Obituary: Mose Vinson (1917-2002)

By Richard Allen Burns - 2002

Barrelhouse blues piano player Mose Vinson was born June 2, 1917 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He passed away on November 16, 2002 from complications from diabetes.  He was eighty-five. One of the last of his kind, Vinson approached music by mixing blues with jazz and gospel. A regular on Beale Street, he played with such greats as Booker T. Laury, Sunnyland Slim, and B.B. King.

Vinson learned to play piano from his mother in church, but this religious influence contrasts with that which his father provided. In a 1993 interview, when Vinson performed on the campus of Arkansas State University, he recalled that his mother attended a church near Memphis. He remembered: "They [his parents] used to send me around--well, you know--to sing a solo. Wasn't nobody in there. She'd take my finger and make me go over the song. My pa, he took me around to hear the people play. I listened to the people play a little bit though, come back, and in two or three days, I'd he playing their songs." But that same year, Vinson's father also took him to jook joints, and by the time he was a teenager, Vinson was playing jazz and blues. "I'd been playing since I was a little boy, five years old. When I got big enough (by 1932 I was fifteen years old), I was playing for nightclubs. They put me in a reform school for that, and 1 had to quit that!" he recalled. Tired of country life, his family moved to Memphis in 1932. There Vinson met Sunnyland Slim. By then he was playing in a style that was typical of the 1930s, and throughout the 1940s, Vinson continued playing in jook joints and at parties in and around Memphis. His friends called him "Boogie," reflecting the style he played best.

Blues scholar David Evans said of Vinson, "He was one of the last of the old-time solo piano players." He worked, as a studio caretaker at Sun Records and played piano between sets until Sun founder Sam Phillips heard him and recorded him in 1953. Though none of these initial recordings were released at the time, most of these can now be heard on the CD boxed set Sun Records: The Blues Years, 1950-1958. The year following his first recording with Sun, Vinson recorded on one of Sun's greatest singles, James Cotton's "Cotton Crop Blues." He also recorded on Sun with Walter Horton, Joe Hill Louis, and several other recording
artists.

During the last three decades of his life, Vinson played in festivals and at colleges and universities, including the Chicago Blues Festival, the University of Chicago Folk Festival and the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1992, he was featured on National Public Radio's program, Bluestage. During the 1980s and 1990s, Vinson could be heard playing at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival and at the Center for Southern Folklore. The Center's director, Judy Peiser, co-produced Mose Vinson: Piano Man, Vinson's only album. The album features eighteen cuts of some of Vinson's finest piano playing that he had perfected over a span of seventy years. He was also featured, along with Booker T. Laury in Memphis Piano Blues Today, a collection of 1990s Memphis blues. In 1998, he appeared on the Junkyardmen's album, Scrapheap Full of Blues.

Evans told a reporter that like other musicians of his time, Vinson was "under-appreciated, more or less taken for granted here in Memphis . . . a real jewel." Peiser remembered him as quite personable, inspiring others, both young and old, to play along with him. When Peiser brought Vinson to perform at ASU, there was a standing-room-only crowd. Vinson invited audience members to join him onstage. Taking the hands of adults as well as children, he guided them across the keyboard in familiar tunes. An unsung hero on Beale Street, Mose Vinson will be missed throughout the Mississippi Delta.

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