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BIG JOE TURNER
EDDIE “CLEANHEAD” VINSON
Once you made Doc Pomus’ “A” list, 3 a.m. phone calls became commonplace. Sometimes they involved getting to the back room of a goulash joint with fresh cash so he could retain his title as “The World’s Second Worst Poker Player.” (The undisputed worst poker player in the world, the man who retired with the belt, was Doc’s confrere, the legendary “License Plate Benny.”) Other times you’d be dispatched to help a down and out musician or singer who was in need of immediate attention regardless of what time it was. But many times the calls had to do with a hot new act Doc had discovered at one of the out of the way clubs he frequented that so excited him he couldn’t wait until morning to tell you about it. Bette Midler, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Neville Brothers and Roomful Of Blues are the first that come to mind, although over the years there were many others.
Doc and I produced the first Roomful of Blues album together, and he went on to work with them in the studio from time to time. He and Bob Porter are responsible for the two albums contained herein. They’re fun records and were exciting ones for Roomful as they got a chance to work with two of their heroes, Big Joe and Cleanhead.
I’ve asked Doc’s daughter, Sharyn Felder, to jot down a few remembrances of her father’s special relationship with Joe.
Big Joe Turner was my father’s hero and life-long inspiration. From when he first heard Joe’s “Piney Brown Blues” that changed his life forever, until my father’s Iast day. Joe Turner Was The Man.
When Joel Dorn (Doc’s best buddy) asked that I write something for this reissue, the following came to mind:
Coney Island- Joe craving a Nathan’s hot dog...
My father’s collection of gigantic Joe Turner medallion necklaces…
Joe sitting in the living room writing “K.C. Joe Turner” on every Big Joe record in the house…
My father and Joe shopping together at the Big Man’s store downtown...
Joe’s wife Pat’s platter of incredible potato salad...
...My father and Joe bullshitting before the start of yet another legendary Doc Pomus birthday bash that was certain to squeeze the air out of the tiny-two-room apartment above West 72nd and end well after dawn and long after the fried chicken and liquor had been drained. He and Joe sat planted in one spot, next to each other all night. Memories of those birthday party happenings blend together now, Big Joe singing and shouting away—
“Alrighty!!!”. Tiny Grimes playing, Mike Stoller’s wife Corky working the electric piano, Ben E. King and various Drifters drifting in and out, Otis Blackwell, Roomful, Tom Waits, South Side Johnny tending bar, and on, and on.
...And driving down I-95 from Providence, from a great night of performances of Joe with Roomful at Ritchie Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel (a place that actually offered on its menu Doc Pomus and Joe Turner sandwiches), Joe seated in the front passenger seat, drinking coffee and chain smoking through the night, swapping stories with my father about people from long ago and laughing. Joe was in a way non-verbal, and my father the opposite, yet their connection was deep.
Then there was the Cookery event. Joe performing at the Cookery on University Place. We were sitting with Joe between sets, when gentlemen-owner Barney Josephson’s wife began treating Joe with what my father thought was great disrespect, berating and humiliating him and prohibiting him from having a drink. My father got so pissed at her we had to leave before Joe went back on. Out of the Cookery, my father had his driver phone in a bomb scare. And we watched from his van at the corner as the place emptied out. He and Joe corner as the place emptied out. He and Joe had many laughs about it later.
Mostly, I remember many, many nights at the old Tramps on East 15th Street, a block from Joe’s apartment. Joe on stage, packing them in night after night and my father there night after night holding court, fending off the nightly insanities, making everyone knew once again just how great Joe was and faithfully watching the man who called him ‘Cuz.’
Doc and Joe and Cleanhead are all gone now, but the songs and the singing and playing will be with us forever. Thank God.
Keep A Light In The Window.
— Joel Dorn
Joe Turner, the old Blues Train, keeps on rolling along. He still takes the bends wild and wide and the echo chamber in his voice won’t quit for a minute. He’s a seventy-one year young miracle who is probably the greatest blues singer who ever lived. And then again, he may really be the quintessential American singer of all time. And he’s my life-long idol, deep friend and musical inspiration. Here is his latest recording achievement. I hope you enjoy Ate much as I do.
-Doc Pomus, New York City
Late in this recording session, Big Joe Turner had finished all his vocals, and Roomful of Blues was about to record their instrumentals for the date. Someone asked Joe if he wanted to leave; he replied “No, I want to sit here and listen to these guys play.” A lot of people like to hear “these guys play.” Roomful’s contribution to this recording cannot be underestimated. The strong and exciting playing, their arrangement contributions, all added immeasurably to this album. Roomful’s leader Greg Piccolo, with AI Copely, Doug James and the rest of the band, contributed heavily.
Dr. John’s playing on “I Want A Little Girl” is a gem; ditto the strong guitar of Ronnie Earl Horvath on “I Know You Love Me”. Bouquets to Doc Pomus who, with untold patience, coached Big Joe through the new material. If it wasn’t for Doe Pomus, the session would not be as great as it is - or may not have come off at all. This was a collective effort, pruned and finished by co-producer Pomus with the very professional co-producer Bob Porter and engineer Malcolm Addey.
Bob Porter produced the Roomful Of Blues/ Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson record and offers the following thoughts.
I first became interested in recording Eddie Vinson after hearing an album done in Montreaux, which featured him doing Bird and Monk tunes. He was from Houston and learned the saxophone with guys like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet, blues from Big Bill Broonzy, and bebop from Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Rarely does one find a player with this amalgam of influences.
