Bad news is a blinking red light.
Thanksgiving morning I was puttering around the house when I noticed someone had called and left a message. I rewound and heard the normally exuberant president of the Houston Blues Society quietly saying sometime in the night, "Jim, Linda... Albert Collins just passed."
The Third Ward's own Iceman, the Master of the Telecaster, died of lung cancer at his home in Las Vegas last Wednesday. He was 61 years old. In addition to friends and family, he is survived by a legion of fans around the word, and a reputation that will live as long as the blues guitar is revered as an art form.
Albert Collins was born October 3, 1932, in Leona, Texas. His family moved to Marquez when he was seven, then relocated to Houston's Third Ward two years later.
In the 1940s, the Third Ward was fertile ground for young guitarists. Collins began learning guitar at age twelve, inspired by the music of Louis Jordan and Jimmie Lunceford, and most particularly John Lee Hooker's classic "Boogie Chillun." His first teacher was legendary Houston bluesman Frankie Lee Sims, and Collins is generally assumed to have learned a thing or two from his cousin Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins. In fact, Collins learned guitar from everyone he could, and would say in later years, "Every little bit you hear helps." Collins grew up with Johnny "Clyde" Copeland, but perhaps the biggest influence on his picking style was their mutual friend -- and Frankie Lee Sim's nephew -- Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Watson was instrumental in helping Collins develop the funky, ringing tone that evolved into the sharp, clear notes that earned him the name "Iceman."
Although it was his artistry with the Fender that led to his fame, his first electric guitars were Epiphones. After playing his first professional gigs at age 16 with Little Frankie Lee (the vocalist son of his old guitar teacher), he formed Albert Collins and the Rhythm Rockers. Although that group played numerous club dates around Houston after signing with Evelyn Johnson's Buffalo Booking, Collins never recorded with the Duke or Peacock labels with which Johnson was associated. Among the Buffalo gigs was a two-year engagement at the Manhattan Club in Galveston, where he first learned to integrate a horn section with his guitar playing. That experience -- especially the assistance of saxophonist Bobby Scott -- proved invaluable when, still in his teens, Collins toured the South with the Piney Brown Orchestra.
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Collins recorded for the Houston labels Kangaroo, Great Scott, Hall and 20th-Century Fox between 1958 and 1965, while playing extensively throughout the Gulf Coast and South. His frequent Beaumont gigs were an early inspiration for both Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter. Winter and Collins, years later, recorded an album together at the 1980 New Morning Fest near Geneva, Switzerland.
Collins first recorded his signature song "The Freeze" on Kangaroo with tenor-sax man Henry Hayes in 1958, after the two were introduced by Collins' fellow Third Ward musician Joe "Guitar" Hughes. Despite recording sessions with Ike and Tina Turner, nationwide recognition eluded Collins until Canned Heat's Bob Hite persuaded him to relocate to the West Coast. After playing at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, Collins recorded several albums on the Imperial label. But it was his live performances and his recordings on the Alligator label with saxaphonist A.C. Reed, bassist Aron Burton and drummer Casey Jones -- fusing a solid Chicago backdrop and chilling Texas guitar licks -- that ensured his immortality.
Although his roots were in Houston, Collins spent the last two decades of his life at homes in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He was an inspiration to subsequent generations of blues musicans, including Robert Cray, who joined Collins' band in the 1970s. Cray, along with Copeland, was featured on Showdown, the 1985 album that finally earned Collins his first and only Grammy (he'd been nominated three times -- for Ice Pickin', Frostbite, and Frozen Alive!). Among his numerous awards were three W.C. Handys: Best Album (Don't Lose Your Cool, 1983), Instrumentalist of the Year (1989) and, in 1993 -- the blues community's final tribute -- Albert Collins and the Icebreakers were awarded the Handy for Best Band.
For over 40 years, Albert Collins spread the Texas guitar shuffle and the Gulf Coast sound from California to Switzerland. In life, he was a national treasure. In death, he is greatly missed -- and fondly remembered.