Graded on a Curve: Albert Collins, Truckin’ with Albert Collins

Albert Collins hailed from Texas, and he had the blues. His biggest fame as a guitarist came during the 1980s but his tenure as a performer and recording artist spanned all the way back to the late-‘50s. Truckin’ with Albert Collins, which is freshly available on 180gm vinyl from the Friday Music label, serves up a very nice collection of his mid-‘60s work, and its chapter one in the story of a major electric blues figure.

It was a long run of albums for Alligator that finally brought Albert Collins sustained and much deserved recognition, but prior to his association with that long-serving Chicago-based indie he’d already achieved the status of a Texas master. Along with T-Bone Walker, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Freddie King, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Collins is an essential component in the Lone Star State’s post-World War II blues progression, and his pre-Alligator material reveals an artistry that thrived on versatility and yet was also quite focused.

However, noting the man’s rise in stature via Bruce Iglauer’s label shouldn’t suggest that Collins was doing his thing under a shroud of total obscurity during the ‘60s, or conversely that the ascension via Alligator was instantaneous (far from it; it was only in the late-‘80s that he was able to pay someone else to drive his tour bus.) The guitarist certainly had his moments during the ‘60s blues boom, and the record that established him as a force was his single for the TCF/Hall label “Frosty.”

It’s been awarded with the distinction of selling a million copies, though it apparently never landed on any national chart, so it’s not easy to check that claim’s veracity. And rather than tally-up a quick surge of retail momentum, the lithe instrumental instead found a steady audience by exploring terrain similar to the Kings Freddie and B.B., with Collins tapping into a blues sensibility completely lacking in anachronistic qualities.

Stories persist that Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter were both in the studio the day “Frosty” was cut, and it’s quickly relatable via listening why a pair of teenagers would’ve been there, since Collins had a firm grip on a highly relevant horn-based R&B-tinged sound. Unlike the attempts of various ‘60s labels to update the music of noteworthy bluesmen and market it to younger audiences, Collins formulated a personal approach of natural flair and energy that was very much up to date.

Born in 1932, Collins was part of the generation that brought rise to rock ‘n’ roll, and he also fits into a tide of ‘60s bluesmen who advanced the music significantly beyond the electrified Delta. Along with Freddie and Albert King there was the Chicago triumvirate of Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Junior Wells plus noted blues-rockers Lonnie Mack and Roy Buchanan.

That’s a fair amount of company in which to attempt standing out. But while he didn’t rise to stardom in the ‘60s, the guitarist did gain a sizeable following encouraged by the vocal fandom of Jimi Hendrix and further assisted by Canned Heat’s Bob “The Bear” Hite, who after witnessing him in action convinced Collins to relocate to California. Once there he got signed to Imperial (like fellow Texan T-Bone Walker had before him) and played shows at the Whisky a Go Go, Fillmore West, and the “Newport 69” Festival.

Prior to the move his first LP was released by Hall in ’65 under the title of The Cool Sound of Albert Collins. It collected “Frosty” and a batch of his other singles for the label with some exclusive material, and in ’69 the Blue Thumb imprint repressed it with a new title and cover upgrade as Truckin’ with Albert Collins.

While the dozen songs it features aren’t his earliest recordings (he debuted with his band the Rhythm Rockers in ’58 with “The Freeze” b/w “Collins Shuffle” for a fly-by-night Texas outfit named Kangaroo) it does offer the first extended look into his early, largely instrumental based work and also provides more than just a glimpse of the powerhouse he was to become.

Unsurprisingly, “Frosty” kicks off the proceedings. While similar to Freddie King’s “Hide Away” in terms of intensity and non-vocal conception, Collins’ technique, which relied upon the fleet delivery of stinging notes rather than chord progressions, began in a somewhat B.B.-like place and then ventured into territory of its own. A big part of what became his signature sound is the toughness of his tone as it contrasted very well with the more urbane elements of his backing band.

And the seven-piece group (alto, tenor, trumpet, keyboards, bass, and drums) Collins led for the songs collected here responds in kind, oozing sophistication without sacrificing needed power or edge, and they manage to branch out stylistically while always keeping tabs on their ensemble approach. This helps the proceedings from getting monochromatic while also detailing a unified and sonically appropriate setting for Collins to unleash his prowess.

A certain level of flash unquestionably informs Collins’ playing, though he thankfully never falters into becoming a note-drunk string-braggart. While in the live setting he was known for his showmanship, which included his now legendary “guitar walks” into the crowd (if the venue was small enough he’d even head out the joint’s front door), Collins always retained a solid grip on the band objective that made his music tick.

Indeed, the songs on Truckin’ with Albert Collins reveal the leader’s great generosity with his sidemen. The majority of “Hot ‘N Cold”’s relaxed mid-tempo is given over to Henry Hayes’ robust R&B expressiveness on the alto, with Collins mainly in support; when he does interject a brief solo it unfurls as totally in synch with the song’s unperturbed aura.

