Big Jay McNeely - Tenor Saxophone Honkers

Tenor Saxophone Honkers

The honkers were known for their raucous stage antics and expressive, exhibitionist style of playing. They overblew their saxophones and often hit on the same note over and over, much like a black Southern preacher, until their audiences were mesmerized. The style began with Illinois Jacquet's lively solo on Lionel Hampton's smash 1942 hit "Flying Home." Jacquet refined the honking technique in 1944 on the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles. Among the other saxophonists who started having honking hits in the late 1940s were Hal Singer (with the number one R&B hit "Cornbread", Lynn Hope, Joe Houston, Wild Bill Moore, Freddie Mitchell, and many more.

McNeely was credited with being the most flamboyant performer. He wore bright banana- and lime-colored suits, played under blacklights that made his horn glow in the dark, used strobe lights as early as 1952 to create an "old-time-movie" effect, and sometimes walked off the stage and out the door, usually with the club patrons following along behind. At one point, in San Diego, police arrested him on the sidewalk and hauled him off to jail, while his band kept playing on the bandstand, waiting for him to return. The honking style was fading somewhat by the early 1950s, but the honkers themselves suddenly found themselves providing rousing solos for doo wop groups; an example was Sam "The Man" Taylor's eight-bar romp on The Chords' 1954 "Sh-Boom." Bill Haley also used honking sax men Joey D'Ambrosio and Rudy Pompilli on his rock and roll records, including "Rock Around the Clock." However, the rise of the electric guitar essentially ended the dominance of the tenor sax in rock and roll by 1956.

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