It’s a long way from the plantations in Thibodeaux to the Pacific Rim but Ernie Vincent seems to make the trip look easy.
Vincent’s journey began in 1945 when he was born into a blues-singing family from Thibodeaux, Louisiana. His earliest recollections are of the “blues jumps” that his family would hold beneath the old
oaks of the plantation on rural highway 308.
The family picked up and moved to the Crescent City while Vincent was still very young. Vincent says that around the age of 19, he had an “overnight snap” and the result was that he immediately knew what he wanted to do with his life and that was to make music.
“Most 18- to- 19-year olds are hanging and partying,” says Vincent, “but I had acquired a guitar and began to teach myself how to play. A couple of local musicians named Curly and Slim really got me on the way to playing. Every Friday, Curly used to do a kind of speakeasy night where people would get together and play music, shoot dice and drink corn liquor into the wee hours. Curly would ask me to play once in awhile and that stoked my confidence. I used to see Slim every day on my way home from school. He’d just be out there on his front porch making great music. He also taught me a great deal. ”
As he got better, word. got out and within a month or two a fellow drove up and said he was looking for a guitar player to play a gig on the West Bank.
Vincent says, “I told the man that I really only knew three songs. The man just looked at me and said, ‘Oh, that’s plenty’. Well we got over there and shit, I played my three songs and the guy gave me eight or ten dollars, I don’t remember exactly how much. All I knew was that it was a heck of a lot of fun. So I came back and just started practicing like crazy.”
Eventually, Vincent met a handful of musicians and they started gigging around as Li’l Ernie and the Alpines. Their travels took them to central Mississippi and for nearly a year that’s where they made their home.
“We once played a packed American Legion Hall in. Mississippi,» Vincent recalls, “and from that moment on I knew that I was truly hooked. I knew that I could make money and still have fun.”
Vincent met an old boy named Po-Will in Meridien, Mississippi and he was the one who showed him the tricks of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Po-Will gave Vincent a rock-steady foundation in the blues and an appreciation for the music as well. He also showed him how to drink moonshine (but that’s another story altogether).
The Mississippi venue was soon expanded to include five states, from Texas and Florida, and the gigs just kept pouring in. But, after another year of endless fast food and countless gigs across the southeast, Vincent returned home to New Orleans.
Says Vincent, “In, the mid-1970s, I started looking for guys who could read music and deal with charts. Together we created the Top Notes. All of this rehearsing really cemented the tightness of the band and we started backing a lot of top name entertainment, people like Solomon Burke, Joe Simon, Johnny Adams. I also got a deal with Malaco but nothing ever came of it so I went out and started my own thing.”
Vincent and the Top Notes cut their first single at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. From that session, Vincent threw himself into studying the recording process. He was working as a longshoreman at the time and he would finish his job at midnight and then get on a bus at one a.m. bound .for Nashville where he would watch the production process from start to finish. He made contacts in Nashville and brought that firsthand knowledge and networking home with him to New Orleans. He learned the music business from engineering to promotion and everything in between.
In 1984, Vincent started the Kolab record label. The label has produced CDs such as Al Jackson’s Poor Man’s Blues, The Bayou Renegades’ Matsue House Parry and Vincent’s own Blues-Jazz-Zydeco.
As a producer, Vincent says he looks for a performer to have two things: discipline and regimentation.
”I’m looking for a musician to take instruction without creating any inhibitions in the music,” Vincent explains. “You know, New Orleans is a great place for musical growth that is purely personal. It doesn’t, however, create a disciplinary environment for the musicians. And that’s not necessarily wrong. Here in New Orleans, we just play our happy music and go along. We’re in our own world here. But, we’re nor commercial, and that’s for sure.”
Currently, Vincent is busy working on his latest, Kickin’ the Blues, as well as producing a CD for a young, up-and-coming vocalist/percussionist named Tommy Singleton.
Vincent is very optimistic about the New Orleans musical scene.
“Louisiana,” says Vincent, “has a very bright future in my opinion. We just have to get more in line on the emerging issues such as intellectual property and in old issues such as songwriter copyright and the like.”
With this impressive background, Vincent has begun taking trips to the Pacific Rim especially to Tokyo, Osaka and Matsue, promoting Louisiana products and especially CDs to the people of the Far East.
“The Pacific Rim is the future,” Vincent says. “And besides, the people over there just love our music!”
Ernie Vincent and the Top Notes play every Sunday at Ike’s Purple Rain located at Saratoga and Washington beginning at 9 p.m.