Albert Collins

Courtesy of Photo Reserve/Michael WeinsteinTHE ICE COLD BLUES OF ALBERT COLLINS
Musician
January 1981
After 25 years of delivering the iciest blues around, the Master of the Telecaster has topped himself on his last few albums with the coldest, most electrifying sound around.

Our last Ice Age lasted over 800,000 years and ended only recently, some 20,000 years ago. We all know about it because we have the stones and the bones and the Great Lakes. Our most recent, and indeed current ice Age is a more humble affair. It dates back to 1958, when the first known relic — “The Freeze” — was cut into a small disc of solidified fossil fuel. The tool that engraved this rare black fossil was a Fender Telecaster owned and operated by a young Texas bluesman, Albert Collins.

Armed with The Cool Sound — a stinging, shiny, metallic attack birthed from an odd minor-key guitar tuning, arctic echo and sustain, a stone hard thumb and index finger to snap the strings in lieu of a pick, and who-knows-what tricks with pickup and amp — Collins went on to imprint “De-frost,” “Sno Cone,” “Icy Blue,” “Don’t Lose Your Cool,” and the million-seller, “Frosty.” But his rise to the top of the blues scene has been, fittingly, more glacial than meteoric. Only an audio-anthropologist or rabid blues hound would have those old singles or the albums Collins cut through the ’60s and early ’70s for labels such as Tumbleweed, Imperial, Blue Thumb and Red Lightning; until the past few years, the iceman cometh as a featured act only to the South (primarily Texas) and the West Coast, where he settled in ’68.

The release of Ice Pickin’ on the Alligator label changed all that. The Montreaux Jazz Festival and Melody Maker named it Best Blues Album of 1979, Grammy considered it, and the Icebreakers penetrated Midwestern, Eastern, Scandinavian, and Mediterranean waters. Finally, twenty years after “The Freeze,” Collins air conditioning was turned on all over. This year’s Frostbite, a horn-splashed and prickly romp (in which Albert’s stalled car/guitar challenges Charlie Haden’s singing whale/bass for Best Special Effects By A String Instrument 1980,) dispels fears that Collins’ increased exposure would lead to some sort of melt-down into the mainstream morass.

Collins may be the most powerful blues guitarist in the world. He is surely the most unpredictable. But it’s only live that one can feel the full force of his six-string percussion, mercurial soloing, and theatrical — if at times a tad unctuous — stage presence. This much can be predicted: in each set he’ll play some traditional blues, talk his way through one or two, give up the plain but simple funk, happily and viciously abuse his axe, croon and hush, drawl and shout, swing a shuffle even better than the now aging Ali, and finish it all at the end of his hundred foot guitar cord on top of the bar or outside the club or at your table hoisting your beer with his right hand and massaging the frets with his left. It’s still a show, you know.

Which must go on, and does today on a sweltering afternoon at Arlington Park Racetrack outside Chicago. It’s “Blues Day At The Races,” a rather cockeyed promotion that has Collins on a makeshift stage down by the rail at the home stretch. The Icebreakers, featuring Gene Ammons’ suave disciple, A.C. Reed, on electric tenor, and Casey “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” Jones on drums, heat things up for The Master of the Telecaster. Enter Albert, who grinds out a few tunes in front of a small but spirited mob of fans and a large group of disinterested (perhaps irritated) racing fans, pencils and daily forms in hand, betting concentration mangled by the sharp-edged wedge of sheet-metal guitar perforating the park.

A track official approaches the bandstand and tells Albert that he’s gone over the time limit and has to stop Now. Right NOW, because his version of “Avalanche” is seriously spooking the horses, who won’t come out for the post parade until Collins pulls the plug. When the official turns his back, Collins grimaces, and with near perfect diction, pronounces the word “Motherfucker” . . . on the guitar, of course. This done, the beat-up axe is put in the Fridge until later that day when the band will play three sets at a northside Chicago tavern. In between frantic race calls by the track announcer and swipes at an overcooked big ole butt steak, Collins laid out some notes about his life and his music.

BRESKIN: Is there anything you like to do more than make music? Remember, this is a family magazine.

COLLINS: The only thing I love more than playing is driving trucks. I used to drive a diesel. Interstate. This is ’61, ’62, drove a Kenwood to 41 cities. Drove for seven years — and I was playing at night. I’d go to towns 200 miles away or something, leave in the mornin’ come back in the evenin’. Also love to fish and ride around on my chopper. I gotta ’69 BSA 650 at home. Love to ride my bike.

BRESKIN: Blues has always had a strong tie to the road, first the railroad and then the highway, and I take it you record something like “The Highway is Like a Woman” to continue it?

