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Albert Collins

'Iceman' Albert Collins
By T.E. Mattox

or a bluesman, Albert Collins was different. Some attribute it to his jazz influenced, Texas upbringing while others simply credit his 'legendary' family members. Then, there are those who seem to think it was his unique guitar-tuning or that dynamic style of finger-picking that set him apart. Most blues fans, including yours truly would probably check the box; all of the above. My only caveat would be to add Albert's tremendous sense of humor then attach a guitar chord long enough to stretch through a crowded club, out to the street and around the corner enabling the aforementioned Mr. Collins to order a pizza and return to the stage without dropping a note or missing a riff from the song he was performing. Yes, Albert Collins was different…different with extra freaking anchovies.

In 1990, after anchoring a star-studded, high-octane performance at the Long Beach Blues Festival, Mr. Collins stepped off stage to talk about his blues, his road and his life as 'Master of the Telecaster.' Our conversation began with Albert's earliest musical influences… "Well from my raisin' up man," he smiles, "I was around jazz musicians a lot in Texas…and also blues musicians. But we mostly had horn players, like big band sounds out of Texas. That was a little bit different, you know?'

Albert Collins performing
Collins connecting with his audience. Photo: Mike Meadows

Blues ran through Albert's family, including a famous cousin…"Lightnin' Hopkins!" He finishes my sentence. "I learned a lot from him growin' up. My next one was John Lee Hooker from acoustic guitar. Then after I left acoustic guitar… I had Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones), T-Bone Walker and B.B. of course, they were my favorite's man. I always listened to their music but I never wanted to play like them, though. I always wanted my own style, you know? I used to play their records and listen to them."

How does it feel when younger players come up to you now and say the same thing? "I love that, you know? At least I'm leaving something here when I'm gone, huh? Yeah… I enjoy that man, really. Because you know, I don't play with a pick, and a lot of people say man, 'How do you play your guitar without a pick?'"

That can be a little hard on strings? "I usually break three or four 'em," he admits. "I don't play with a pick man; I have to pull hard, man that's why I have to tell people to turn my amp up. All set on 10, trying to find 12! (laughing) And the way I tune is different. I start out with standard tuning and I change from that to try to have my own style that's the reason why… it's a minor tuning that I have. A minor, D minor whatever you want to call it."

Albert's finger-picking style combined with the minor tuning he learned from another cousin, Willow Young, helped shape Collins' distinctive cool sound. And for Albert, less was sometimes more. "You know before 'wah-wah' came out," he told me, "I was doing 'wah-wah' with my hand… before 'wah-wah' hit the streets. A lot of people use electronics, but I don't care nothin' about it."

the writer with Albert Collins at Long Beach, 1990
As the picture is snapped, Albert says, 'Act like you're rich!' I laughed.
Photo: Mike Meadows

Just off the stage, I mentioned that some of those 'younger' players seemed to enjoy working with you as well… like harp player, Juke Logan. "Yeah, Brother Juke. We worked together a lot in the middle 70's. His band used to back me up, you know? He's a very good friend."

And guitarist, Coco Montoya? "He played drums for me for four years. He's a drummer and I taught him how to play guitar, you know? He plays!"

How about Debbie Davies? "Oh, she can play. I didn't teach her, she does her thing. She holds on. I'm glad for her, it keeps me going. I met her when she was with Maggie Mayall when they were called Maggie Mayall and the Cadillacs. We go all over the world together."

Earlier this month, American blues player and former Icebreaker, Debbie Davies recalled that initial meeting… "I first met Albert when he came to a small club that Coco and I were playing. At the time, Coco and I were each touring with the Mayall's and booked our own little bar gigs when we were both in town. It was the Coco Montoya Band. He (Albert) said he really dug my playing that night, and then he sat in with us and blew that little club away! After that we formed a friendship... me, Coco and Albert and his wife, Gwen... then Debbie adds, "We would go to their place for Bar-B-Q's... and Gwen's secret punch!"

As fate would have it, timing was everything, "The Cadillacs broke up" Davies said, "about six months before I got asked to join the Icebreakers."

