Albert Collins
Collins in 1990
Background information
Birth nameAlbert Gene Drewery
Also known asThe Ice Man
Born(1932-10-01)October 1, 1932
Leona, Texas, US
DiedNovember 24, 1993(1993-11-24) (aged 61)
Las Vegas, Nevada, US
GenresBlues, blues rock, jump blues
Occupation(s)Musician, songwriter
InstrumentsGuitar, vocals, harmonica
Years active1952–1993
LabelsImperial, Alligator

Albert Gene Drewery, known as Albert Collins and the Ice Man (October 1, 1932 – November 24, 1993),[1] was an American electric blues guitarist and singer with a distinctive guitar style. He was noted for his powerful playing and his use of altered tunings and a capo. His long association with the Fender Telecaster led to the title "The Master of the Telecaster".[2]

Early life

Collins was born in Leona, Texas, on October 1, 1932.[3] He was introduced to the guitar at an early age by his cousin Lightnin' Hopkins, also a Leona resident, who played at family gatherings. The Collins family relocated to Marquez, Texas, in 1938 and to Houston in 1941,[4] where he attended Jack Yates High School.[5] Collins took piano lessons when he was young, but when his piano tutor was unavailable his cousin Willow Young would lend Albert his guitar and taught him the altered tuning that he used throughout his career.[4] Collins tuned his guitar to an open F-minor chord (FCFAbCF), with a capo at the 5th, 6th or 7th fret.[6] At the age of sixteen, he decided to concentrate on learning the guitar after hearing "Boogie Chillen'" by John Lee Hooker.

Career

At eighteen Collins started his own group, the Rhythm Rockers, in which he honed his craft. During this time he was employed for four years at a ranch in Normangee, Texas; he then worked as a truck driver for various companies for twelve years.[4][5]

Collins played an Epiphone guitar during his first two years with the Rhythm Rockers, but in 1952, after seeing Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown playing a Fender Esquire, he decided to purchase a Fender. He wanted a Telecaster, but because of the cost he chose to buy an Esquire, which he took to the Parker Music Company in Houston to be fitted with a Telecaster neck. This was his main guitar until he moved to California, and it was the guitar that he used on his earliest recordings, including his signature song, "Frosty".[4] For the rest of his career he played a "maple cap"–necked natural ash body Fender 1966 Custom Telecaster with a Gibson PAF humbucking pickup retrofitted into the neck position, which became the basis for a Fender Custom Artist signature model[7] in 1990.

In 1954, Collins, then aged 22 and without a record release, was joined in the Rhythm Rockers by 17-year-old Johnny Copeland, who had just left the Dukes of Rhythm (a band he had started with the Houston blues musician Joe "Guitar" Hughes).[8]

Collins started to play regularly in Houston, notably at Shady's Playhouse, where James "Widemouth" Brown (brother of Gatemouth Brown) and other well-known Houston blues musicians would meet for "Blue Monday" jams.[9][10] By the mid-1950s, he had established his reputation as a local guitarist of note and had started to appear regularly at a Fifth Ward club, Walter's Lounge, with the group Big Tiny and the Thunderbirds.[11][12]

The saxophonist and music teacher Henry Hayes heard about Collins from Joe "Guitar" Hughes. After seeing him perform live, Hayes encouraged Collins to record a single for Kangaroo Records, a label he had started with his friend M. L. Young.[13] Collins recorded his debut single, "Freeze", backed with "Collins Shuffle", for Kangaroo at Gold Star Studios, in Houston, in the spring of 1958, with Hayes on saxophone.[14] Texas blues bands of this period incorporated a horn section, and Collins later credited Hayes with teaching him how to arrange for horns.[4]

In 1964, he recorded "Frosty" at Gulf Coast Recording Studio in Beaumont, Texas for Hall Records, owned by Bill Hall, who had signed Collins on the recommendation of Cowboy Jack Clement, a songwriter and producer who had engineered sessions for Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash at Sun Records.[15] His debut album, The Cool Sound of Albert Collins, released in 1965 on the TCF Hall label, consisted of previously released instrumentals, including "Thaw-Out", "Sno-Cone", and "Don't Lose Your Cool".[16]

