December 18 marks the 100th anniversary of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s birth in Houston, Texas. Vinson straddled two divides, jazz and blues, swing and bebop, and was a double threat as a singer and alto saxophonist. He got started in his teens with Milt Larkins, who led a renowned, though unrecorded territory band whose ranks included Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Tom Archia, and Wild Bill Davis. Larkins toured primarily in the Midwest and occasionally shared the bill and backed the bluesmen T-Bone Walker and Big Bill Broonzy. At a concert in Nice, France, with Jay McShann in 1974, Vinson credited Broonzy as "the man who really taught me the blues." He added that he knew nothing about the blues before meeting Big Bill, but in truth he grew up in a home where his father played piano and gigged at a local honky tonk, and in a neighborhood where "guitar players would come down the street playing and I would follow them for blocks." Blues would have been prominent in that mix, but Eddie was probably speaking out of the experience of a young man who was determined to become a skilled, jazz-oriented saxophonist and vocalist, and for whom blues was crude and old school. In time, however, he would become one of the greatest and most popular amalgamators of jazz chops and blues basics, and in 1946, "Just a Dream," Broonzy's wonderfully tongue-in-cheek original, became one of Cleanhead's early hits. Here he sings it in 1969 with T-Bone, McShann, and tenor player Hal Singer.
At some point in the early 1940s, Cleanhead was heard by Cootie Williams, the trumpeter of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman renown, who recruited him for the big band he formed in 1942. Over the next three years, Vinson was featured as a vocalist on several tunes that got his name placed in record label credits and established him as a superb big band blues belter with a weazy rasp and falsetto yelp. "Cherry Red," the classic Kansas City blues by Joe Turner and Pete Johnson, became a hit for Cootie in 1945 and remained in Vinson's repertoire for the rest of his career. Here it's titled "Red Blues" and is mis-credited to Bob Haggart, the red-haired bassist whose best-known credit was "What's New."
Mr. Cleanhead, who got his nickname early on when a hair straightening compound with lie burned every strand from his scalp, left Cootie in 1946 and won a big following in the jump blues field. Here he is with an all-star combo led by George Wein, performing his signature tune, “Cleanhead’s Blues.”