Birth of the Blues: Albert Collins
"I was told when I started to play that simple music is the hardest music in the world to play. And blues is simple music …"
Although fans consider him a blues man, and a master at that, Albert Collins spent a lot of time blurring the lines between pure blues, jazz, funk and straight out rhythm and blues. With his trademark blonde Fender Telecaster and his unique lean fretting technique and slamming, percussive right hand, Albert Collins melded a hard Texas blues sound with a jazzier Chicago-style horn section and heated it up with a blues mans showmanship for a style that was to become his own. His shows were the stuff of legend; the big man, his guitar, backed by usually an eight or ten piece band and amps never played below ten, he strutted out onto the stage wailing and never backed off.
Hailing from rural Texas, Albert was born in Leona, Texas on October 1, 1932. When he was nine years old, his family relocated to the notoriously tough Third Ward ghetto in Houston, Texas where Albert took an interest in the piano in school. Albert had said in several interviews that his earliest musical influences were jazz pianists, namely Jimmy McGriff. He managed to secure an organ as a youngster but when it was stolen, Collins turned his attention to the guitar. Starting out on an Alamo acoustic, he moved onto an Epiphone as a teenager. His cousin, a future blues legend himself, Lightning Hopkins, taught him a little bit as well as other future famous Third Ward guitar slingers, Johnny "Guitar' Watson and Johnny Copeland. While learning his skills, he fell under the influence of T-Bone Walker, B.B. King , Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown and Eddie 'Guitar Slim' Jones.
It wasn't long before Collins was playing the same Houston area clubs where the others had made their names and in many cases, playing behind them. In 1952, he formed his first band, The Rhythm Rockers and continued to play the Houston club scene. It was during his early days that Collins began his 'blues walks', where he would wander into the audience at the end of a 150-foot guitar chord. Many people, Albert included, have tried to credit him with this gimmick but Eddie 'Guitar Slim' Jones is also credited with the same thing. In one of his latter interview, Collins addressed the issue.
Albert said "I thought of the idea myself, before I saw Guitar Slim do that. A sax player named Big Jay McNeely used to walk out in the audience. So I went down to the music store and said "I want a 150' cord." The guy looked at me and said, "What do you want that much cord for?" "I'm gonna start playing out in the audience." He started laughing at me. That was in 1953. Then when Guitar Slim came through, he probably had been doing it all the time, but that was the first time I saw him."
In 1958, he cut a record called 'The Freeze' for Kangaroo records, which became a solid regional hit for Collins. With a strong local fan base, Collins turned out several other 'icy' themed tracks for Kangaroo and other local labels including 'Frost bite', 'Thaw Out', 'Icy Blues' and 'Sno-cone'.
In 1962 Collins cut what became his signature song, the instrumental 'Frosty' that went on to sell 1 million copies. However, he didn't follow up the single and was unable to tour extensively in support of it because he held down a day job and was only able to take local gigs or travel on the weekends. There has been a story circulating for some time now, and often repeated by Collins himself in interviews, that both Johnny Winter and Janis Joplin, both Beaumont, Texas natives, were in the studio the day that Collins cut 'Frosty' and that Joplin herself predicted that the single was going to be a huge hit.
He subsequently moved to Kansas City, Missouri but found it tough to get gigs and would travel back and play often in his native Houston area. During one of his performances in Houston in 1967, Collins was 'discovered' by Canned Heat's Bob 'Bear' Hite who convinced Albert to move to Los Angeles, which led to a recording contract with Imperial Records in 1969.
He recorded three albums for Imperial but at their direction, that were aimed more towards the then black soul audiences as much as towards a blues audience. Of the three albums, 'Love Can Be Found Anywhere (Even In A Guitar)', 'Trash Talking' and 'The Compleat (sic) Albert Collins' the last seemed to be tinged a little more blue than the first two. Collins was playing the L.A. ballroom circuit at the time and opened for the Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Doors.
He then left Imperial in 1971 and gave up on music for approximately a year. During that year, he worked construction with his landlord, working on Neil Diamonds house. After a short time, his landlord told him, "This is not for you. You need to be playing". Collins then started a job driving truck when his wife stepped in and told him "No, you better go back to music". When he was asked why he had walked away from music for that year, Albert said "You just get to the point, you know, where it looks like everybody's making it but you."
In 1972, Albert was the first act signed by Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk's new Tumbleweed Records label. Joe Walsh produced several singles for Collins while he was with Tumbleweed but the single album, 'There's Gonna Be A Change', garnered little attention. The label failed two years later and again, Collins was without a record company.
He stayed in the clubs and worked gigs up and down the west coast but he didn't record again until he was signed by the fledgling Alligator label out of Chicago in 1977. Alligator founder and tireless blues promoter Bruce Iglauer found out quickly that he had landed a major talent when Collins first album for Alligator, 'Ice Pickin', earned him a Grammy nomination and the critical acclaim that he had been due. It should also be noted that up until that album, Collins was primarily an instrumentalist but he surprised many on 'Ice Pickin' with his solid vocals.
His next two albums for Alligator, 'Frostbite' and 'Frozen Alive' also secured Grammy nominations and locked him in as Alligator Records leading act. However, his lone Grammy win was one he shared with fellow Alligator artists Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland from the album 'Showdown'. 'Showdown' is showcase of contemporary blues guitar and a true must hear for the serious blues fan. All in all, Collins' Alligator catalogue is a solid hit from the first album to the last.
In 1985, at the insistence of George Thorogood, Collins jammed on stage with him for a fiery rendition of 'The Madison Blues' at Live Aid in Philadelphia, bringing his ice-cold blues to world. Estimates indicated that there were over 1 billion people viewing the performances that day. In an interview, Collins said "I was excited, man [laughs]. That's when I really got stage fright – about the first time in my life. I looked out and saw all those people, and George Thorogood said, "Hey man, you scared?" I said, "Yeah!" He said, "Me too. Let's go get 'em!"
In 1991, Collins left Alligator and signed with Point Blank – Charisma Records and released his self-titled album shortly after. He began touring, eventually heading to Europe where he was invited to play 'The Legends Of Guitar' in Seville, Spain in 1992.
He fell ill while touring Switzerland in July 1993. He was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to his liver. He returned home to the United States and died November 24, 1993.
Although his recordings are his legacy, it was the strength and reach of his influence that is his true testament. Many blues superstars list Albert as an influence on their playing. Everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Robert Cray.
His signature 'icy' tone is tough to replicate for even the most seasoned blues guitarists. Early on, he developed tuning his guitar to an Fminor and playing exclusively with a capo. Collins claimed that this was a trick he learned from Lightning Hopkins. He would place the capo high on the neck and then usually only play his leads in one position. He also would not use a pick claiming that it never felt 'right' to him, opting instead to pluck and pull the strings in such a way to deliver that sparse, cold tone that was pure Collins.
Sadly, Albert Collins simply ran out of time. At the time of his death, he was on the edge of superstardom and although already well known and respected in blues circles, he was poised for crossover success. But he left behind a heavy imprint on the very soul of the blues. Blues can be scorching and white-hot and they can be bone chilling cold but when they are 'ice' covered, they're Albert Collins' blues.