Once a punk, always a punk, but so much more: Philly guitarist Jay Medley dead at 58

Jay Medley

When Philadelphia guitarist Jay R. Medley passed away suddenly on Tuesday night from a heart attack, the 58-year-old musician did not leave listeners with a long legacy of recorded classics, hit singles or weighty albums like other legendary Philly artists. That, however, made him no less iconic to fans and friends.

Along with a loving wife (physical therapist Nina Medley), what Medley left behind was a reputation as one of this area’s best, most flexible guitarists in a live setting and a man who was integral in helping to build Philadelphia’s punk scene in the late 1970s. Whether it was playing as part of the power-punk Science Fiction at the Hot Club at 21st & South in 1977 or at Girard Avenue’s The Fire in January 2017 as part of an all local tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Medley was a true firebrand.

“Jay was a punk godfather, and a real inspiration on that front, especially when you consider that nobody black was playing hard-n-heavy rock and punk back then,” says John Cecil Price, the fellow Philly guitarist who booked and curated the recent Hendrix tribute at the Fire. “You have no idea how much s--- black kids got for playing rock, especially from other black kids. He was as dark as me, and he was fearless and he was amazing. But he could – and did - play anything,”

Medley was frank about the music he played, once telling Philadelphia City Paper, “rock that’s hard and heavy will always be Philly’s bastard child.” Medley was speaking to this author in 1999 on the occasion of his nu-metal band, Betty Whitetrash, releasing its debut album, debut Five Finger Discount. "This city is standing knee-deep in R&B and rap, except what happened to R&B? I’ll jam rusty spoons in my ears if I hear another Boyz II Men CD, which, to me, is thinly veiled Toto.”

He continued: “The hip-hop/rap/baggy pant/Teletubby-backpack-wearin’ scene seems to be a continuing hotbed of fresh sounds, but not my cup of poison. I don’t think rock as a form is dead. It’s simply being suppressed by politically correct attitudes. As long as there are underachievers, GED holders and suburban ghettos, hard rock will exist."

Though Medley’s roots were in punk and pop from the sounds of Science Fiction, Axidentals, and Endoprhins, you could hear his fast, hearty riffs in local bands such as Duplicators (glam), Foreplay (space rock), Minx (R&B), Neo Alloy (goth metal), Octababy (metal funk), The Hired Guns (blues), Brown Sugar (classic rock) and Resin — his meaty, hard rock ensemble that featured future Whitetrash members Bob Shame and Bob Bannon.

Medley also had a longtime, second career in the offices of Philadelphia’s TLA Video with several jobs to his name. One-time TLA CEO Ray Murray (now of Artsploitation Films) recalls meeting Medley when “Jay worked at Paper Moon across the street from TLA on 4th Street off South, in the 1980s and worked for TLA later on, and for decades,” says Murray. “Jay did many jobs at TLA, most importantly as our Customer Service Manager, but also as a film buyer - including Adult titles. He was a perpetually pleasant upbeat guy with a passion for music.”

With that, Medley had a passion for getting others started on the journey to find their musical path.

Longtime David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey was a friend to Medley, growing up in Philly, and the two often shouted each other out in conversation. Dorsey even welcomed Medley backstage to a Bowie show in Camden, NJ (now the BB&T Center) in 1995. In a 2014 interview with The Rumpus, one-time guitarist Dorsey talked about an ad posted by Medley in a Philly record store looking for a bassist.

“To this day, Jay Medley is one of my best friends. He’s still in Philly, still very much active and kicking ass on guitar…. Jay taught me so much, he was a great mentor to me, and I played in his Top 40 band, and that was the beginning of my interest in the bass.”

Thorazine front-woman JoAnn Rogan speaks similarly of Medley’s mentoring largesse. “When I wanted to start a punk band in the late 80s, many people around town suggested I not sing and take up the bass,” says Rogan, whose band played alongside Medley at The Fire’s Hendrix tribute. “Even friends were downright discouraging. Not Jay.  He thought it was a great idea and would talk with me about if often.  After Thorazine started, he always had kind, encouraging words for me about the band every step of the way. I was lucky to have played with him at the Hendrix thing; a fitting way to see him for the last time. He was one of the good ones. “

Though funeral plans are not yet solidified, a GoFundMe page dedicated to raising money due to his sudden passing, can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/jay-medleys-funeral-expenses