing a $300 suit, I might play “Laura” while we scream it because that would fit his personality. I go to somebody else, man. One person reacts on the other person so you keep that driving going all the time. That was the principal thing that he taught me, so that’s why I’m always thinking and working on different projects. When I come through the audience, I know what the people want ’cause I watch ’em. I hit the bandstand playing one number and that’s it, from then on. But this is an art. A lot of people are gifted, like they have charisma right from the stage they can get it, but I find sometimes with myself I go in the audience and I work with people.

Over the years it really worked out for me. We did a TV show in Melbourne. The first time I was there they had me like I was in the dressing-room, and they said, “Where’s Big Jay ?” So they ran and got me. The next time I came, they went outside on the street, and they had floodlights and a water hose and they were washing the streets down so that would reflect and they had the police following me. When we got to the night of the show they shot me coming out of a police car and then they shot me going down a corridor. When I got ready to play I came into the audience, and this one girl I carried on the stage with me. I was doing “3-D,” one of my big numbers, and the band was hot, I mean they knew every note ! She’d never seen my act before, and I was trying to lay down and she was trying to hold me ! I finally got down. We got to Adelaide and—this guy was a heck of a promoter—I was on the front page. The Beatles were the only ones else on the front page. When I got off the plane he had the TV stations there. Where we did this show, they showed the video. The girl [interviewing] asked me, “How did you know to pick this girl ?” I just kind of feel, from experience.

Big Jay at the Rockin’ Fest III in 2007 - photo by Craig Morrison

I was in a club called the Nite Cap. This girl came in dancing in fluorescent and so I said “that’s it !” I had the guy paint my horn. I’d never done it before.

CM : The show you played here was fantastic, and to see your horn all colored up like that.

BJM : Have you been to the Experience [Music Project museum] there in Seattle, Washington ? They have my saxophone. They gave me $10,000 for it, the one that I did “The Deacon’s Hop” on, the one that changed colors, the original one. If I’d have known the guy spent 100 million dollars I’d have asked for more money ! But it was really nice.

They couldn’t stop the kids from following me so what they did is they brought me out of Los Angeles, I couldn’t play. I remember I had to get a special permit one time to play with Earl Bostic. Gene Norman gave a big thing at the Shrine. I broke up Johnny Ray’s show when I was supposed to go on the road with them, he said no. Nat King Cole, they wouldn’t let me travel with him. They don’t want you to create too much excitement.

CM : You’re taking it away from the others.

BJM : Yeah. If you notice whenever a star has an opening act they screen them. You’ve got a lot of acts that can work, work, work, work because they’re not a headliner. I remember this white girl that’s great, a blues player : Bonnie Raitt. I was in San Francisco, and she said, “I want you to open up for me.” I said okay, but when we got there they let Charles Brown open for her. I guess the manager said no way. One time I did a thing with Hamp [Lionel Hampton], at Wrigley Field, a ball park. Travel all down, go to the stadium. I had Jesse Belvin singing with me. But Gladys, his wife, man, she was sharp, nobody didn’t interfere with Hamp, so she just told the promoter, put him down, pay him off. But Lionel Hampton called me up to do “Flying Home.” I didn’t have a wireless at that time, so I jumped off and I ran. They were behind second base, so I ran up in the audience and the people were screaming and hollering. When I got back to the bandstand, Hamp had taken the whole band down to home base. Then I laid down on my back and crawled into the dugout. Hamp followed me down. They said the home-town boys steal the show.

This is the problem that I’ve had all my life, ’cause I couldn’t work with the different acts, a lot of the top acts which was good money. I was with an agency that put me in Birdland, where Charles Brown and all those guys, the black groups that had top records couldn’t get in Birdland. You have to be with a certain agency to get in certain places. I was working in Wildwood, the Celebrity Club in Providence, all the clubs I was working. It made a lot of difference.