COLLINS: Yeah, right, cause that’s still a part of our life you know. I stay on the road . . . that’s it man. I drove a truck, I play music on the road, I drove a truck on the road and I’m used to the highway, used to traffic. Every month on the road, ’cept bout two weeks out of a year. I went home three times outa the last two years; I been home three times outa two years: four days once, three days once, and the last time, five days, last March. No kids. Nobody but me and my wife and my dog. And she bites.

BRESKIN: The wife or the bitch?

COLLINS: And she bites. That take care of business, don’t it. Hah.

BRESKIN: Which musicians moved you most when you started to play?

COLLINS: Albert King and Gatemouth Brown — I was raised up with Gate — and John Lee Hooker was my first favorite. When I first started it was Lightnin’ Hopkins (he’s in my family) and I listened to him when I was just a kid. And then after I grew up: T-Bone Walker. And John Lee is still my very most favorite.

BRESKIN: Did you start out with a church gig?

COLLINS: Uh-huh. See, my mother was in the Church of Garden Christ and I played in a church in Texas and began, cause of my parents, you know, to play for the Lord. I did that for maybe two or three weeks — and that was enough for me — I couldn’t handle it. [Laughs.]

BRESKIN: And where did you catch that nasty Cold [sound]?

COLLINS: The reason why I had the cold sound thing was because I had this bass player named Cooks and we was comin’ from Corpus Christi, Texas one night. It was raining. Kinda foggy. And he says, “Man, why don’t you turn your de-frost on.” So I’m lookin’ for it on the dash and I say, “Hmmm, de-frost? Maybe I should cut a tune called De-frost.” So I cut “The Freeze” first and then “De-frost” and I went from there. I didn’t even think of my sound as cold until he mentioned the De-froster that particular night. I give him a lot of credit.

BRESKIN: Thinking of that hard, lean, rugged sound of all those great Texas saxophonists, I’m wondering about the connection between geography and style?

COLLINS: Look, I been playing 29 years and the first time I ever played Chicago was 1978. I never needed Chicago because I played the southern states: New Orleans, Mississippi. And I listened to Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and Little Walter and I played with these Chicago people when they came down to Texas but I never really listened to Chicago blues, my area was Texas and Louisiana people.

BRESKIN: Why does a particular regional sound develop?

COLLINS: Ya can’t say for sure, but it’s like this: I played Fulton, Alabama and I played Panama City, Florida. And I went those thirty miles ’tween ’em and nobody knew me. Just like that. People stay used to what they’re used to.

BRESKIN: And of course there’s that almost impenetrable barrier some folks erect between Urban and Rural blues?

COLLINS: There’s not that much difference but there is a difference. Folk blues will always be different because you can’t do nothin’ to it. It’s just down home blues, that’s all. See, Blues was a mistake in the first place. When it was created it was just a guy playin’ and he just make a few “mistakes” and after a while people got used to those kind of “mistakes” and then they weren’t mistakes, they were blues. After a period it caught on, but among blacks only. Way before my time. But they called it a mistake: that’s why white people would still turn their noses up at that kind of music. It was for blacks only, blacks only.

BRESKIN: Why don’t more young blacks support the contemporary blues scene?

COLLINS: Because this is a new generation today. Because the young blacks weren’t raised around the blues. See, I’m 47 and it’s different for a kid who was born in the ’60s. The young blacks — they listen to it but they don’t really listen. New artists came up. Let’s say he’s 20 years ole: he don’t say what I say cause there’s 27 years between where he was raised and where I was raised . . .

BRESKIN: But what if kids were smothered with blues on the radio the same way they are with Sister Sledge and The Commodores? The young whites seem more attracted to the scene.

COLLINS: I know, I know . . . because what happened from years past is that a lot of whites didn’t listen to no black music. As far as blues — that was something evil to them. I mean, now when it come to a black man playing the blues, the first thing the man says is: “Hmmm, he’s got something on his mind. I wonder what’s happening.” We was raised up with the blues, but the new generation of white kids look at it and say: “Hey, I wanna know about this.” It’s exploring what is the feel from this kind of music. They didn’t know about it twenty years ago. The young blacks . . . they got Rose Royce and the rest of those cats.

BRESKIN: But you still feel that your music is just as vital, just as viable emotionally and culturally, as it was 25 years ago?

