Yeah, that was the Platters that was the background group on that, and the kid wrote that, and we went into the session. So he said, "Eh-eh-eh-eh." It was a real great side for us.
What was your first record?
Well, my first hit record was 'There's Something on Your Mind'. We had recorded this number in a guy's basement in Seattle, Washington, and went back a year later, got the tapes. Anyway, I carried it to Hollywood, and nobody wanted to put it out. They said, "Well, it's nothing." I had been playing for Hunter Hancock. The guy was a great disc jockey, he played all the black music. I did a lot of play me. I said, "Man," I said, "This is a big hit, because I'm telling you we play it all the time." He said, "Well, Big Jay, I don't think it's going to make nothing, do anything, but I'm going to play it out because of you."
So, he put the CD out, and I knew I had a hit, so I was backing Bobby Darin and Chuck Berry, and I went up to San Francisco and put it on the air, and it broke wide open, and it's history after that. You know the number, everybody's done it this, Professor Longhair, B.B. King, and all the guys. It was a big hit for me. That's how it got on, Hunter Hancock own swinging label, that's how I got on his label.
You recorded the first version, but it was covered by a lot of artists
I think, but all of them got their own style. Bobby Marchan was a big, because he did the comedian type of style, by going downtown, getting it done, and all that type of stuff. I think I was at the original, was had the real feeling soul, and the other ones were really great. Professor Longhair, B.B. King did it, Buddy Guy did it, Benny Port did it. All the guys, everybody just about had recorded this number, and they all had a good sound on it too.
The singer on that was Little Sonny.
Yeah, see he ... Yeah, I met him in Seattle, Washington, no, Washington D.C., and he loved Ray Charles. He sounded exactly like him. He worked with a very soulful gospel singer. When we started doing this tune, it was another guy that had this tune, 'There's Something on Your Mind', and I bought it from him for $25.
Yeah, so what happened is I told him, "You sing it exactly like this kid," but the way the kid had it, it was like Fats Domino. He loved Fats, but I said, "Man, cut everything in half, you got a hit." Little Sonny sings it with his own self, but like this guy, because he loved to imitate Ray Charles. I said, "Forget about Ray Charles, you do it this way," and it turned out to be a big hit for him. Then we got the 'Minnie' and 'My Darling Dear', and 'I Got The Message', many tunes by Little Sonny.
Who played on 'There Is Something on Your Mind'?
Well, my brother was on the baritone, and my other brother was on bass. Well, Robert McNeely, that was my brother, and Dillard McNeely was my brother, and then we had, let's see. We also had Wendell Johnson, he was a guitar player, and Leonard "Tight" Hardiman. He was from Fort Worth, Texas, and he was playing drums. Because, we only use a guitar, baritone, and bass, and a tenor, but we got the big sound. Because, we voice the guitar like organ. Big sound, and put my brother on the bottom with the bass, and I was on the top. That's why you hear this big sound, but there was only five of us.
You recorded that on tour right?
Yeah, that was during the same time that we was in, we played Seattle, Washington, then we would go to Portland and play. During that time, we recorded 'There's Something on Your Mind'. As a young musician and scuffling, I didn't have any money. In fact, we couldn't even take the tapes of it. I had to go back a year later to get the tapes. But, it turned out to be a big hit for me.
You're well know for your stage performance. Tell us about that.
Yeah, well during that time the reason I started laying on the floor, I was working in a little town called Clarksville, Tennessee. That's what we called a Chitlin' Circuit, where all the black down south. This particular audience that night, they didn't respond to my music, and I couldn't understand why. After intermission, I got on my knees, and I laid on my back, boy, and they just went crazy. I said, "Let me try this." I got to Texas, Fort Worth I tried it. Then when I got to Los Angeles, man, all the kids just ate it up out there. You can see all the pictures and stuff.
You have a big following amongst white and chicano tennagers as well as black?
What happened is that, I was playing to 5 and 6,000 white kids every week. We'd go into a theater, they would close it down, and we would pack the place. They, like Hunter Hancock was the only disc jockey that was playing our type of music. Everybody else was playing the white type of music. They would follow around, take pictures, thought they was on drugs. They didn't know what was happening. They didn't understand why the white kids were responding to my music, and that was around '50, the 50's, in the 50's. They couldn't stop them, so what they did, they wouldn't give me a permit to play.
I couldn't play in Los Angeles. They barred me out of Los Angeles all together. My manger put me with GAC, and they was the powerhouse agent, they booked Nat King Cole, and all that, Sammy Davis. I was able to go and work The Palisades in New York, Birdland, Wild Wood, New York, all the big circuits back east, but I couldn't work in Los Angeles, because they wouldn't give me a permit. I did a concert with Earl Bostic and the guy had to get a special permit for me to work that night.