They couldn’t stop the white kids from accepting me. [Los Angeles disc jockey] Hunter Hancock was the only one that played what they called race music at that time. He wouldn’t play no song if a white artist covered a black artist. He played only the original. He was big because all the kids loved him. There was no other disk jockey in the town playing it. What they did, they’d taken the saxophone out, put the guitar in and they changed from rhythm and blues to rock and roll and that’s how they say, “Well, we can’t stop them so we’ll just change the title.” That’s how Elvis and the Beatles and all them came in. We was long before. Alan Freed, I played with him. I was in Cleveland one time went and did some shows with him, but this stuff started on the West Coast not in Cleveland not in New York but on the West Coast. They couldn’t stop it so they just changed the name from rhythm and blues to rock and roll. The white musicians with the rock and roll, they had a little different flavor, ’cause they still had the beat. And so the saxophone kind of faded out. They brought the guitar in and they white-washed it, that’s how rock and roll actually got its foundation. Then the white artists started copying all the black artists’ tunes. They would play Presley, but they wouldn’t play the black artists. Black artists was on the sidelines. Even Nat King Cole couldn’t have a sitcom. All the artists just came there to back him up.

CM : I heard that they dropped his show ’cause no sponsor would back him.

BJM : No, wouldn’t back him. And he had every artist, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis. Everybody came there to be on his show. Now it’s a different story but at that time it was rough. So I got brought out of Los Angeles and I had to go back east. I didn’t have a hit record but wherever we’d perform people would hire us back. Being with GAC, they’re so powerful : they’d say if you don’t take him, you don’t get Nat King Cole, that’s it. That opened doors for us, and once we got in, ’cause I worked Birdland with Sarah [Vaughn], Diz, Miles Davis, Cab Calloway. Wildwood, New Jersey, they had clubs next door all over the place. People would go down there, places to stay. Then you’d go to Atlantic City, stay open all night long. We was playing that whole circuit. I played for Frank Colombo, the gangsters there in Philadelphia.

I lived in Los Angeles but I stayed in Philadelphia a lot of times. I didn’t quite like New York because it was so wild, I’d go to Philadelphia and hang out. We worked the Apollo Theatre. I worked there with the “5” Royales. I got top billing, on the Nervous Man Nervous CD you can see I got top billing, because my manager, he was a sharp guy. That’s what really happened.

Many different artists, the black artists, we did the Top Ten Revue with Little Richard, where they take the top 10 acts in the country and put them together and start in New Orleans. In New Orleans we had to play two concerts, one for the white, one for the black, different nights. In fact all through the South, whenever they played for the blacks they had what they’d call white spectators : they had to sit up in the balcony. When you’d play for the whites the blacks couldn’t even come in. A lot of times you’d get off work you couldn’t even get no food. It was tough.

We’d play all through the South, 30 one-nighters : Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, all the big cities. And end up in New Jersey, would be the late date. They had two buses that they traveled. Powerhouse show. The one I was on had Little Richard headliner, they had Joe Turner, Bill Doggett ’cause he had “Honky Tonk,” Etta James, the Five Keys, the Five Satins [with] “In The Still of the Night,” the Robins, “Shake a Hand, Shake a Hand.”

CM : That’s by Faye Adams.

BJM : Yeah. Powerhouse show, oh man, everybody was kickin’.

CM : Did you play with all of them ?

BJM : I was supposed to. The Gayle agency, I knew the guy and so he said, “Ok, Big Jay, I want you to back the acts, they bringing in about seven musicians out of New York to join the band. So I could pay all the guys their wages.” Joe Turner wanted [tenor saxophonist and bandleader] Choker Campbell ’cause he traveled with him. He was next on the top, I think Little Richard was about the top, they were both right up there together. He said we couldn’t play his music and told me he wanted Choker Campbell. The guy came up and asked me, “Well do you mind if we play ?” I said no, I had to play for all the acts and then do my show. This way I only did my show, which was great. We’d taken our own station wagon because they had fine buses for the top acts and they’d put the band on an old piece of raggedy bus. I said, “No way, I’m not going that route,” so I just take my own band when we travel. A lot of people ask me, what about you didn’t make the money, which I never made the money. If I’d been white with the same type of talent : big as Elvis. But being black at that time, like a pioneer to a certain type of music.