On 19 June 1968, the group Canned Heat was playing at the Music Hall in Houston, and a friend of theirs mentioned that Collins was playing at the Ponderosa Club, which they duly attended.[17] After Collins had finished playing, they introduced themselves and offered to help secure an agent for him as well as an introduction to Imperial Records in California.[18] With the offer of a record deal and regular live work, Collins decided to move, relocating to Kansas City in July 1968, where he played in the organ trio of the keyboardist Lawrence Wright, and then in November moving to Palo Alto, California.[4] For his 1968 Imperial album, Collins chose the title Love Can Be Found Anywhere (Even in a Guitar), from the lyrics of Canned Heat's "Fried Hockey Boogie", in honor of Canned Heat and their lead singer Bob Hite, who wrote the liner notes for the album.[4] In the spring of 1969 Collins was hired by Bob Krasnow to play on the Ike and Tina Turner album The Hunter, which was released by Krasnow's Blue Thumb Records.[19][20] The move to California was proving to be the right decision, with Collins establishing himself as a regular act on the West Coast circuit, playing at the Fillmore West and the Whisky a Go Go[4] and at the "Newport 69" festival in Northridge, California, in June 1969 and the Gold Rush Festival at Lake Amador, California, in October.[21][22] In December 1969 his debut album, The Cool Sound of Albert Collins, was reissued as Truckin’ with Albert Collins by Blue Thumb.[23]

In November 1971, the Denver label Tumbleweed Records, which had been newly created by Larry Ray and Bill Szymczyk, released Collins's album There's Gotta Be a Change; it was the label's first official release.[24][25] The single "Get Your Business Straight", backed with "Frog Jumpin'", was released by Tumbleweed in February 1972.[26][27] In 1973 Tumbleweed closed because of financial problems, leaving Collins without a record label.[28] He was signed by Bruce Iglauer, the owner of Alligator Records, in 1978 on the recommendation of Dick Shurman, whom Collins had met in Seattle.[5] His first release for the label was Ice Pickin' (1978), which was recorded at Curtom Studios, in Chicago, and produced by Iglauer, Shurman and Richard McLeese. On 2 February 1978, Collins appeared in concert with the Dutch band Barrelhouse, which was his first live appearance outside the United States. The concert was filmed for the Dutch TV show Tros Sesjun and was subsequently released on vinyl in 1979 by Munich Records as Albert Collins with The Barrelhouse Live.[29] Collins won a W. C. Handy Award in the category Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1983 for his Alligator release Don't Lose Your Cool.[30]

In 1984 Collins did a two-tape instructional lesson for Arlen Roth and his company, Hot Licks.

On 13 July 1985, Collins performed with George Thorogood and the Destroyers at Live Aid, appearing as guest soloist on "Madison Blues"; the US part of the charity concert was held at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia and, with simultaneous broadcasts in other countries, was viewed by over 1.5 billion people.[31] In December 1986, Collins appeared in concert with Etta James and Joe Walsh at the Wiltern Theater, in Los Angeles; the concert was subsequently released on video under the title Jazzvisions: Jump the Blues Away.[32][33] The backing musicians for the concert were Rick Rosas (bass), Michael Huey (drums), Ed Sanford (Hammond B3 organ), Kip Noble (piano) and Josh Sklar (guitar). Also in 1986, Collins won a Grammy Award with Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland for their album Showdown![2] Collins finished working on his seventh Alligator album, Cold Snap, by October 1986. It was released shortly afterwards to good reviews and received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Recording of 1987.[34][35] Collins cited the album as personally important to him because of the involvement of the organist Jimmy McGriff, an early musical idol, with whom Collins had played in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1966.[4]