In offering a tricky piano-led rhythmic shuffle that’s enhanced by a tidy horn section jaunt and concise soloing via sax and guitar, the too brief “Frostbite” displays just how contemporarily focused Collins was at this early juncture. “Tremble” on the other hand is a lean cooker with ample solo space for the guitarist, which makes sense since it was originally the b-side to “Frosty.” And the horns take a break for “Thaw Out” as Walter McNeil steps up on the organ and drummer Herbert Henderson gets almost tribal on the toms.

“Dyin’ Flu” closes side one, and as the record’s only vocal number it’s an illuminating listen. While a more than competent singer at this early stage, Collins also didn’t have the dynamism to really stand out from the crowd, here coming off somewhat like Otis Rush, though less intense in effect, on a tune that’s also mildly suggestive of Albert King.

It’s definitely a worthwhile cut, but it does point to the savvy in Collins’ decision to rely upon his already well-honed instrumental skills and to sharpen his vocal talents over time, though electing for this route surely limited his popularity (singing and lyrics being as valuable to most blues aficionados as the guitar), at least until the breakthrough of his smoking Alligator debut Ice Pickin’. But interestingly, what was once a hindrance to widespread notoriety is now beneficial to his discography.

In contrast to bluesmen whose first arrivals on wax revealed them as being already essentially fully formed through the rigors of extensive gig experience, a circumstance that often portended redundancy on record and abbreviated careers, Collins’ early LPs are a rewarding survey of artistic growth, with Ice Pickin’ the breakthrough of a mature style that’s rightly assessed as his masterpiece.

But that statement shouldn’t undersell what Collins was packing circa ’65, since side two’s opener “Don’t Lose Your Cool” is multi-faceted enough to get ‘em moving in both the beer dive and the discotheque. From there “Backstroke” rolls confidently with just the right touch of urban verve, and “Kool Aide” finds Henderson unleashing more rhythmic tribalism as Collins peels off many licks and McNeil’s organ gets nicely atmospheric.

I must give special mention to McNeil’s playing of an instrument that in the blues/jazz context has frankly never been a personal favorite. In the hands of far too many the organ impacts me as an overwrought buzzkill, frequently ham-fisted and displaying an unpalatable skating-rink ambiance or at the other end of the spectrum flaunting an obnoxious, dubiously soulful liquidity, with each scenario dampening quite a few otherwise fine recordings for this reporter.

But not here, for never does McNeil succumb to these low points, always observing good taste and more importantly restraint on an axe that’s design plainly encourages flights of excess. This is especially apparent on “Kool Aide,” where his motions are just funky enough to avoid giving off that ice-skating patina while never sinking into mere groove-noodling.

But that’s not all. “Shiver and Shake” is a bristling corker with some study piano and a terrific tenor solo by a dude known only by the curious nickname of Big Tiny, and “Icy Blue” reinforces Truckin’ with Albert Collins’ sense of refinement with an exquisite trumpet spot from Frank Mitchell and guitar that’s nearer to Duane Eddy than any kind of standard blues expression.

If all this focus on Collins’ sidemen seems odd given the name in the album’s title, “Sno-Cone II,” which was notably the flip on a two-part 45 issued concurrent with this rec, finds the leader turning up the heat as the proceedings strut to a most excellent close. Along with “Frosty,” it’s the locus of the LP’s most spirited playing from Collins, and in accord McNeil gets off on the organ and the horn-section manages to vamp towards the end without going overboard.

It’s also one of the few cuts that shake off the disc’s major diminishing aspect, specifically unnecessarily abbreviated songs. It would’ve been great to hear some of these tracks extend for a while, but as many were derived from singles, that’s kind of beside the point. A lesser problem is recording quality, but its detraction is minor, easily overcome by the vibrancy of execution.

As a long-player, Truckin’ with Albert Collins might fall just a hair short of the truly outstanding, but it’s got more than a few moments of guitar mastery in its grooves, and as said it is basically details the beginning of this departed man’s rise to greatness. His three Imperial discs continued that journey, gradually increasing the frequency of his vocal turns, and when heard in one big gush (which is easily done via the 2CD collection The Complete Imperial Recordings) their sum is nearly as powerful as Ice Pickin’, a slab that found the guy singing up a storm.

In my estimation, he never subsequently equaled that ‘78 album, even though along with Robert Cray and fellow Texan Johnny Copeland he won a Grammy for his participation on their ’85 trio effort Showdown! But admirable was that he never slowed down and was consistently open to new things; please see the suite “Two-Lane Highway,” an initially intriguing and very interesting venture with John Zorn that appears on the saxophonist’s ’87 Elektra/Nonesuch LP Spillane.

If you listen, and not even all that closely, to Truckin’ with Albert Collins, you can hear the rudiments that made their seemingly unlikely collaboration a fruitful one. For in terms of the blues, Albert Collins was as shrewd and brilliant as they come, and this record begins the ride.


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