As the blues community celebrates the ascension of a new guitar hero in Dave Hole, it also mourns the passing of another. "Albert Collins," says Hole, "was a major, major performer. There have been some who have been so influential -- Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Albert King. And Albert Collins falls right into that company. Those of us who saw him and met him feel very privileged to have done so."
Those of us fortunate enough to have been at the Chicago Blues Fest in 1992 were privileged to catch the Iceman's surprise visit to the Front Porch Stage. In a tribute to the late Lightnin' Hopkins, the recently departed John Campbell was shredding frets in the company of harpster Wild Child Butler and guitarist/vocalist Lowell Fulson. Suddenly, a palpable excitement surged through the fans boogeying down on the grassy field -- Albert's coming! Vocal cords ripped as we shouted our glee at this rare opportunity to see the Iceman up close and personal in an intimate setting. Even the extraordinary Campbell was cowed in such company.
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And who could blame him? Collins was a dazzling showman, thrilling fans with a voice as rough-textured as the back of a barn door and heated guitar runs that dropped jaws left and right. Like his contemporary Buddy Guy, Albert Collins was infamous for wading into festival crowds with his Telecaster buzzing -- as he did at last year's Riverwalk Blues Fest -- smiling broadly, imitating sounds from a woman's moans to the scrubbing of dishes. (Check out "Too Many Dirty Dishes" from the Cold Snap album.) Back in the days when cutting contests were almost nightly occurrences in blues clubs, the show was everything. And Albert Collins learned his craft from the best.
Collins was born in the small Texas town of Leona in 1932, but his family relocated to Houston when he was nine. Growing up alongside Johnny Clyde Copeland and Johnny Guitar Watson, Collins was part of a generation that was to help cement the electric Texas sound in blues bedrock. It was the generation before, notably T-Bone Walker and Clarence Gatemouth Brown, that had created the sound. After seeing Gatemouth perform, Collins got the notion to use a capo on his guitar neck, which, along with minor tuning, was critical to his distinctive sound.
Best known for his wintry song cycle -- his first hit was the 1958 single "The Freeze" on the Kangaroo label, his best-known hit the million-selling "Frosty" for Hall-Way records -- Collins had recently signed to the Charisma/Pointblank label and had released an album, The Iceman, in 1992. However, the bulk of his recent material, of uniformly excellent quality, was recorded for Alligator. Rightfully, Collins was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as were his albums Ice Pickin' and Showdown (the latter recorded with Copeland and Robert Cray).
The Iceman's legacy feeds back through just about every Texas guitarist who followed, maybe most noticeably the late Stevie Ray Vaughan who, in turn, influenced yet another generation. Albert Collins died of cancer in Las Vegas two weeks ago at the age of 61. The world is already a colder place for the passing of the Iceman.