'Frosty'

In 1964 Collins returned to the recording studio… Albert remembered it well. "I got with the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), you remember 'Chantilly Lace?' I went down to Big Bopper Enterprises" he said. "After he got killed in an airplane crash, with Buddy Holly and all of them… I was the only black artist on that label in Beaumont, Texas. And I stuck with 'em for years, man."

That was Hall-Clement Publishing Company and Hall-Way Records? "Yeah, Jack Clement… Bill Hall and 'Cowboy' Jack Clement were the main people. You know, 'Runnin' Bear?' Johnny Preston."

Albert's Beaumont session would produce his first major hit, 'Frosty!' "I was glad that 'Frosty' came to be a million seller," he smiles. "That was a good thing and I enjoyed that one. During the early 60's I was doing instrumentals, I never thought I was a singer, you know? I like to play behind good singing, I would never call myself no singer, you know?"

I had heard rumors that Johnny Winter was at the studio when you recorded that song and Collins starts nodding, "…and Janis was there when I cut 'Frosty,' when she was 15 years old."

Years later, Albert would work a number of gigs with another young Texas bluesman, Stevie Ray Vaughan. "Oh yeah," Albert says, "Toronto, Canada and New Orleans, Austin and Dallas… Antone's." (Vaughan had been killed in a helicopter crash just a few weeks before this interview.) With thoughts of what could have been, Albert just shakes his head. "Yes, it's one of those things, man. I hate to talk about it, man. I ain't got over it yet."

That thought was universal.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Otis Rush and Albert Collins performing at Long Beach
Otis Rush and Albert Collins on stage – Long Beach, CA. Photo: Mike Meadows

The Road

You still live in L.A.? "I lived here for 17 years, I just moved out of Southern California. I live in Vegas." Up near B.B. King? "He's the one that caused me to move over there, yeah."

Didn't you just get back from overseas? "I just got through with a big tour in Europe with Gary Moore." Albert smiles and adds, "Got a gold album… it was nice."

Icebreaker guitarist, Debbie Davies was also a part of that tour and remembers, "we performed in London at the Towne and Country Theater with Gary Moore sitting in as our guest." Davies said, "I was pretty blown away playing back on forth on stage with Albert and Gary Moore! Back stage Gary was the nicest, most polite cat. I remember that more than one of the reporters that night had the last name Davies! ha ha!!"

In 1990, Albert was still touring constantly and was philosophical about life on the road… "You know, 'on the road' is what you make of it. Like a marriage, if you don't take care of yourself, the road is hard to you." Albert turns serious. "See, I've never been on drugs in my life, that's what I tell all these kids. You don't need drugs, man. I use to drink, I quit drinking. Now, I quit smoking. So I'm in good shape, I'm gonna' hang around and see you all grow up."

I know the crowd today was happy to see you; they were on their feet when you came to the stage. "I love it, man. You know I've seen the blues go up and down in the early 60's and late 70's and I hope it's here to stay, man. I hope so."

If your reception today is any indication, there's little doubt about that. "Thank you. I'm going to try to hang on, too. No accidents, man."

album cover for Joanna Connor's 'Believe It' LP
Joanna Connor LP

You've recorded a number of songs that make your fans laugh…for instance, 'I Ain't Drunk…' "Johnny Nitro had that tune," Albert laughs, "and I decided to cut it over again. It's a lot of humor, man."

Let's talk a little about the future of blues and some of the other young players today. Do you know Joanna Connor? "Yeah, we did a show with her," Albert tells me, "she lives in Chicago. She can play, man. She used to be with A.C. Reed, that's where I first met her. Man, I let her and Debbie hang out one night in Chicago…man, that was a sight to see, them two ladies playin.' I've got her album, 'BELIEVE IT' in my bus now. She can play; plays a lot of Rock, too."

album cover for Debbie Davies' 'Picture This' LP
Debbie Davies LP

When asked about that specific night in Chicago, Debbie Davies told me, "I remember that night in Chicago, too. Joanna had just released her first CD for Blind Pig Records. 'Believe It!' She and her band opened for us. Two female electric blues players in one evening was really rare… and crazy to be seen back then! We probably all jammed out at the end... I don't recall." Davies continued, "But Jo and I of course, became pals! We saw each other a lot back in the day. When I left Albert and went out on my own, I also recorded my first CD for Blind Pig Records."

