They have called Albert Collins many things, The Master of the Telecaster, The Razor Blade, but perhaps he’s best remembered as The Iceman, after those sharp cutting solos like an ice pick that he used to get out of Telecaster. But despite all that, when Collins took the stage, the temperature rose, not only was he a brilliant guitarist, but also every bit a ‘showman’ who would leave the stage to play among the crowd, rumour has it that during one of these occasions he actually left the club he was playing in, still playing, and bought something in the shop in front...If he’s not as famous as the 3 Kings it may be because, unlike them, his voice wasn’t in the same league as his amazing way of playing, but few electric blues guitarists can touch him if we just talk about his prowess with his instrument.
Albert Gene Drewery was born on October 1, 1932, in Leona Texas, and until his teens, his big dream was to be a great organist, which led to piano classes, but when someone stole his instrument, his cousin Willie Young lent him his first guitar and converted him into a 6-string religion. It was also Willie who taught him how to specially tune it, which he would use for his whole career, on an open F minor, with the nut on the 5th, 6th, or 7th fret.
He finally saw the light when listening to Boogie Chillen by John Lee Hooker on the radio, one of his biggest influences along with another of his cousins, Lightnin’ Hopkins, who got him into the great Texas blues tradition, much more competitive and individualist than the Chicago bands, with people like T-Bone Walker, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Freddie King and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson.
Like many of the others, Collins didn’t use a pick, and at 15 he began to play in the clubs in the area, in the band with Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown himself. Two years later he formed his first band, the Rhythm Rockers, with whom he played all the juke joints in Houston on the weekends, during the rest of the week he drove truck. In the early days with the band, he played an Epiphone but in 1952, after seeing Brown play a Fender Esquire he decided to get one. He wanted a Telecaster, but he couldn’t afford one, so he bought an Esquire, then took it to a Houston music store to have it fitted with a Telecaster neck. This was the guitar he made his first legendary recordings with, like The Freeze and Frosty.
His first recording would come in 1958 with a single, The Freeze on side A and Collins Shuffle on side B. It was the first one that would earn him regional success, and would remain in his repertoire for a long time, but to guitar aficionados, they figured that the beginning of the second song was more recognisable, and that sustained note would reappear 10 years later in one of the most significant songs of the 20th century, Voodoo Child (slight return) by Jimi Hendrix, a man who always said he owed a lot to Collins, and who he would get to meet ...but let’s not get ahead of events.
Collins went on recording various instrumentals for different Texan labels, they were songs with titles like Sno-Cone, Icy Blue and Don’t Lose Your Cool which guaranteed a local following. In spite of this small local success, Collins went from day job to nighttime performances. In ‘62 he was back in the studio recording yet another instrumental. It was on the Hallway Record label in Beaumont. Among the songs he was recording, they found one called Frosty. By coincidence there were two white blues-loving teens from Beaumont in the studio listening to the session, a boy and a girl, she timidly approached Collins and told him that that song was going to be a hit, Albert asked for names, and they told him, Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter. Before the decade was out, these two would become the biggest stars in blues/rock. But back to our story, the young Janis wasn’t wrong, and Frosty became the first song to sell over a million copies for Collins.
Despite all this, he had to wait until 1965 for the s first record in his career to be released , The Cool Sounds of Albert Collins, which brought together some of the instrumentals that he’d already released like Frosty and Thaw Out. It’s also one of the best of his career, with abrupt, quick, short solos. But the success vanished and his career went stagnant. That was when he met Little Richard who told him, “you have to listen to my guitarist, he’s soooo good”, and that’s how Albert Collins met a young James Marshall Hendrix, and they wound up playing together, and Collins affirmed later, “he was already very powerful back then, he knew a few things about playing the blues”. When Jimi left Richard’s band, Albert replaced him for a spell, however Hendrix ended up returning, leaving Collins without a job. When Hendrix made it big, he didn’t forget his old friend, not only the homage in Voodoo Child, but also in tirelessly recommending that everyone listen to him.
Still, the late 60s was a bad stretch for Collins. But that was all about to change, blues was getting a second life thanks to white rock players and Hendrix himself. That’s when Bob Hite of Canned Heat recommended Collins to Imperial label, and gave a boost to his career, at the same time Ike & Tina Turner signed him up as invited guest on The Hunter, a combination of what would have been a voice as explosive as his guitar, Tina’s, as you can see in this excellent rendition of the song with Albert King on the title cut, where Collins’ guitar lights up, another great example on the same record is I Smell Trouble. And if that wasn’t enough, in the same year, 1969, he opened for the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore West. It was during this time in California, he got the guitar that is most associated with him, a 1966 Fender Telecaster Custom.
At Imperial Records he would record three remarkable albums between ‘69 and ‘71, where he would also sing, which are some of the best of his career. This resurgence would make the company Blue Thumb Records put his debut album under a new title, Truckin’ with Albert Collins in 1970. In ‘72 he signed with Tumbleweed and cut the very funky There’s Gotta be a Change with several elite session players like Jesse Ed Davis and Jim Keltner. But the good times finally came to an end, and again, short on money, he left music and began to work in construction, which led to his fixing up Neil Diamond’s house.
In 1977 his wife convinced him to get back into what he did best: blowing everyone away with his guitar. In that same year he signed with Alligator Records where he would record Ice Pickin’, his biggest record yet. His career turned right around with this album, thanks to that, he could give it all to what he most loved. The notes on the inside sleeve say the following: “Albert King named Collins as his favourite guitarist and John Lee Hooker declared, I’m an Albert Collins freak!”.
There was no way down, the 80s consolidated him as one of the biggest names in blues right alongside the greats such as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and his fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan. One record that sticks out among them all is Showdown, where he’s together with Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. On songs like The Dream his solos honour his fame, cutting like ice picks and creating the perfect mood for the song.
His career came to an end on November 24, 1993, when he was at at the top. His performances were wild and massive, combing his expressive style with his own unrepeatable sound. From Hendrix to Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan to Robert Cray, numerous guitarists have expressed their admiration for his touch and considered him one of the biggest influences of their careers. For sure, The Iceman could melt anyone with his Telecaster.