Our first venture together was done in Los Angeles and featured a small band sound with an equal amount of vocals and instrumentals. Eddie worked as a single, and when Shirley Setzer suggested recording him with Roomful of Blues, this seemed like a natural idea. The players in Roomful were not only quality musicians, they were very knowledgeable about the music and the musicians who originated the styles they favored. To a man, they were dedicated cats.
Eddie Vinson is gone now, but Roomful is still out there and, if anything, the band is even more popular today. They are true road warriors, and they still kick ass each time out.
- Bob Porter, March 1997
This album has been a long time coming. ‘Cleanhead’ and Roomful of Blues joined forces in the mid-’70s and they have been a mutual-admiration society ever since. Roomful is the quintessential backup band for any blues or R&B artists, and ‘Cleanhead’ works as a single; so the shared experience is a positive one. The logistics of getting together in a recording studio was not as simple as it may appear. ‘Cleanhead’s return to international prominence dates to the time he got some personal hang-ups out the way, and he has been appearing at all the major jazz and blues spots for the past eight or nine years.
‘Cleanhead’ can work both sides of the street. There are few artists with his ability to play anything up through bebop and to sing blues from any era as well. But his working conditions are not often likely to produce inspired performance. The idea for the pairing with Roomful originated with Shirley Selzer, who books Eddie, and despite the fact that Eddie and the band work so well together, it took more than two years to finally make this meeting-on-record a reality.
Eddie Vinson’s background is well known, but the history of Roomful of Blues deserves some space here. The band started out as seven pieces, and the three saxes as well as Copely and Rossi have been there since the beginning. Trumpeter Bob Enos is the newest member of the band. The other member of the brass section is Porky Cohen, old enough to be the father of some of these guys, and yet, in some ways, the youngest member of the band. His enthusiasm is contagious. Ronnie Earl Horvath, like his predecessor Duke Robillard, draws his inspiration from the Texas School of guitarist,
The three saxophonists have diverse influences. Tenor saxophonist Greg Piccolo fronts the band and handles the vocals when the band works its own gigs. Because of the co-leadership of this recording, Greg is a bit under wraps, but his forceful contributions to “No Bones” and “Street Lights” as well as his feature on “’That’s The Groovy Thing” demonstrate that he is a hard-blowing tenor with the classic stomp style as a natural part of his persona. Lataille (pronounced La-tie) and James are straight ahead swingers and AI Copley is the scribe of the band who helps out with the arranging. Prior to the session, Eddie and the band had three gigs in New England, so they were able to reacquaint themselves. But most of the material came together at the session. Apart from “House of Joy” and “That’s The Groovy Thing,” which are tunes the band had been playing, and “No Bones,” written especially for the session, everything else was a head-arrangement.
“House of Joy” is a Cootie Williams tune that grew out of Williams’ big-band’s long stay at the Savoy Ballroom during World War II. Then, as now, it was a feature for Eddie’s alto and like the Williams arrangement, features trombone on the bridge, high note trumpet and a “Flyin’ Home” kind of ending. Eddie’s solo alludes to his original in its opening, and Enos really wails.
When listening to the playback of his solo, Eddie said simply, “Illinois Jacquet,” acknowledging the stylistic debt to his old Texas comrade.
“Friend of Mine” was written by pianist Reuben Brown. The subject matter is something rarely discussed, much less documented in blues composition. Some fine, stinging Horvath guitar separates the vocal choruses. “Movin’ With Lester” introduces a band-within-a-band (Broomcloset full of Blues?) for a swinging work out on “Honeysuckle Rose” changes. Rich Lataille is one of the best jazz soloists in the band, and this is a first-class outing by any standard. Doug ‘Mr. Low’ James follows with what has to be his finest solo on record, showing his Leo Park roots, and then ‘Cleanhead’ comes on for an exceptional solo. Piano and bass have their innings prior to a return to a head with drums on the bridge. The last eight was Eddie’s idea and pays homage to another jazz giant, Charlie Parker.
Lataille is first up on “No Bones,” a dedication by Horvath to his (and Eddie’s) favorite guitarist, ‘T-Bone’ Walker. He is followed by Piccolo in his best Arnett Cobb bag and some lusty trombone by Porky Cohen. ‘Cleanhead’ and Horvath continue the groove on this shuffle that ‘T-Bone’ surely would have enjoyed. “That’s The Groovy Thing” is some vintage–1946 Earl Bostic, but the arrangement owes more to Red Prysock’s 1955 version.
Eddie is first up and then Greg Piccolo takes over, blowing everything out of his way in one of the wildest tenor tear-ups in a long time. “Past Sixty Blues” is notable, once again, for its subject matter. Horvath has the introduction; Cohen plays behind the vocal, and Eddie has a deliciously greasy alto solo (you can hear where Sonny Criss learned his blues.) Listen also to AI Copley’s idiomatically perfect accompaniment.
If you are still reading these notes without having listened to the music, you are denying yourself a very good time. The members of Roomful are fond of saying something to the effect that life is nothing but a party. This record is a party, but it is also more than that. It is continuing evidence that age has not dimmed the fire of Eddie Vinson who, in every track of this album, demonstrates the strength, vitality, and talent that players half his age could only hope to match.
I have heard Roomful on several occasions over the past five years and I think this is the strongest edition of the band yet. There is a dimension to their music here which, for me, hasn’t yet been captured on their own records. They came to play for themselves as well as for Eddie Vinson, and they did themselves proud. No song on this album required more than two takes. That is professionalism with a capital ‘P’!
At one point, Eddie was asked if he wanted to do a song over again. He replied that he was content with the take just completed and that we shouldn’t waste time making the album “too perfect.” Once you’ve heard it, I think you’ll find this album very difficult to improve upon.
- Bob Porter