Albert Collins Buyer's Guide

Albert Collins playing guitar onstage
Albert Collins (Image credit: Getty)

You know that ‘one note’ thing? It doesn’t just apply to guys whose four-letter surname begins with ‘K’, though having ‘Albert’ as a first name certainly helps. The late Albert Collins, who died of cancer in 1993 at the age of 61 and kept rocking until (almost) the very last, had not only as distinctive a sound as any blues player who ever plugged in a guitar, but a unique stage presence which combined mischievous warmth with blistering aggression: the icy screams and vicious snarls his bare-fingered attack wrenched from his F minor-tuned, high-capoed Telecaster (played without pedals into a fearsome 4x12 Fender Quad Reverb amp, guitar geeks) often seemed to take him as much by surprise as they did his listeners. He was a true showman. Hooking up his guitar and amp up with a 100ft cable, he would plough through a crowded club and into the street out front.

Born in Texas in 1932 and a distant cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Collins’ first musical ambitions centred on Hammond organ heroes Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Brother Jack McDuff: he soon realised, however, that a Fender Telecaster was both more affordable and more portable than a Hammond B3. He made his name with a series of snappy, Freddie King-style guitar instrumentals with cold-themed titles (Frosty, The Freeze, Frostbite, Thaw-Out, Sno-Cone, etc) which were much admired by Jimi Hendrix (whom, ironically, he briefly replaced in Little Richard’s band). His first big break should’ve come when he moved to California in the late 60s and fell in with Canned Heat, but the albums they produced for him bombed and he briefly retired from music before concentrating on live work until Chicago’s premier blues indie, Alligator, signed him in 1978.

From there on in, it was Grammys aplenty, a Live Aid guest appearance with George Thorogood, top-billed festival spots, the Albert Hall with Clapton and a permanent seat at blues guitar’s top table.

Albert Collins

Albert Collins (Image credit: Getty)

Essential (The perfect introduction)

Ice Pickin’ (Alligator)

The perfect bait to get you hooked on the Texan legend.

Annoyingly, there still isn’t a career-spanning one-stop-shop collection gathering together all the high-spots of Collins’ up-down-and-up 30-year career: neither The Iceman Cometh (a flawed resume of his Alligator years) nor Collins Mix (a 1993 revisiting of his earlier classics, of which more later) are quite up to the job.

However, Ice Pickin’, his 1978 debut for Alligator was the breakthrough album which created the template and set the tone (and what a tone it was!) for the rest of his recording career. The album’s cover shot is brilliant: Albert wailing away with his Tele plugged into a block of ice. All the album lacked was the considerable presence of monster bassist Johnny B Gayden, who joined up for the sequel, Cold Snap, and became the core of Albert’s Icebreakers band. The 46-year-old Albert grabbed his chance with both hands and never let it go again.

By now, Collins was a totally happening vocalist/frontman whose singing had almost caught up with his guitar, and a virtuoso stage performer: any crowd-pleasing stunt he hadn’t learned, mastered and used probably didn’t work. Favouring organ and horns rather than piano and harp, he worked in three basic modes: shuffles, slow blues and a nasty bumpalicious funk that got even nastier after Johnny B joined up. Ice Pickin’ burst at the seams with killer examples of all those flavours (with most of the original lyrics written by his wife Gwen) and these songs would stay on the setlist for the rest of his life: Honey Hush!, Too Tired and Cold Cold Feeling, to name but three.

The rest of his studio career in brief: Frostbite is almost as good as Ice Pickin’ and Cold Snap, and Don’t Lose Your Cool and Iceman are almost as good as Frostbite. There are no bad Albert Collins albums.

Superior (The releases that built his reputation)

Live ’92-’93 (PointBlank)

Albert cut the mustard right up to the end. Here’s Exhibit A.