COLLINS: Right, right . . . but it’s still a different feel from the young black music. What makes me feel so good is that these young men right here [points to bassist Johnny B. Gayden and guitarist Marvin Jackson] don’t have to accept the kind of music I’m playin’, because they can play anything they want to. But they know where I came from, and I’ve been around a bit longer than they have. And anyway, I got a different feel from a lot of other blacks in my age bracket. Very much different. But the young kids that come and see me, they make me feel good cause they want to see what the blues is all about.

They’re gonna check it out and see what it is — it’s just like reading history. It’s like the countries I been in I read about in school. I didn’t want to . . . cause I figured I’d never go there. Why should I learn history? Teacher say: “You may go there one day.” And I say: “No, no, I ain’t gain’ nowhere no place one day, what do I wanna study history for?” But damn, it came to be — see what I’m saying. So when I go over to Europe and people talk to me and I say. “Yeah, I heard about that before” cause I knew what they were talking about. Now if I had said, “Well, I’m goint to skip class . . .”

BRESKIN: For Europeans especially, blues is like a history lesson on a foreign country . . .”

COLLINS: Exactly. The European people take on to blues a little different than Americans. ’Cause they study it. They ask me questions about people even I haven’t heard of, and I’m black and raised with blues. I’m very serious about this, they’re strictly into it. In other ways, too: like when we played Greece for ten days they had to call in the National Guard. Those people just went wild. We were the first blues there in a while.

BRESKIN: Are you comfortable with that label. “Blues”?

COLLINS: Not really. I’ve been known as a blues player but I wanna be more like a “rock-blues.” I wanna play a blues where if you feel like dancing you can dance. If you wanna sit, then sit. If you wanna get bored, get bored. A lot of blues bore me: 12 bar blues, 3/4 time blues — I play ’em but I won’t play ’em all night. It all boils down to this: when you sit and listen to it, it all sounds the same. All the same, and this is the thing I don’t want to do.

BRESKIN: Speaking of expanding the framework of the blues, did you listen to much Hendrix?

COLLINS: Oh yes, I listened to a lot of Hendrix. See, I met him when he was 18 years old. I met him in Texas, in my home town. He was playing with Little Richard and when he quit, I look his place in the band. I know his whole family. I wanna bring his brother out with me one time. His little brother looks just like him — plays left-handed guitar — and I plan on bringing him on the road with me sometime, use him to bring back some little memories of Jimi, because he can play just like him . . . and Jimi could play the blues.

BRESKIN: It seems your playing does a lot of things that straight-ahead blues guitar — however good — doesn’t often do. Especially in performance, I’m thinking of the element of surprise in your solos, the wide interval leaps and rhythmic shifts, those unexpected prairies of silence . . . .

COLLINS: Well, I wanted to play jazz. I wanted to sound like Kenny Burrell. He just blew my mind the first time I heard him. Now I wouldn’t say I play jazz, but I play around it. What changed me from a straight blues player was when I was around Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith in the Midwest, in Kansas City. I met them in ’65 there and did a show with them. No bass player; hell, a bass player couldn’t get no work in K.C. in ’65. It was all organ trio, just drums and guitar. They kicked those organs hard. I was serious, and stayed there two and a half years, sitting in all the time. I learned a lot from them. Those were hard musicians, man, and I tried to keep my style while learning new phrasing . . . but I really wanted to go into jazz, very seriously.

BRESKIN: And if you had?

COLLINS: Well, I like Grant Green. Wes Montgomery. I never wanted too much speed. I always wanted a groove. If I got to play jazz, if I went more into it, I want it as a groove and not like, let’s say, John Coltrane. I used to go see his shows, and man, I couldn’t understand it. It was weird, it was ahead of its time. I couldn’t comprehend. See, but a groove type of thing . . . that’s what I go for. I always played lead, but I care ’bout the rhythm; I state it to keep the beat that I want on the bottom when there’s not enough on the bandstand, ’cause we don’t have a keyboard. So sometimes I play organ riffs which I picked up from Smith and McGriff. Things like that.

BRESKIN: What direction do you hear yourself moving in?

COLLINS: Hey, I’m just trying to get polished I’m never satisfied with my music. There’s a peak I have to get to and it’s hard to get to that peak.

BRESKIN: And you’ll play until you get there?

COLLINS: Until I die, until I’m dead. I’ve played music for a long time . . . and all of a sudden, well, you can catch a hold of something. You get a trip, something you can handle. I can handle what I’m doing now. You play mechanically for so long and you do something ’cause you hear somebody else do it . . . but now I feel like I’m at the point where I can handle what I’m doing, and do whatever I want to do with it. If you compare my old records to my new ones you’ll hear what I’m saying. I’m still workin’ on it. And man, wait till you hear my live album coming up.

BRESKIN: Will it bite?

COLLINS: You might say that.