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
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
"Well from my raisin' up man,"
he smiles, "I was around jazz musicians a lot in Texas
also blues musicians. But we mostly had horn players, like big band
sounds out of Texas. That was a little bit different, you know?'
Collins connecting with his audience. Photo:
Blues ran through Albert's family, including a famous
"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
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."
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
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
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."
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 on stage Long
Beach, CA. Photo: Mike Meadows
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
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."
Joanna Connor LP
You've recorded a number of songs that make your fans
for instance, 'I Ain't Drunk
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
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."
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."
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
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.
Blues and Lives Well-Lived; John
Daddy Kinsey, Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin; Johnny