From the days in the mid-1930s when he was a teenaged singer and saxophonist in the Houston band of Chester Boone, Cleanhead had his own way with the blues. He was good enough as a young man to tour with blues artists Big Bill Broonzy and Lil Green and then to join trumpeter Cootie Williams’s band.
In the Forties he infused his alto with bebop and led his own big band and a sextet that included John Coltrane, who was influenced by Vinson’s expansive style. His “Cherry Red” with Williams made him popular for a while, but it wasn’t until Cannonball Adderley created new exposure for Vinson in the early Sixties that he began to be noticed again by large numbers of people. Through the Seventies and Eighties he made several albums that were critical and commercial successes.
Vinson was born on 8 December 1917, Houston, Texas. Taking up the alto saxophone as a child, his proficiency at the instrument attracted local bandleaders even while young Vinson was still at school, and he began touring with Chester Boone's territory band during school holidays. Upon his graduation in 1935, Vinson joined the band full-time, remaining when the outfit was taken over by Milton Larkins the following year. During his five-year tenure with the legendary Larkins band he met T-Bone Walker, Arnett Cobb, and Illinois Jacquet, who all played with Larkins in the late 30s. More importantly the band's touring schedule brought Vinson into contact with Big Bill Broonzy, who taught him how to shout the blues, and Jay Hootie McShann's Orchestra whose innovative young alto player, Charlie Parker, was kidnapped by Vinson for several days in 1941 in order to study his technique.