Albert Collins - Biography
Albert Collins released his first single, a screaming blues-rock instrumental called “The Freeze” in 1958. Though it sold 150,000 copies for the Kangaroo label on its release, it still took Collins years to make a living as a blues guitarist. Despite his lack of commercial viability, he was well-known by other guitarists, Jimi Hendrix in particular citing him as a major influence. He was finally able to quit his day job after signing to Alligator Records in 1977. He won a Grammy for Showdown! (1985 Alligator) and pleased crowds with his “guitar walks,” where he’d stroll through the crowds playing blistering solos while stagehands unspoiled a 100 foot long chord that connected him to his amplifier. He was on the verge of worldwide fame when he died of lung cancer in 1993.
At seven-years-old, Collins and his family moved from Leona, Texas to Houston’s Third Ward. As a child he wanted to grow up to play organ, inspired by the music he heard in church. He took piano lessons in school, but when he started hanging out with his cousins Lightnin’ Hopkins and Willow Young, he got interested in the guitar. He borrowed Hopkins’ use of minor tunings and Young’s method of playing without picks and started to develop his own style by playing big band horn-inspired licks on his guitar. He met Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown whose music he admired for its use of driving horn players. He dropped out of school and by fifteen was playing with Brown in local blues clubs. He started his first band, The Rhythm Rockers, in 1949. The ten-piece band included Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones) and Milton Campbell, better known as Little Milton. They played honky tonks at night, while he worked days as a truck driver.
By the 1950s, Collins was playing sessions with Big Mama Thornton and took over the guitar chores in Little Richard’s band when their guitarist, a kid named Jimi Hendrix, left. In 1958, The Rhythm Rockers had their first hit with “The Freeze,” driven by Collins’ razor sharp guitar work. He was already known as “The Iceman” because of the cold, searing tone he got from his guitar. They followed up “The Freeze” with “Sno-Cone,” “Icy Blue” and “Don't Lose Your Cool,” which made The Rhythm Rockers stars on the Texas blues circuit. A compilation of those singles, The Cool Sound of Albert Collins was issued by TCF Hall in 1965. In 1962, “Frosty” became a million-seller and led to a deal with Blue Thumb. They released Truckin’ with Albert Collins in 1965, but he was tired of the long nights and low wages and decided to quit music.
In 1965, Collins moved to Kansas City, Missouri where he met and married his wife and future songwriting partner, Gwen. His retirement didn’t last long and he started playing jazz guitar with musicians like Wes Montgomery and Jimmy McGriff. In 1968, Canned Heat’s Bob Hite, a big fan, got Collins a deal with Imperial Records and he cut three albums for the company including Trash Talkin’ (1969 Imperial). The Canned Heat connection led to gigs on the west coast hippie circuit, but again, the money wasn’t there. He made There’s Gotta Be a Change (1971 Tumbleweed), a great album with Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk, but the label went under before he could capitalize on it. He quit music again and even gave up the guitar for a job in construction. In 1978, with encouragement from his wife, he signed to Alligator and put together a new band, The Icebreakers. This time the world was ready for him. Collins’ incendiary guitar playing on Ice Pickin’ (1978 Alligator) blew everyone away and catapulted him into the front line of blues guitarists. It also got a Grammy Nomination. He followed it up with Frostbite (1980 Alligator), Frozen Alive! (1978 Alligator), Don’t Lose Your Cool (1978 Alligator) [which reprises one of his early instrumental hits and shows off the sharp horn section of The Icebreakers], Cold Snap (1978 Alligator) [an R&B style recording that got a Grammy nomination] and Showdown! (1978 Alligator) [Collins’ Grammy-winning collaboration with Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland]. His success led to a spate of reissues of older material including The Complete Imperial Recordings (1991 EMI) and Truckin’ with Albert Collins (1992 MCA), a reissue of his best Blue Thumb record.
Collins’ Alligator albums did so well he was signed by Virgin’s Point Blank blues subsidiary. Ice Man (Point Blank 1991) and its follow up Live 92/93 (1993 Point Blank)—which showcased the Icebreakers and Collins at their best—made Collins a force to be reckoned with. He was ready to take on the world when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in July of 1993. He died six months later at his Las Vegas home. He was sixty-one.