Friday, November 18, 2011

The Master of the Telecaster

When Albert Collins passed away in November of 1993, it wasn't like it would have been if he had passed away this November.  The internet was still in its infancy, and the world was a little farther apart back then.  Collins was diagnosed with lung cancer, which had spread to his liver, in July of '93, and was gone four months later.  The first time I knew anything about his death, much less the fact that he had cancer, was several days after his death, when I read it on one of those newspaper sidebars about entertainment.  All it said was that he was a blues guitarist and that he was 61.  No cause of death, no background or history.....just the minimum required to fill a paragraph.

To me, that was a shame, because if anyone associated with the blues deserved the full treatment, it was Albert Collins.  As longtime readers of FBF are probably tired of hearing, he was one of the first blues guitarists I ever heard and once I did, I wanted to hear more, but I can safely say that I've never found another guitarist with a sound like his.  His slashing, screaming guitar that sounded like it was strung with barbed wire and about two notes in, you had no doubt who was playing.  His live shows were the stuff of legend as he was known for his forays into the audience with his guitar hooked to his amp by a 150' cord.  I never got to see him in person, but I got to see lots of video of his performances.  Obviously, he had a blast playing, with that Telecaster slung over his shoulder, massive fingers (sans pick) working magic on those strings.  Even when he was singing about bad times, you just didn't quite believe that he was down and out.  He was having too much fun.

He even had the coolest nicknames.....Master of the Telecaster, the Iceman, the Razor Blade.  He really honed in on the Iceman persona though, with songs and album titles that reflected that nickname ("Frosty," "Frostbite," "Ice Pick," "Sno Cone," "Icy Blue," Ice Pickin', Frostbite, Don't Lose Your Cool, Cold Snap, etc.), but were the total opposite of his scorching fretwork.  Many of his albums would include a song where Collins used his guitar to imitate various sounds.  On one song, "Snowed In," Collins' guitar imitated him walking through the snow and scratching the ice and snow off his windshield.  Another song, "Too Many Dirty Dishes," featured the tele as an S.O.S. pad scrubbing pots and pans. 

Believe it or not, this guitar monster started out playing keyboards while growing up in Houston.  His musical hero as a teenager was Hammond B3 wizard Jimmy McGriff.  He switched to guitar in his late teens and absorbed the music of artists like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins (his distant cousin), Guitar Slim (where he picked up his walk through the audience), and John Lee Hooker.  Soon he was leading his own band, called the Rhythm Rockers, and was cutting singles, mostly instrumentals.  His first big hit was "Frosty" in 1962, recorded in Beaumont, with locals Johnny Winter and Janis Joplin in the studio.

Collins continued to record while working day jobs, doing club appearance and mini-tours during the weekends.  He ended up attracting the attention of Bob Hite from Canned Heat, who eventually got Collins signed to Imperial Records in the late 60's.  He recorded three albums with Imperial, and got to play the Fillmore West, which led to wider exposure and the opportunity to open for bands like the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead.  Though his recording came to a standstill in the early 70's, he was still able to do some touring, based on the success of those singles he had recorded years earlier.

However, he might have toiled in obscurity forever if it weren't for Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records.  Collins signed with the label in the late 70's and recorded seven wonderful albums.  He gained confidence as a singer and composer, adding a whole new dimension to his act.  During his stint with Alligator, he recorded some of his best songs, like "Master Charge," "If Trouble Was Money," "Conversations With Collins," and "Lights Are On But Nobody's Home."  He was able to get even more exposure thanks to his tenure with Alligator, appearing on Late Night With David Letterman, a Seagram's Wine Cooler commercial (with Bruce Willis), and even scoring a hilarious cameo in the movie, "Adventures in Babysitting," teaming up with Elizabeth Shue to sing those lowdown "Babysitting Blues."

Johnny Copeland, Robert Cray, Albert Collins
Another highlight of Collins' tenure with Alligator was the classic Showdown! collaboration with fellow Houstonite Johnny Copeland and rising star Robert Cray.  The album won a Grammy in 1987 and remains one of Alligator's best-selling albums.  Collins was a big influence on Cray (who used to play the Collins instrumental, "Don't Lose Your Cool" during his shows), as well as other guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, who cited Collins as an influence numerous times, and Gary Moore, Coco Montoya, Debbie Davies, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer.

In the early 90's, Collins signed with Virgin/Pointblank Records, a move that was sure to lead to even more exposure for him.  He was able to release a couple of well-received albums with Pointblank before being diagnosed with cancer in mid 1993.  He actually continued performing for a while, with some of his performances from the fall of 1993 appearing on the posthumously released Live '92/'93 album.  This appearance with the Allman Brothers took place about a month before he was diagnosed with cancer.

The saddest thing about Collins' death to me at the time was the fact that the Blues was enjoying such a great resurgence in popularity due, in part, to his efforts, and he was not able to fully benefit from the sudden rise in the music's popularity.  Thankfully, though, he was able to achieve some measure of fame before his untimely demise, and he left us a bounty of great recordings and for those who got to see him perform, some great memories.

Selected Discography

Truckin' With Albert Collins (MCA) - This set contains some of the Iceman's earliest recordings, including "Frosty."  Consisting of mostly instrumentals, the only vocal track is "Dyin' Flu."  These recordings hold up well with his later releases and serve as a great introduction to the Master of the Telecaster.

The Complete Imperial Recordings (EMI) - This set collects the recordings from Collins' three Imperial releases.  His tenure with Imperial allowed him to branch out a bit, perform throughout a wider area, and receive greater attention and popularity.  The highlights outnumber the misfires considerably, making this set worth seeking out.

Don't Lose Your Cool (Alligator) - While many of Collins' fans prefer his debut recording for Alligator (Ice Pickin'), this one is my favorite.  I like the diversity of the song selection, and there are some great songs here....."But I Was Cool," "Ego Trip," "Get To Gettin'," and the funky title track.  Picking the best Albert Collins' Alligator release is a happy exercise because you can't go wrong with your choice.

Deluxe Edition (Alligator):  This is a great place to start your Albert Collins collection, but by no means should it be a stopping point.  This set captures the best of his glory years with Alligator.  It includes a solid set of his instrumentals, live performances, and most of his crowd favorites, but there's so much more that's not here that deserves to be heard.

Live '92/'93 (Pointblank) - Others may argue that Collins did better live recordings, but this one is special because many of the tracks were recorded after Collins knew he had mere months to live.  The best thing is that you can't tell which tracks they are because he was a force of nature until the very end.


Rebecca Davis said...

Thanks for remembering Canned Heat's role in the "rediscovery" of Albert Collins! I hear a lot of Collins' sound in CH guitarist Henry Vestine's early style (heard to best effect on their first Liberty album).

To learn more about classic era Canned Heat and the many other blues legends they worked with, I hope you'll check out my biography of band cofounder Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson. It's "Blind Owl Blues", available at my website,

Thanks for honoring these blues legends, and as Canned Heat always said, don't forget to boogie!

Graham said...

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