By Doc Wendell
I hate top ten lists or the concept of a “favorite” musician of any kind. It’s lazy and pedantic. With great jazz or blues players, an artist’s style is as unique as their fingerprints so making comparisons is impossible and a waste of time. As a guitarist, many people have asked me who my “favorite” players are. I usually ask, “What genre?”
All I can do is tell you the players that I love and I love Albert Collins. I’ve loved the Iceman for over 30 years now. Before I was even in high school, I found two records that would change my life forever, “Truckin’ with Albert Collins” and “Albert Collins & The Icebreakers-Live in Japan.
Up until that time, most of the guitarists I had heard were either influenced by B.B. King or T-Bone Walker directly. Albert Collins’ style struck me as being avant-garde electric blues. His tone was sharp, piercing and irresistible. He played a Fender Telecaster with a Humbucker pickup, the ashtray cover and he tuned to an F minor chord. On top of that, he used a capo, sometimes as far up the neck of the guitar as the 12th fret, and he used his fingers and not a pick. I was young when I first heard Albert and when you’re young you try to emulate players. I got the tuning down. I turned the treble and reverb all the way up, got a big fat capo and I locked myself in my bedroom for days. I couldn’t get it. 30 years later and I still can’t. I came to the realization that you could buy Albert’s gear and practice for a hundred years and never sound like him. This is just one of the reasons I love Albert.
Unlike a lot of other blues guitarists, Albert was able to capture his sound on record from the beginning of his career as a sideman with Texas tenor saxophonist Henry Hayes to his funk-filled records for Alligator and Pointblank/Virgin. Albert never made a bad album. There was great humor in his lyrics, often written by his wife Gwendolyn. “Master Card”, “Conversation with Collins”, “Snowed In” and “Too Many Dirty Dishes” are hilarious. Stylistically, Albert wasn’t like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush or the Chicago players. Rhythmically, his roots came from the Texas Big Band swing blues which incorporated horns instead of harmonica players. Albert loved Hammond B3 organ players like Jack Mcduff and Jimmy McGriff and you can hear that influence in Albert’s rhythm comping. Albert also loved saxophone players like Illinois Jacquet and Big Jay Mcneely. As far as blues recordings go, “Truckin’ with Albert Collins” (Originally released as “The Cool Sounds Of Albert Collins”) is perhaps the most experimental and original modern electric blues records to come out of the early ’60s. This album would go on to influence Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Robert Cray, Larry Carlton, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Vaughan and generations of rock, blues and jazz six stringers all over the world. The album swings and is funky and even psychedelic in a way that no one had heard yet. Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” and Driving South” are direct tributes to Albert’s “Thaw Out” and “Kool Aide” from those 1962 sessions.
I own every record Albert ever played on including his early work with Henry Hayes in 1958 and his guest appearance with Ike & Tina Turner on The Hunter album from 1969 and everything in between and after. All are essential listening.
In a live setting, Albert was king. He was the ultimate head cutter and he always had an incredible band behind him. I got to see Albert perform in New York at the old Lonestar Roadhouse and Tramp’s. You never knew what was going to come blaring out of that Telecaster. I recall one gig at The Lonestar . I got there early and along the wall, Branford Marsalis stood casually talking to some friends. At one of the tables near the Stage were members of Metallica and at the bar was just about ever prominent blues musician in New York standing there, anxiously awaiting ‘The Houston Twister.” The whole damn scene was there. Albert blew everyone away as he walked out of the club with his 500 foot guitar cable in the midst of an ear shattering guitar solo. The rhythm section of Johnny B. Gayden on bass, Debbie Davies on rhythm guitar and Soko Richardson on drums kept that gutbucket Texas shuffle in full force as Albert hammered that one note that took everyone present to heaven.
I was just about to head to work at Donald Fagen’s NYC studio on November 24th, 1993 when a friend told me that Albert had passed away. I called in sick and cried into my pillow thw whole day and through the night. Albert taught me to find my own sound and to “not just copy B.B. and Jimi.” After that sad November day, I would never again try to copy a guitar solo note for note. I found that I had something to say and my own way of saying it, like Albert. That’s the greatest musical lesson of all. I miss you, Albert.