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Hear The Revolutionary R&B Of Big Jay McNeely, Honking Proto-Rocker

Big Jay McNeely performs in London on March 30, 1984. The influential artist died Sun., Sep. 16, 2018.
Charles Paul Harris
Getty Images
Big Jay McNeely performs in London on March 30, 1984. The influential artist died Sun., Sep. 16, 2018.

The saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, a product of the thriving rhythm and blues scene in postwar Los Angeles, died on Sunday in California at the age of 91.

McNeely's honking saxophone and wild stage antics gave form to what would become rock and roll, directly influencing many of the genre's legends.

Listening to his frenetic early songs, like "3-D" and his first hit "Deacon's Hop," is a reminder that the saxophone was one of the most important instruments in the explosion of rock and roll. McNeely was one of the great showmen of R&B — his shows were infamous for generating wild crowds, best captured in a photo used on the cover ofBlowin' Down the House, a compilation of his more recent work released in 2016.

After the '50s, saxes smoothed out and eventually gave way to electric guitars. McNeely's music, though, demonstrates that rock and roll was about rhythm, speed, and youth, not any one instrument. To quote the Los Angeles Times from 1952, McNeely generated "a veritable hepcat jive orgy" when he played.

But Big Jay's hits aren't as well-remembered as they should be (perhaps because he left the music business in the early 1960s, later mounting a comeback) — this playlist covers some of his essential early tracks, and samples from a few albums he recorded in recent decades. If you want to hear why R&B felt so revolutionary in his time, Big Jay McNeely is as good as it gets.

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Lauren Onkey is the Senior Director of NPR Music in Washington, DC. In this role, she leads NPR Music's team of journalists, critics, video, and podcast makers, and works with NPR's newsroom and robust Member station network to expand the impact of NPR Music and continue positioning public radio as an essential force in music.