A Dream of Blues Chamber Music
Kidney Stew Is Fine was originally released on the Black & Blue label. It is the only time that a trio of heavyweight players appears on record together. Recorded in Paris, France, on March 28, 1969, the disc features Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson with T-Bone Walker on guitar, Jay McShann on piano and Hal Singer on tenor sax, augmented by Roland Lobigeois and Paul Gunther, on bass and drums respectively.
Eddie Vinson was born in Houston, Texas on December 19, 1917. By age 15, he was playing alto sax with the local Chester Boone band. Around 1936 he and Arnett Cobb left to become, along with Illinois Jacquet, three notable saxophonists in the Milton Larkin Orchestra. Of the three, Jacquet left first, to play with Lionel Hampton, then Cab Calloway, Count Basie and his own various groups. Cobb also did five years with Hampton before forming his own seven-piece outfit.
Vinson had sung ballads with the Larkin Orchestra but, according to Bob Porter’s helpful notes, “It was a short tour with Big Bill Broonzy that left a lasting impression on the alto saxophonist.” It is likely that some of the tricks Vinson learned were lightness of touch and a steadfast determination always to swing; since any decent encyclopedia should have a picture of the great Broonzy under the heading “Good Time Blues”. Indeed, even when singing on the slow and mournful “I’m In An Awful Mood”, he seems to have a twinkle in his eye or his tongue in his cheek. Of course there are many styles of blues, not everyone who plays the music is depressed, and certainly not all downtrodden people can play the music. This idea is explored by John Sinclair on a song called “Doctor Blues” from his album Full Circle. Sinclair quotes bluesman Roosevelt Sykes as saying, “Now, some people don’t understand. They think a blues player have to be worried, troubled, to sing the blues. That’s wrong. It’s a talent.”
So it is fitting that the opening cut “Somebody Sure Has Got to Go” was written by Broonzy. While this piece showcases Vinson’s convincingly tough vocals, it is less of a hoot than much of Broonzy’s material, though McShann’s piano brings fun to the middle section. The track instantly shows how much space Vinson preferred in his music, and on Kidney Stew is Fine the intimacy of the players and separation of the instruments could cut it as chamber music.
After starring on alto and vocals with Cootie Williams’s band from 1942-45, Vinson formed his own sixteen- and then seven-piece bands. One of his smaller ensembles included Johnny Coles, Red Garland and John Coltrane, and he wrote “Tune Up” and “Four” for Miles Davis. Like a lot of jazz- and bluesmen, Vinson went through periods of obscurity and rediscovery, but continued to work. In Jazz: The Essential Companion , Brian Priestley notes that Kidney Stew Is Fine was recorded in the same year as Vinson’s first European tour; the following year, 1970, he was featured with Johnny Otis at the Monterey festival. In 1972 he joined Count Basie on a European tour and continued gigging regularly into the 1980s.
On title track “Old Kidney Stew Is Fine”, Vinson sings of preferring not to go for a fine woman with caviar tastes when he can go back to an old girl and get kidney stew instead. Since that way: “You can save your money, and keep your piece of mind.” So many songs use suggestive food imagery that I must wonder if this refers to the kind of “kidney action” which Serge Gainsbourg was so fond of in “Je T’aime”! “Je vais et je viens, entre tes reins” (“I come and I go, in between your hips”—literally “Entre tes reins”; reins means kidneys or lower back in French).
“Wait a Minute Baby” sounds like the kind of jump blues that T-Bone Walker did better than most, but is actually a Vinson composition. On the chorus, Walker’s clean and restrained guitar playing is the sublime response to Vinson’s call. Later in the album (on the stately “Wee Baby Blues” and particularly the sprightly “Old Maid Boogie”) the guitarist cuts loose a little more, with some of the delicate trademark runs that brighten every single piece of music he has ever played on. Another Broonzy composition, “Just A Dream”, is an elegant and precise workout. In part of the song, “Cleanhead” sings of being in the White House sitting in the President’s chair. After a grateful handshake from the President, he wakes to find that not only is he not in the Oval Office, but he actually has no chair at all! Even while hinting at oppression, his vocal power never obscures his sense of mischief and good humor. In both “Just a Dream” and Vinson’s take on Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” he refers to himself in the third person, as “Cleanhead”, a device that tickles me to death. (Incidentally, the nickname comes from his baldness from the effects of a hair-straightening accident.)
Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson passed away on July 2, 1988. His strident alto playing was in tune with the bebop of Charlie Parker. His “blues shouting” harked back to a pre-microphone era but, as with the best exponents, had a clarity that enabled him to be heard over a band. These days, the term “blues shouter” sounds as unlikely an occupation as being a Manchester City fan. Mind you, anyone who has seen the brilliant fictional portrayal of City-supporting 1970s cop Gene Hunt from the series Life on Mars will hope that using energy and wit to portray flawed humanity will never go out of fashion. A few people will feel that this recording sounds pedestrian or passe, but Kidney Stew Is Fine preserves one of the most popular sessions of a charming man who convincingly straddled the worlds of blues, jazz and R&B.