“Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues.” – Albert Collins
There is cool, then there is the ‘Ice Picking’ Albert Collins. The blues legend who could make a Fender not only weep but cry to the point that it apologised for causing a scene, once said: “Simple music is the hardest music to play and blues is simple music.” His styling might be sparse, but it is so emotive that the notes merely seem to be following his wandering muse as though he has the laws of music on a leash.
Born in Leona, Texas in 1932 he began to hone his unique style from an early age by being taught by none other than the legendary outlaw blues king himself, Mr Lightnin’ Hopkins. Naturally, as was always the case with Hopkins, he didn’t just teach his little cousin the basics but how to really play. As his near-mythologised teacher, Hopkins, once said himself: “People have learned how to strum a guitar, but they don’t have the soul. They don’t feel it from the heart. It hurts me. I’m killing myself to tell them how it is.” If that’s the case, then it is clear that Albert Collins was a good student.
With his guitar often tuned to an open F-minor chord (FCFAbCF), with a capo at the 5th, 6th or 7th fret, Colin’s produced a unique bluesy wailing hallow that added to the emotional resonance of his sound. This cutting and full sound coupled with his brass voice to produce blues on the bigger end of the spectrum. As is often the case, bravura this bold took a little while to seed and Collins spent a long time honing his craft whilst working as a trucker.
However, his talent was unmistakable and eventually, he twisted the right ear in the form of Cowboy Jack Clement, a prominent songwriter at Sun Records who had helped launch Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Collins joined the esteemed company of Clement-approved acts and began recording and gigging in a more permanent sense.
By the 1970s, Collins was an established name, earning the monikers the ‘Ice Man’ and ‘The Master of the Telecaster’ which should tell you something about his style. Despite this, even his wife had to convince him to pursue music full time, because Collins seemed content working construction for the most part.
Having started from the boozy joint of lowly blues bars, he wasn’t about to let fame change him. He kept his signature audience-engaging style, working with the longest guitar lead he could, and once apparently even leaving the stage, entering a candy store to make a purchase and returning without ever stopping playing a blistering blues riff.
Sadly in 1993, at the age of 61, Collins passed away after a short battle with cancer. His legacy, however, as one of the greatest blues guitarists in history was crystalised at this point. Below we have collated six tracks that help to do the same when it comes to his own inimitable style, chronicling his enigmatic career in the process.
Albert Collins’ six definitive songs:
‘How Blue Can You Get’
Taken from the live album Alive & Cool recorded at the iconic Fillmore West in 1969, Collins delivers one of the finest live blues performances ever put to record. Bob Dylan may once have said about Howlin’ Wolf, “To me, was the greatest live act,” Dylan explained, “Because he did not have to move a finger when he performed — if that’s what you’d call it, ‘performing.’” The same could be said for Collins’ effortless one-man riot.
The classic Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers track is given a sauntering facelift as Collins hollers at the audience. Even on record, this brings you to the fore. Listening back, you can almost feel the sweat-dripping walls and taste the cold beer being sipped — bliss.
‘Cold, Cold Feeling’
It says a lot about Collins that the next track on the list comes from 1978. Even though he was drawing continued acclaim during the nine years that separate the albums Alive & Cool and Ice Pickin’, he very much followed the Lightnin’ Hopkins outlook that performing on a bench for a couple of youths has as much worth as the Royal Albert Hall if it’s done right. As such it took a while for him to hang up his tools and fully knuckle down in the studio.
When he did, he delivered his definitive record and track. With a capo strangling the neck of his guitar, Collins has to work with great restraint to get the melody to sing, but boy does he do a lot with a little. With purring vocals and enough atmosphere to sustain life in space, he achieves what Wynton Marsalis was talking about when he said: “Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”
‘Blue Monday Hangover’
Collins was a fiend for song titles like ‘Blue Monday Hangover’, like a sort of Frank Zappa of the blues, he was a virtuoso who almost found it so easy that he could happily laugh about it. For the uninitiated, the blues might seem like the realm of broken souls, but in actual fact, it is a balm with a great deal of irony.
Taken from his 1980 album Frostbite, this track came at a time when Collins was consolidating his career after an age on the fringes of the blues circuit. However, with guitar work as skilled as this, his star rose very quickly.
‘T Bone Shuffle’ (with Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland)
Not only was Collins a lauded guitar player, but he was also a beloved ‘guy on the scene’ rubbing shoulders with the best of them and sharing his best stuff. When he teamed up with fellow greats Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland, he produced an anthem that soared with that buzz of camaraderie.
The classic album Showdown that houses the blues trio went on to win a Grammy with Collins’ wiry telecaster tones showing how blues could still remain relevant even in the gaudy and glossy mid-80s. In truth, bending a riff that kicks like a mule will always remain timeless regardless of what production techniques you run it through.
‘I Ain’t Drunk’
In a pure Texas blues equivalent of the classic Tom Waits track ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’, Collins chants his way through the lyrics, “I ain’t drunk / I’m just drinking.” It’s wry and dry and a little bit kitsch, but the obvious light-hearted nature to it means the Collins pulls it off with aplomb.
This might not be one for the purists, but in a way, that is what makes it one of his most definitive tracks. Collins always played by his own standards, and one of those was clearly adhering to the old boozy aesthetics of Texan dive bars that he had adored when he was an amateur musician.
‘Don’t Mistake Kindness for Weakness’
For his final recorded album, 1991’s Iceman, Collins returned to a rather more classical approach akin to the style that Lightnin’ Hopkins had taught him years ago. Now, Collins was espousing classic broken blues questions like, “Don’t mistake kindness for weakness, baby” backed by classic downbeat 12-bar stylings.
His licks are still laden with right-angle bends and wild vibrato and speedy little hammer-on licks, but nothing is ever out of place as the melody follows his lead. ‘Don’t Mistake Kindness for Weakness’ is as Collins always was, understated, cool and one of the most laidback masters the guitar world has ever seen.