CD cover - buy it here

We recorded “There is Something on Your Mind” in Seattle. This guy Joe Boles would record all the bands that would come through, all the acts. A good engineer. One night we got off from work. We went to his house downstairs in his basement and recorded it. We didn’t enough money to get the tape out. We just left it there and went back a year later and got the tape and took it to Hunter Hancock. I’d taken it to all the companies. They said, “No man” but I knew we had a tune, because every place we played it [people liked it]. Hunter Hancock was getting ready to open a label. What he would do, if you brought him a tape he’d play it on the air. If he got any response from the audience, then he would release it, ’cause he wasn’t going to invest any money. We were very close friends. “Well, Big Jay this is not going to be anything but I’ll put it out for you.” So we made the record. I was backing Bobby Darin and Chuck Berry. I was getting $150 a night. I had a six-piece band. At that time we had to pay traveling taxes, international. We weren’t making no money, but I knew I had a record. We got to San Francisco, a kid named Rockin’ Lucky, come on at 12 o’clock at night. Went up to his station. When it hit, everybody was calling. Nobody had the record but him, so the people was calling the record store. All the other disc jockeys was uptight because he’s the only guy – they was tuning in to hear that, they was calling the record stores, calling the distributors. I got on the phone and said, “Better get some stuff up here right away, the record done broke wide open.” We went on up to Seattle, Washington to play, then we came back with B.B. King, drew 5000 people at the Oakland Auditorium. That’s when the Hollywood Four Flames covered it and sent it to Pittsburgh. Bobby Marchan covered it. So I got on the road. Wherever I traveled I started putting the record out. People thought we covered them but they covered us.

CM : James Cotton does a fine version of “There Is Something on Your Mind” on his first solo album in ’67. Have you heard that version ? He does the whole talking part in the middle.

BJM : Bobby Marchan was the first one that did that. Everybody copied him. He copied ours in New York and he’s the one that put [out] that version. Even B.B. King did it with Etta James, they did that version. Freddie Fingers [Lee], somebody else did it. They all copied him ’cause his record was bigger than mine, ’cause he has the part one and part two. We just had the part one. In fact we met up in Phoenix, Arizona, Little Sonny and him had a battle. It was quite a night. Sonny Warner was a great singer. He just died. He’s the one who recorded [the vocals on McNeely’s recording of] “There is Something on Your Mind.” He loved Ray Charles and he was a great gospel singer. A big, big hit for us.

I’ve had a lot of experience working with various peoples all over the world. Now I do a little of everything : funk, jazz, blues. Here it’s rockabilly. I enjoy playing this rockabilly thing, I went to Italy, did a rockabilly thing up there. My thing is more of entertaining, as well as playing. Entertainment can go anywhere. I can go to a jazz [festival], it would be not like the modern jazz with a lot of lot of executions, but we could play some nice soulful things. A lot of people, when they hear you, that’s all, oh this guy is this, they figure you don’t know anything. I even run into problems with musicians sometimes. A lot of times I can’t play certain tunes. I adapt myself to the musicians that I play with. That’s what a lot of people don’t know : my versatility is I started by playing jazz. I’m always thinking forward, so therefore I can do a lot of things that a lot of artists can’t do, because they’re only in one certain vein. I play with some guys, like in Vienna, the Mojo [Blues Band] : they just want to play the blues. When I play rock and roll, I can do a little bit more.

I don’t want a band anymore ’cause it’s too much problem. I just pick up some musicians. I used to complain to my manager that the guys are alright but they don’t have that soul. She thought I was just a complainer until she came to New York. I was working at Trampps, had a kid named Gus, used to be the drummer with Wilson Pickett. When she heard that she said “I see what you’re talking about.” Because these guys play and you’re free, the ideas flow and you can just play. You don’t have to be worried about whether you’re going to miss this or miss that. You play with other guys, you have to play certain things that you know that’s going to groove with regards to what they play. I just tune them out, play what I have to play. In Australia I did all my TV shows with just an acoustic guitar and I sounded great. He fit right in with the tenor sax. I did a live CD from Australia. We did “Honky Tonk” with just him and I, and the acoustic guitar just locked right in there. He loved T-Bone Walker. He had the feel, really grooved. I found that to be great. Have you ever heard of Axel Zwingenberger, the boogie woogie piano player ? We’re doing three dates with him, one in Switzerland, one in Berlin. He’s a monster.

