Rerun: Lockjaw vs Cleanhead

Today’s post is a favorite “Smackdown” from the Hymie’s archive…


They performed together on 11 tracks recorded by Cootie Williams’ big band in 1944. Later that year Davis left the band, and Vinson recorded a couple more numbers with them as a vocalist, launching his own career. Davis, a tenor, and Vinson, an alto, both developed distinctive styles and enjoyed active careers into the 80s.

So we can get it out of the way, the first category is…

Best Nickname:

Davis became “Lockjaw” because of the way people noticed he clamped down on his mouthpiece. Vinson became “Cleanhead” after an accident with a lye-laced straightener destroyed his hair. This is a 1977 recording of his song “Cleanhead’s Blues” with Johnny and Shuggie Otis:

Winner: Vinson. Its just a better story.

Best Band Played In:

Davis played with Count Basie’s band for more than a decade, working alongside a whole cast of jazz legends.

Previously, he had performed in big bands led by Louis Armstrong, Andy Kirk and Cootie Williams.

In the late 50s, Davis led a group featuring which you could say set the standard for the organ/tenor sound that became widely popular in the coming decade. Later still he recorded with several “all star” groups for Pablo Records, performing with Oscar Peterson’s trio, Zoot Sims, and the Tommy Flannagan trio.

Meanwhile, Vinson led a 1952-3 group that included a young John Coltrane, but prior to his breakthrough R&B hit “Old Maid Boogie” had not played in a lot of the great big bands. As mentioned before, he did perform in Cootie Williams’ band at the same time as Davis (1941) on a number of cuts, giving him his first opportunities as a vocalist. Vinson’s extensive catalog includes a variety of groups that suggest his flexibility as a performer – In the 70s, he performed with T-Bone Walker and Jay McShann on one session, Johnny and Shuggie Otis on another, and Larry Coryell on a third. Never one to rest, a short time before he passed away he played on a great session with Etta James issued in two volumes by Fantasy in 1986.

Winner: It’s close but Davis wins. I recognize that Vinson played with a wide variety of great musicians including a variety of my personal favorites, like blues pianist Jay McShann, but Davis’ various bandmates are pretty consistently regarded as legends. I may prefer McShann to Oscar Peterson but most people wouldn’t agree.

Best Original Composition:

We could not find a lot of tracks credited to Davis on the records we have in the shop – He seems to stick to standards when recording as a leader and toss in the occasional original, like “Squattin'” from a 1950 quintet session with Wynton Kelly and a relatively unknown rhythm section.

This stomper titled “Telegraph” is from his Montreux ’77 recording on Pablo with the Oscar Peterson trio, and was composed by him:

This next track is from another Pablo album, this one with Tommy Flannagan’s trio. Here’s “The Chef”:

Vinson is credited with writing “Tune Up” and “Four” which are commonly attributed to Miles Davis. Gosh, hard to imagine Miles taking credit for somebody else’s work…

The track you heard above was the biggest hit from Vinson’s R&B years, “Old Maid Boogie” (It topped the R&B charts for two weeks). Its flip side was “Kidney Stew” which became his signature tune – Its heard here not from that original single, but from an album Vinson made years later called Kidney Stew is Fine. This recording on Delmark (From the early 70s?) features a great blues band with legends Jay McShann and T-Bone Walker.

Winner: Davis’ originals are some of the swingingest tracks on his Pablo albums, but not particularly memorable. Vinson wrote several great R&B tracks early on, and also managed to include at least a few new jazz arrangements on his 70s albums, like “The Clean Machine” and “Non-Alcoholic” from his 1978 album on Muse named for the first song. Its pretty clear Vinson was more prolific and more versatile a composer.

Most Facebook followers: Vinson, with 69. Sadly, in a world where “Weird Al” Yankovic has nearly 38,000 followers on Facebook, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis has only 32.

Best adjective used by Vinson is described as an “advanced stylist” and Davis as “the possessor of a cutting and immediately identifiable tough tenor tone”. Certainly Davis gets more adjectives, and its safe to say they’re cooler.

Vinson won the first internet round, but Davis took the second washing it all out.

Most resemblance to Dave:

Winner: Vinson. Bald head and (Sometimes) big beard beats Davis’ look which usually featured a moustache. Davis got pretty round, too, whereas Vinson looks pretty lean even in his later years.

Best recording of a standard:

Davis is likely to win this round – His records lean heavily towards standards, from this 1950 version of “Sweet and Lovely” from the same session with Wynton Kelly heard earlier to this great arrangement of “On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” (One of my favorite standards from the stage) a quarter century later:

Vinson is more likely to have written a standard than recorded one – He has recorded the Mercer Ellington standard “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” a few times but he’s been singing that one since the 40s, making him part of the reason it became a standard.

Here’s “Straight no Chaser” from a live album Vinson made with Larry Coryell in 1971. The band jumps right into Vinson’s own “Cleanhead Blues” at the end.

Winner: Davis, although its not entirely fair because so many of Vinson’s originals are standard-worthy. The Pablo albums Davis recorded with Oscar Peterson and Tommy Flannagan feature great quartet performances of jazz standards from Rogers & Hart’s “Lover” to lesser-played but good songs like James Moody’s “Last Train from Overbrook”.


We’re too much of a Cleanhead fan to let him lose, honestly – This has been a rigged match from the start. Lockjaw is a great tenor but easily outshadowed by a dozen contemporaries (Especially Johnny Griffin), whereas Cleanhead carved out a unique niche during his long career which allowed him to shift comfortably from rhythm and blues, to jump blues to jazz, even within a single session.

In fact, here at Hymie’s we usually file his records under blues, rather than jazz. Both Davis and Vinson are such great artists that we usually only have a few by each in stock. Hope you enjoyed our little smackdown, even if the winner was decided from the start. Next time around we promise a more fair fight.


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