They were very prejudice, they didn't like the white kids screaming over the blacks, me being black. They couldn't stop it, so what they did, after they barred me out, they'd taken the saxophone out, put the guitar in, and brought Elvis in, and Pat Boone, and all them, Jerry Lee Lewis, and called it Rock & Roll. Then that's when they, now the same type of music, but on a different groove is all right, because the white kids is doing it.
The rhythm and blues thing had not started yet?
No, yeah, because when I started off, I started off playing jazz. I started out with Sonny Criss and I had a band in school with Hampton Halls, which he's a great piano player, jazz piano. I think Sonny Criss was about the closest to Bird at that particular time. After we graduated from school, I went and studied with Joseph Caroline, which played the first chair RKO Studio. As Sonny and I had become very legit for about a year on account of Sonny. Then after that, I went into soul music. But, yeah, when Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Teddy Edwards, all those guys, I mean they had a hard time playing the music, now I need to make money.
Were you doing the honking thing then?
No, I didn't, because you see, like the teacher I studied from, he taught us how to get that E sound, like an opera singer, where your horn just sings. If you notice all their criticism, they never said nothing about my sound. They never questioned that, but what they did question was I'm playing one note for several courses maybe. But, I was using at times slow vibrato, fast vibrato, using different things on the horn to get different sounds. Anytime you repeat something it tweets like a wind coming through, or storm coming through, and you create all this excitement. They couldn't do it. They couldn't play one note for a whole cord, and yet the people would stay there and respond to it.
Did you care that your style might upset the jazz aficionados?
No, I didn't care about their criticism, because I knew I had studied, I knew I was a qualified musician. What they said, it didn't mean nothing, because the kids were responding to what I was doing, and I wasn't going to stop. I don't feel not regret about that they wrote, because when you know from your heart what you're doing is right, forget about all these critics. When someone criticizes, that means that you must be doing something right.
Tell us about your first visit to a recording studio.
My first recording was 'Deacon's Hop'. Like I said, I studied for years, and a friend of mine named Chris Stanford came by and said, "Big Jay, do you want to record?" I said, "Yeah." So, a fellow in Watts had a little record store, and he gave me a record by Glenn Miller with the drums, the tch-tch-tch-tch, for the introduction. I've taken that little phrase, I wrote Deacon's Hop, and that was my first biggest hit. The record companies, from that time on, all they wanted to do was record me the same way I made my first hit. They weren't concerned about me loving jazz, ballads and stuff like that. All they wanted was the hit. I was locked into that groove for many years.
What are some of your favourites?
Well, '3-D' is one my tunes that creates a lot of excitement. I had 'All That Wine is Gone' was good, and 'Backshack Track', 'Minnie', 'My Darling Dear'. A lot of these things, little funny things are. Then there were other things I did like 'The Goof', 'Wild Wig', 'Texas Turkey', all those things that are a real solid groove, and I love them all, because they all were telling a story at that particular time.
Do you have any favourite performances?
I think the one that I thought that was really great, was when we did the Grammy's. That's the first time they ever had the blues on the Grammy's, and they tried to pick the top. They had B.B. King, Albert King, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Dr. John, Etta James, and Robert Cray, he was the youngest one, because he just had a hit, and myself. We stood 6,000 people up in the auditorium, because I laid on the floor. It was great, because you then, great company, as well as the world got a chance to really see the blues together as a professional, well I don't think maybe in a professional setting, but in a setting that everybody has looked at over the years as being a program that features the best entertainer or the best music for that year.
It was a great measure to be on there. Because, I've done so many things. Like I worked with the top 10 with Little Richard, Bill Doggett, Five Keys. I worked with The Ink Spots, I worked with jazz guys, Cab Calloway. All of the greats. In fact, in Australia, man, we had some great concerts here. Did you work with Johnny Otis?
No, I did one thing with Little Johnny Otis. We had a thing called 'Barrelhouse Stomp'. That was about 1948, before I got my big hit. Other than that, no, I've always had my own band I've always recorded, and I never played with no big band or none of that stuff. I started my own band, and Kept it that way all my life.
Who was your greatest competition amongst sax honkers?
I don't know. They all had their own thing. I introduced Joe Houston to Los Angeles, Chuck Higgins, and Willis Jackson, I played with him. I battled with him. A lot of the guys refused to even battle with me. With Sam Taylor, and then another guy, this guy Sam Butera, that worked with Louis Prima. I found him, I said, "Let's have a battle," it's like, and none of the guys would do it. I don't know, it all depends. I never had that opportunity to play with it, but they all had their own thing. The only way you could do is say, "Come on man, let's get together and see what happens."