As consummate a studio performer as Collins was, you need a live album. The two he cut for Alligator, Frozen Alive and Live In Japan, are both majorly formidable, but for historicity and poignancy this one just about wins: most of his 1992 Montreaux Festival set (also available elsewhere in its entirety), plus 1993 tracks cut mere weeks before his death, when he already knew he was on the way out.

Needless to say, there was no let-up at the end: those final performances are as searingly, sizzlingly powerful as anything he ever recorded. There’s classic repertoire aplenty including a storming Frosty, but it’s the closing I Ain’t Drunk and T-Bone Shuffle which’ll move heart and feet alike.

Truckin’ With Albert Collins (Universal)

The genesis of a blues genius.

Those influential early 60s small-label instrumental sides (with one lonely vocal, Dyin’ Flu, which still keeps the ‘cold’ theme intact) were originally collected in 1965 as The Cool Sound Of Albert Collins, in one icy-slick package of essential blues guitar vocabulary. Almost the equal of the classic instrumentals of fellow Texan guitar titan Freddie King (and Ike Turner’s magisterial Prancin’), Frosty, Frostbite, Don’t Lose Your Cool, Kool Aid, Icy Blue, Thaw-Out bristle with hooks, ear candy and jazzy, funky, brass-blasting shuffle grooves. No wonder the young Jimi loved ’em – as did Stevie Ray Vaughan, who adopted AC’s bass-string downward slur and used it all his life.

Cold Snap (Alligator)

The second Alligator release finds The Iceman in killer form.

Ice Pickin’s immediate sequel: enter bassist Johnny B Gayden to put his inimitable snap’n’rumble into the groove, and add guest shots by Albert’s old Hammond hero Jimmy McGriff.

A higher budget means more horns; a few more classics (I Ain’t Drunk, Cash Talkin’ Willow Tree, A Good Fool Is Hard To Find) enter the core repertoire, and Albert’s amp gets turned up a few notches. By now his style was fully established: subsequent albums simply refined and amplified it (in every sense of the word). He’d also developed his distinctive vocal personality and that unique slicing guitar: most Telecaster players attempt to smooth out that ‘ice-pick’ sound; Albert turned it into a trademark.

Good (Worth a look)

Collins Mix (PointBlank)

Fellow blues royalty join Albert to record his studio swan song.

Collins’ final studio album was a career retrospective in which he revisited his classic repertoire with his road band The Icebreakers, augmented by the odd special guest, such as BB King getting frisky on Frosty, Gary Moore on best behaviour on the scarifying minor-key slow blues If Trouble Was Money, Branford Marsalis adding sulphurous sax to Honey Hush!, Fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson blowing lonesome harp on Tired Man and The Memphis Horns showing up here and there. Ironically, Same Old Thing is the one new song here; equally ironically, Albert took the decision to revisit his pet tunes from the past before it was known that he was terminally ill.

Albert Collins, Robert Cray & Johnny Copeland - Showdown! (Alligator)

Three old pals trading licks.

Originally planned as a Texas guitar summit co-featuring Clarence Gatemouth Brown: Collins’ former protégé Robert Cray stepped in when Gate stepped out. Albert plays not only host (he’s the only one on all of the tracks) but harmonica (on Copeland’s Bring Your Fine Self Home).

Back in ‘85, Cray was still a new face to most blues fans, but he trades licks with the two old salts like a champ-in-waiting. From opener T-Bone Shuffle to the closing Blackjack, this not only burns but also proves just how much sensitivity and generosity flip-sided Collins’ extrovert aggression.

Avoid (Like the plague)

The Complete Imperial Recordings (Imperial/EMI)

Okay, not all of Albert’s sides rule… but it’s not his fault!

Remember me saying there were no bad Albert Collins records? I lied. The late 60s/early 70s Canned Heat-produced albums boast (if that’s the right word) indifferent material, generic backings and a thin production which leeches the power from Albert’s signature tone. They did Mr Collins’ talents no justice whatsoever. Buy this last or preferably not at all. Your choice.