With our recent below freezing temperatures, I felt that this would be a good time to look at the life and career of the performer who earned the nickname the “Iceman”.
There has never been and may never be again a bluesman quite like Albert Collins, “The Master of the Telecaster.” Although he went largely unrecognized by the general public during most of his career, the Texas-born musician Albert Collins eventually was acknowledged as one of the most talented and distinctive blues guitarists of his era. He established his fame by creating a unique sound with his Fender Telecaster guitar that was based on unusual tunings and scorching solos. His nickname “Iceman” was bestowed on him because his guitar sounds were piercing and could scorch the ears, just as icicles were sharp and could burn.
Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times that “Mr. Collins made his reputation by combining savage, unpredictable improvisations with an immediately identifiable tone, cold and pure.” “In the Iceman’s powerful hands,” said Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player, “that battered Tele could sass and scold like Shakespeare’s fire, jab harder than Joe Louis, squawk like a scared chicken, or raise a graveyard howl.”
Musicians ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Canned Heat to Robert Cray have cited Collins as having a major influence on their styles. He was especially known for his frenzied live performances, during which he would often stroll into the audience and dance with the fans, his playing arena extended by a 100-foot extension cord attached to his electric guitar. Often he would start talking a blue streak, regaling his fans with hilarious and lewd remarks.
While his crowd-pleasing improvisations made him an extremely popular performer over the years, his recordings sold erratically until late in his career. His ultimate fame was also delayed by the long-time domination of Chicago blues over the Texas-based version. While the Chicago blues of performers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf emphasized group jam sessions, the Texas variety was more of a showcase for individual talent where guitarists tried to outplay each other. Few could compete with Collins in these “bouts,” but his talent didn’t bring him widespread fame until he was brought to the attention of rock fans in the late 1960s.
A pianist in his church, his idol when he was a teen was Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy McGriff, but his interest in that instrument waned after his organ was stolen.
Later, he learned about playing guitar from his cousins, blues guitarists Willow Young and Lightnin’ Hopkins. His cousins turned out to be major influences on Collins’s trademark style. He emulated Young’s style of playing without a pick and learned to tune the guitar in a minor key from Hopkins. By using his fingers rather than a pick, his playing developed a more percussive sound.
Collins claimed in Guitar Player that he made his first guitar out of a cigar box, using hay-baling wire for strings. This seems questionable, considering his cousins were successful guitarists and he had somehow managed to get an organ easy enough!
While Collins said that his greatest influence was Detroit’s John Lee Hooker, he spent much of his youth listening to the big band music of artists such as Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, and Tommy Dorsey. At one time he considered becoming a jazz guitarist, and his playing often shifted between blues and the horn-driven sound of a jazz big band.
After Collins switched from acoustic to electric guitar, he began listening to T-Bone Walker, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and B.B. King to refine his talent. Brown was a key influence due to his horn-driven sound that Collins found especially exciting. Collins emulated Brown by starting to play with a capo and a Fender guitar, an instrument that would become inextricably linked to him. Since he couldn’t afford to buy the guitar at that time, he started by having a Fender Telecaster neck put on another guitar. Throughout this time, he absorbed the sounds of Mississippi, Chicago, and especially Texas.
By age 15 Collins was playing at local blues club with Brown. Then he formed his own group, the Rhythm Rockers, in 1952, with which he performed at honky tonks in Houston’s all-black Third Ward on weekends while working during the week as a ranch hand and truck driver. Next on his career path was three years of touring with singer Piney Brown’s band.
In the early 1950s, Collins’s talent earned him positions as session players with performers such as Big Mama Thornton. He later replaced future guitar great Jimi Hendrix in Little Richard’s band. By this time Collins had established himself as a great eclectic who could produce unusual sounds with his guitar playing. As David Gates wrote in Newsweek, Collins “tore at the string with his bare hands instead of the ostensibly speedier pick, used unorthodox minor tunings instead of the more versatile standard ones and unashamedly clamped on a capo (a bar across the fingerboard, which raises the pitch of the strings), making the already stinging Telecaster sound even more bright and piercing.”
Collins cashed in on the popularity of instrumentals ushered in by performers such Booker T., Duane Eddy, and Link Wray in the late 1950s. His first recording, an instrumental called “The Freeze,” featured extended notes played in a high register. Collins told Guitar Player that the record sold about 150,000 copies in a mere three weeks.
Albert lost a chance to play with soul music star James Brown in the late 1950s because he couldn’t read music.