On 12 February 1987, Collins appeared as a musical guest on the NBC talk show Late Night with David Letterman.[36] He made a cameo appearance later that same year in the comedy film Adventures in Babysitting.[37] Also in 1987, the American composer John Zorn and Collins collaborated on a suite, "Two-Lane Highway", which was subsequently released on Zorn's album Spillane. On 22 April 1988, Collins appeared at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in a group consisting of B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan; the group played on the steamboat President as it cruised along the Mississippi River, in recognition of the musical heritage of New Orleans and artists such as Fate Marable, Louis Armstrong and Henry Red Allen, who had entertained passengers on the fleet of riverboats owned by the Streckfus brothers.[38][39][40]

Collins was signed to Point Blank Records, a subsidiary of Virgin Records, in 1991.[41] Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records expressed his disappointment at the departure of Collins while acknowledging that he had signed Collins on a record-to-record basis.[42] On 15 November 1991, Collins performed with Robert Cray, Steve Cropper and Dave Edmunds at the Guitar Legends event in Seville, a series of five concerts to promote the upcoming Seville Expo '92.[43] The preceding month, on 28 October, Collins was filmed in concert for the television program Austin City Limits; the concert was broadcast on 21 February 1992 and released on DVD in April 2008 as Albert Collins: Live From Austin, TX.[44] In 1993, Collins played at the Point Blank Borderline Blues Festival in London, which ran from 17 March to 27 March; this was his last appearance in the UK.[37]

Collins was performing at the Paléo Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, in July 1993 when he was taken ill.[45] He was diagnosed in mid-August with lung cancer, which had metastasized to his liver, with an expected survival time of four months. Tracks for his last album, Live '92/'93, were recorded at shows that September. Collins died on 24 November 1993 at the age of 61. He was interred at Davis Memorial Park, in Las Vegas, Nevada.[46][47] His final album, Live '92/'93, was posthumously nominated at the 38th Grammy Awards of 1996 in the category Best Blues Contemporary Album.[48]

Work outside music

In his early days, Collins worked as a paint mixer and truck driver to make ends meet.[49] In 1971, when he was 39 years old, he worked in construction, since he could not make a proper living from his music.[50] One of his construction jobs was a remodeling project for Neil Diamond.[51] He continued with this type of work until the late 1970s,[52] when his wife, Gwen, talked him into returning to a career in music.[53]

Death and legacy

After a three-month battle with cancer, Collins died at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 24, 1993. He was 61 years old. Surviving him were his wife, Gwendolyn, and his father, Andy Thomas.[54]

Collins was an inspiration to a generation of Texas guitar players, including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughan. He was among a small group of Texas blues players, along with Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Johnny Copeland, who shaped the legacy of T-Bone Walker into a modern blues template that was to have a major influence on many later players. In an interview with Guitar World magazine, Robert Cray said, "it was seeing Albert Collins at a rock festival in 1969 that really turned my head around." Two years later, Collins played at Cray's high-school graduation party in Tacoma, Washington, and the ice-pick sound sunk in deep: "That was it," Cray recalled. "That changed my whole life around. From that moment I started seriously studying the blues."[55] Rolling Stone ranked Collins at number 56 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists.[56]

Collins is remembered for his informal and audience-engaging live performances. He would frequently leave the stage while still playing to mingle with the audience.[57] The use of an extended guitar cord allowed Collins to go outside clubs to the sidewalk; one anecdote stated that he left a club with the audience in tow to visit the store next door to buy a candy bar without once stopping his act.[58]

He is also remembered for his humorous stage presence, which can be seen in the comedy film Adventures in Babysitting. It is also prominent in the documentary Antones: Austin's Home of the Blues: Collins was playing a lengthy solo one night at Antone's and left the building while still playing. He returned to the stage still playing the solo and resumed entertaining the audience in person. Shortly afterwards, a man arrived at the club and gave Collins the pizza he had just ordered.[59]

Discography

Studio albums

Collaborations

Live albums

Compilations

Guest work

Singles

Videography

Film and television

References

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