CM : Yes I have, and Carl Sonny Leyland at this festival, is another. [read my interview with him here]

BJM : He’s good too. I was on the Stars of Boogie Woogie way with him back in ’87 [actually 1985] with the Mojos. Another kid, Little Willie Littlefield : he can play, he’s bad cat on boogie woogie. Another girl who was tough, remember Katie Webster ? She was very good. She could sing and play. She was bad, she could play like anybody. We were all on the bill together, Stars of Boogie Woogie, traveled all through Europe.

I don’t know if you heard the Central Avenue Confidential jazz CD I did [in 1998]. A kid named Skip Heller wrote all of the arrangements and we did “I Want to Live” from the movie, “Stranger on the Shore,” all jazz, had a [Hammond] B-3 organ, five horns, flute, very good. Took me back to [organist Jack] McDuff, back in the ’60s, you could walk anywhere and hear a B-3 organ in a little club. So we went back to that groove, a nice groove. That was the first CD that really showed me in a different light. I got some nice reviews on it.

On this DVD that I did, we did “Wonderful World.” Big for me in Europe, really captured the thing. In fact I did it with a live show from Switzerland with a band from Vienna. I see them in June. I do “Wonderful World” like Louis Armstrong, but in the second part, as a Jehovah’s Witness, we know this earth is going to be transferred into a beautiful paradise. Everybody says what a wonderful world, which the Bible does say that there’s going to come a time when nobody in the world will be sick, everybody will have their own home, live in peace. Then we can say what a wonderful world.

CM : What are you most proud of, in music or in life ?

BJM : Being baptized as a Jehovah Witness when I was 12, I come to learn that God had a name. I come to know that hell wasn’t on fire, that life had a purpose, and it sustained me through all of my problems. Because without faith you really don’t have nothing. What are you going to put your faith in, some politician ? Look at them. But having God in my life, it sustained me. It acts like a fuse in the amplifier. If you stray off here, that fuse is going to cut that amplifier before you burn it all the way up. If the amplifier calls for a two-amp fuse, don’t put a three in there ’cause you’re going to burn it.

I found out that’s what happened, like with Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes. A lady was doing a movie on Hampton and she came out to Los Angeles, so we had an interview, like you, interviewing all the people. We was in school and we had a band together. His father was a Presbyterian minister, high up in the church. His sister was a concert pianist. She told me that when he was eight years old he told his father, “I don’t want to go to church anymore.” You have to have a child make the truth his own ; you can’t force it on him but you got to help him.

One guy asked me, “Why’d you live so long and all these other guys died ?” Because they’re smoking, they get involved with drugs, they get involved with prostitutes. Their whole life is built around becoming a star. I think that’s what happened with Sonny Criss. Great saxophone player, but he never reached the status. A lot of times it all depends on who you know that open doors for you and the guy couldn’t deal with it. He was drinking, and I guess he accidentally killed himself with a gun, maybe he shot himself. Hampton Hawes’ girl was saying that dealing with Charlie Parker—he was drinking and shooting himself up and Hampton is sitting right there with the guys and McGhee and them, so then he gets involved with it. He got 10 years because a guy come in acting, and [Hampton] sold [him] some stuff, but what they were trying to do was get at the big dealers. When they busted him they would give immunity if he would tell on other people but he wouldn’t do it. So he got in jail and he began to read a lot. I just found out how he got out of jail was [president] Kennedy. Kennedy signed a release for him. I think he pardoned about 50 people that year and he was the 43rd person. ’Cause he wrote him and explained his situation. That’s how he got out but he spent about five years in jail. He had 10 years to do. And he was right at his peak. If you’ve got God, it’s like a restrainer on you. Now he was a Catholic, but what they do there’s really no restrainer on you because there’s no reminder. In fact they kept the Bible in a dead language for years. But there’s no restriction on them, they go take communion but they don’t know what communion really is. They don’t have that basic, so it’s easy to get involved because you’re your own boss. You have no one to answer to. You set your own standards, and when they don’t succeed in what they want to do then they can’t deal with it.

That was the problem with a lot of the artists. It’s frustrating when you dedicate your whole life to study and to want to be recognized and it don’t happen. A lot of time when I’ll be traveling throughout the world a lot of people that interview, they want to know “How do you feel about rock and roll coming in and you made no money ?” But if I didn’t have a hope for something far greater then it probably would have been very difficult. I might have got involved in some things that I shouldn’t have got involved in.

