Obituary: Albert Collins
Saturday 27 November 1993
ALBERT COLLINS, the blues guitarist, defied convention to the end, since instead of the traditional death in poverty-stricken obscurity, the last years of his life were distinguished by industry recognition including a Grammy in 1986 for his collaboration on the album Showdown with Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland, and a WC Handy award as male blues artist of the year in 1989, with Showdown being voted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Collins was highly regarded by his peers. Jimi Hendrix dedicated a song to him, and acknowledged him as a primary influence. BB King, who advised the young Collins to 'find your own sound - that'll help you through the world', visited Collins on his deathbed.
Collins certainly took King's advice. His incisive, razor-sharp sound has been described as like 'cables snapping on the Golden Gate Bridge', and he was influenced as much by jazz and funk as by the Texas bluesmen among whom he grew up, such as his uncle, the gospel musician The Rev Campbell Collins, and his cousins Lightnin' Hopkins and Willow Young, who gave him an acoustic guitar when he was 18, tuned to the D-minor open chord which became his hallmark.
Till then, Collins had been trying to play piano in the style he heard in church, but as he recalled later, 'As soon as he gave me that guitar and showed me a few chords, man, I forgot about piano.' The first tune he learnt to play was John Lee Hooker's 'Boogie Chillun', a foundation that could still be heard in his playing, 40 years later.
Born in Leona, Texas, in 1932, but spending much of his childhood in Houston, Collins was influenced by the big bands which rode on the back of the oil boomtown's prosperity. Like many of his generation, Collins' musical aspirations were ahead of the available technology. Collins had already been running an eight-piece band for two years in Houston before the right technology came along, in the form of a Fender Esquire electric guitar, beginning a lifelong love affair with the instrument that caused him to be described as 'The Master of the Telecaster'.
He had his first rhythm-and-blues hit in 1958 with an instrumental, 'The Freeze', released on the Kangaroo label, owned by the Houston alto player Henry Hayes, which caught the fancy of the fans with its fierce high-register melodic lines, with the sustain turned right up. This was to be followed by a number along similar sub-Arctic lines including: 'Defrost' (1960), 'Frosty' and 'Sno-Cone' (1962), 'Ice Pickin' ' (1978), 'Frostbite' (1980), 'Don't Lose Your Cool' (1983). He twice won the WC Handy Award for the best blues album of the year, Ice Pickin' in the mid-Eighties, and the Grammy-nominated Cold Snap (1986).
Collins first met Jimi Hendrix at the time of his first hit, when the latter was playing in Little Richard's backing band, and he took Hendrix's place when he left Richard to join the Drifters. After his time with Little Richard, Collins moved to Kansas City, where he was exposed to the influence of more jazz musicians, like the organist Jimmy McGriff, of whom he said, 'I always wanted to be an organ player. I think when I comp my chords (play responses to other musicians) it's like playing an organ.' He also heard the innovative guitarist Wes Montgomery whose octave playing added to his influences.
Though he was taken up by rock stars like Gary Moore and Eric Clapton in later years, perhaps his 'golden age' was the time he spent on the West Coast at the end of the Sixties at the suggestion of Bob Hite of Canned Heat, who got him a contract with Imperial Records, of Los Angeles, producing three blistering albums which are still available as a double CD, The Complete Imperial Recordings. His six albums for Alligator were also noteworthy. It was during his time in Los Angeles that he acquired the blond '61 Telecaster with humbucking pickups which he used right up to the end.
Though Albert Collins influenced several generations of rock guitarists, none of them could come close to copying his sound. He was an original, a moderniser with roots.
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