"There were three of us on the scene back then, me, Joanna and Sue Foley. I saw Joanna a lot at festivals, we both were playing. We always had a great hang. I love that gal! She's down! The last years she hasn't been on the road as much with her kids and all. I know she still plays all the time in Chicago."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Turning the tables, Albert starts asking me questions, "You hip to Jeff Healey?" I nod and Albert, always the keen eye for talent says, "I tried to take him on the road with me man, and the people wouldn't let me bring him out of Canada. (laughing) "He's got that movie out (Roadhouse) and got it together, now."

Tell me about the rowdiest club you ever played? "Oh man! I was in a club in Texas one time. The club owner had…" Albert pauses and points, "our microphone was here and he was making an announcement that we were going to be back the next night… and a man got up from the table and shot another guy! And the bullet went through this guy and hit the club owner in the stomach. And when I seen that I started runnin' (laughing) and I just pulled my amp and everything (laughing) out the door. That's the only big one I ever had to run away from. I had to run off the bandstand."

album cover for Albert Collins' 'Iceman' LP

Can you describe Albert Collins' blues? "Well, like from when the parents raise their kids, it comes from that, man." He takes a breath, "Your bringing up, the hardships you went through, you know? The things I went through, I didn't go through a lot of hardships like a lot of people have went through from the Deep South. I'm not from the Deep South, but I'm from the South but not the Deep South, and they had it a little bit harder than me. I never went hungry, but I know the feeling and I had a feeling for other people. And that's what you play as you try to get the other people to see how you feel. And if they can't feel you, ain't no sense in playing." Albert continues. "Just like you go to church and the man gives you a message, and if he don't give you no message, well you just lost today. Rather stay at home and listen to spiritual music. It's like they say, a child will always lead you and I've come to find through the years that I've been a grown man, some kids have lead me. I've listened. I learned more from 1968 than I learned in a lifetime when I first came to the West Coast… from the young people. When you stop listening that's when you're in trouble. I'm serious."

Debbie Davies spent several years touring and performing with Albert Collins and she graciously shared her insights and a few memories. "It's funny," she said. "People always ask me if I learned to play from Albert... but of course not. He wouldn't have hired me if I wasn't already able to play! What I learned from Albert is how to have grace under fire. He went through a lot ya know? Comin' up before civil rights... touring during segregation... I still saw some crazy stuff come down in the South. But he was able to be so kind to everyone and was truly a generous man. He kept his Bible on the dashboard of the bus, and tried to treat people like the book suggested. Not that we didn't all party like crazy... the '80's ya' know! But make no mistake, if push came to shove, Albert could take on anyone if the situation came to that. He was the true definition of a "sensitive tough."

We lost Albert Collins to cancer less than four years after this original conversation on November 24th, 1993. Fortunately for music fans around the world he left us one of his greatest and most enduring gifts; his blues.

Last Call: I would be remiss if I didn't thank Debbie Davies for taking the time from her busy touring schedule to share memories. As one of Albert's friends and a former Icebreaker, her perspective truly personalized both the man and his music. For that, I can't thank her enough.

Be sure to catch Davies live at a club or venue near you. You can check out her tour schedule at www.debbiedavies.com. Or pick up her latest release, Debbie Davies – Retrospective – The CD. Either way you can't go wrong.

Related Articles:
BB King; The Blues and Lives Well-Lived; John Mayall; Big Daddy Kinsey, Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin; Johnny Winter; Willie Dixon


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Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?

Tim

* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.

Best,

Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.

Sincerely,

Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation ...www.bluessummit.com

Cheers,

Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *

Tim,

I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA

Tim,

This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA

Tim,

I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA



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