Then he hit the blues big time with his recording of “Frosty,” released in 1962, that sold over a million copies and became a popular blues standard. Teenagers Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter, both raised in Beaumont, supposedly, were in the studio when he recorded the song. According to Albert, Janis correctly predicted that the single would become a hit.
This song confirmed his reputation as a player of “cold blues,” and his producer urged him to continue this theme in his song and album titles. He even named his backup band The Icebreakers.
With just his fingers and his capo that he would move up and down the neck of his guitar, Collins produced a wide range of effects ranging from the sound of car horns to footsteps in the snow. He released a series of singles for small record labels such as Kangaroo, Great Scott, Hall, Fox, Imperial, and Tumbleweed that had moderate success at the regional level. Meanwhile, he still didn’t feel that he could make his living entirely from guitar playing and continued working as a truck driver and as a mixer of paint for automobiles. He continued playing through the 1960s, but recording very sporadically and was unable to tour because of his day job.
According to Peter Watrous in the New York Times, Collins’ first significant album was Truckin with Albert Collins in 1965. The album featured what would become famous blues recording of his previously released “Frosty,” “Sno-Cone,” and other songs. Following the release of his compilation album, The Cool Sound of Albert Collins, he quit his paint job and moved to Kansas City in 1966. While there he met his future wife, Gwendolyn, who would become an important motivator for him as well the composer of some of his best-known songs. Among her compositions for Collins were “There’s Gotta Be a Change” and “Mastercharge.”
Blues music gained popularity in the late 1960s due to various rock performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Canned Heat stressing the importance of blues as inspiration for their work. A major boost to Collins’ career came as the result of interest in him by Bob Hite. Hite recommended Collins to the Imperial, which was affiliated with Canned Heat’s label, Liberty/USA. His understated singing style showed up on a recording for the first time on Love Can Be Found Anywhere Even in a Guitar, the first of three albums that he recorded for Imperial. Later he recorded albums for Blue Thumb, then Bill Szymczyk’s Tumbleweed label in Chicago in 1972.
In 1968 and 1969, the ’60s blues revival was still going on, and Albert got wider exposure opening for groups like the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival and at Fillmore West in 1969 gained Collins more exposure and acceptance with young rock audiences. He also appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975.
As late as 1971, when he was 39 years old, Collins found it necessary to work in construction because he couldn’t make a sufficient living from his music.
But Albert’s greatest success came after he signed with Alligator in 1978 and cut Ice Pickin’. It won the Best Blues Album of the Year Award from the Montreux Jazz Festival and was nominated for a Grammy. His following Alligator albums helped earn Collins every award the blues world had to offer. And, along with Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray (who decided on a career as a bluesman after seeing Collins play his high school prom) Collins cut the Grammy-winning Showdown!
More comfortable playing for small audiences than mass gatherings, Collins nevertheless agreed to perform in the 1985 Live Aid Concert with George Thurogood which was aired to an estimated 1.8 billion viewers. Right into his fifties, he maintained his flamboyant stage presence. Eventually, Collins was well established as the leading blues celebrity second only to guitarist B.B. King.
Albert Collins was the subject of television documentary on PBS, Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, 1980s.
Even after he was firmly established as a major modern bluesman, Collins never got too big for his fans and friends, and never took things easy. And he never relinquished the wheel of his battered tour bus that he loved to drive so much. Along with his band, The Icebreakers, Collins’ live shows — driven by his kinetic stage presence — were legendary testaments to the power of the blues.
Although he’d spent far too much time in the 1970s without recording, Collins could sense that the blues were coming back stronger in the mid-’80s, with interest in Stevie Ray Vaughn at an all-time high. He enjoyed some media celebrity in the last few years of his life, via concert appearances at Carnegie Hall, on Late Night with David Letterman, in the Touchstone film, Adventures in Babysitting, and in a classy Seagram’s Wine Cooler commercial with the actor Bruce Willis. The blues revival that Collins, Vaughan, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds helped bring about in the mid-’80s continued into the mid-’90s. But sadly, Albert was not able to take part in the ongoing evolution of the music.
Check out the young, thin Bruce Willis!
“The Master of the Telecaster,” “The Iceman,” and “The Razor Blade” was robbed of his best years as a blues performer by a bout with liver cancer that ended with his premature death on November 24, 1993. He was just 61 years old. The highly influential, totally original Albert Collins was on the cusp of a much wider worldwide following via his deal with Virgin Records’ Pointblank subsidiary.
Albert left behind a blues legacy that continues to amaze and delight blues fans all over the world.