I never got involved with drugs. I was surrounded with it. Prostitutes – I could have had a stable of women if I’d wanted to at that time, because you’re exposed to all that. But having the truth you’ve got certain morals. Everybody has built-in morals, but when your conscience don’t condemn you no more, that’s where the problem comes in, when you justify why you doing something. That’s why a lot of people don’t want to accept God’s way, ’cause it’s a reminder to you. The Bible was written so you don’t make that mistake. I had a faith at that time. I didn’t care if I died when I was 12. It was amazing. I played football with giants. My whole life was centered around God and his Kingdom and so that sustained me, ’cause I couldn’t have made it through all the things that I went through if I didn’t.

I found out that they had nothing to stand on, not a strong foundation. They didn’t get it from the church because the church is not teaching the truth. We have a book, What Does the Bible Really Teach ? They teach hell fire and all these false doctrines way back to Babylon all the way up to today and so therefore they don’t have a strong faith. If you find someone that can make it through that hard water you’ve got a strong faith. I found out that and it was devastating because I saw Sonny. I saw Hamp when he got out. One day I was working in Manhattan Beach and I saw him going down Pacific Coast Highway. I waved at him, but we never got together after that.

CM : How would you like to be remembered ?

BJM : I’d like to be remembered as a Jehovah Witness, really. Because it means life. I’d like to be remembered as a person who loved Jehovah and tried to help other people gain life. When you stop and think about it, I’m 80 years old. You look at my life : it’s gone, just like yesterday. All the things I went through to try to make it and I never really made it big, really big, making money or even recognition. But by having the hope of God and the paradise you can survive. Like the Bible says, keep yourself alive, your whole body’s bright. So I’d like to be remembered as a person who loved people, who want to try to help people to come to know. Like the Bible says in Noah’s days, they took no note ’til the flood came and swept the all away.

There has to be more than just go to work and come home and eat and watch a TV. There has to be more to life than that. We’re too wonderfully made just to live a few years and die. I look at myself at 80. The Bible says you go three score and 10 and if you’re strong you might live a couple of days more. Take all your great artists like Nat King Cole : great singer ; Frank Sinatra : great singer, they’re gone. The world’ll soon forget them, basically, unless somebody do something. That’s what the Bible says, don’t put your trust in a false paradise, you just fade away. All these great artists like Louis Armstrong, they just fade away. People say he did this, he did that, okay fine. But how much better would it be if you were trying to help people to come to know Jehovah, to gain life. It’s something to go from door to door, because you don’t know what’s behind that door. People slam the door in your face, but it makes you humble. Because they don’t care how much money you got, they don’t care who you are, they’ll let you know, “Hey, get out of here, man I don’t want nothing to do with you,” and so it keeps you humble. I used to tell my brother, “Look you have to live anyway until you die, why not live with the prospect of living forever, if it’s possible.” You going to go through all these problems. I had a lot of problems.

CM : Here’s a picture of you that I picked up yesterday. Please tell me something about it.

BJM : This is a picture of way back. At that time all musicians dressed sharp. There was none of this getting on the bandstand with raggedy pants. When I had my group we had five uniforms, we had two tuxes and we had the Eton jackets, change of shoes, everything. You can tell the big lapels. I was about 20, 22 something like that. I think it was during the time when we was trying—look at the tie—trying to get into Vegas and different things. We was really trying to make it and the road was so hard. It was difficult. At that time the style I was playing, if they had of pushed it on, like Hal Singer had “Corn Bread” and I had “The Deacon’s Hop” and Earl Bostic was the kind of sax player that could take any tune and make a hit out of it with his style, he could take a ballad, anything. But like with myself and others what they had to develop [was] a number that would be appealing to the audience, like [Bill Justis’s] “Raunchy” and “Tuff”, some good instrumentals. Paul Williams had “The Hucklebuck” We was trying to develop this, and you had the New Orleans blues, which was great, Fats Domino and them. Then the whites, they just knocked us out, just wiped us out. They had the airways and the money and that’s it and we couldn’t buck it. But we was way before rock and roll. Rock and roll probably would never come in if they had of let us… but it was a good area for them to come in. And there was some good things, a different sound. So when the white kids started taking it, well then that was it, party’s over.


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I have posted interviews with many veteran musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006