Albert come back: Someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Albert Collins needs to return to put the blues back into music’s mainstream
The blues is my favorite music and I can’t understand why everybody doesn’t love it. Nowadays, it can’t compare with the popularity of rock ‘n’ roll, pop, country or even hip-hop.
Saturday’s Legendary Blues Revue features four great stars, but harmonica player Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band has by far received the most notoriety. That’s because, unlike Tommy Castro, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Deanna Bogart, he was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, not a blues band.
In my short time with Lake Tahoe Action I’ve had the pleasure to speak with a number of bluesmen, including Tinsley Ellis, who made an interesting point about the state of contemporary blues. He said no one has been able to grab the mainstream’s interest since the era of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in 1990.
Despite Vaughan’s “crossover” success, he continued to talk about and cover songs by his great blues predecessors, Ellis said.
On Castro’s’ latest album, “Painkiller,” he and another guitar star, Coco Montoyo, play homage to Albert Collins by covering “A Good Fool Is Hard To Find,” which includes a shot of “I Ain’t Drunk.”
Many of the bluesmen I’ve spoken with often referred to Collins, usually recalling insightful and amusing stories about him. Collins, known as “The Master of the Telecaster,” would play with a capo high on the neck, giving him a distinct sound. The Texas player’s career made a comeback in the late 1970s and all through Vaughan’s heyday. Since Collins died in 1993 the blues hasn’t recovered.
I’ve known drummer Paul DeMark since we were both journalism students at Humboldt State University. DeMark had the pleasure of putting together a pick-up band featuring Collins right after he signed with the record label Alligator. The group played a week or so of gigs in preparation of the 1978 Monterey Jazz Festival. Paul has some great memories of Collins, as does Ronnie Baker Brooks, who said Collins was like an uncle to him.
The best way for me to share the stories about Collins and provide some insight on the state of the blues is by letting the bluesmen themselves speak. I asked several to comment about Ellis’ observation. The following statements are taken from interviews this year with Lake Tahoe Action:
Paul DeMark: So much of Albert Collins’ persona was being cool. Almost every song is about, or has a reference to, cold or cool. He walks in and everything about him is the epitome of cool. He had the leather jacket and a goatee. He was like a musical James Dean – just cool.
He had this hand shake, You start with soul shake, handshake, thumbs – and he had these really long fingers – he’d do it really fast and then he’d snap his fingers while he had his hand around your thumb. The first time he did it, I heard this loud finger snap. I was like, wow, what was that? And I saw him do it to other people. He stylized his cool persona to the “nth” degree.
Ronnie Baker Brooks: One time we were in Japan hanging around back stage after the sound check just shooting dice to kill time. Albert was a known gambler. He could play poker or whatever. I won $300 from Albert Collins on luck, man. Just pure luck. And that kind of made Albert mad. He said, “Son, nobody ever beat me like that. You gonna play with me tonight.” I said OK, because I had never played with Albert. We would always talk and he was always friendly to me. He was like an uncle, but I never had the opportunity to play with him. So this night he calls me up on “Frosty.” And I was standing in front of his amps. He had two amps stacked on top of each other. He gave me my solo, and I’m doing everything I know. I’m a young buck, a hot gunslinger and I’m playing every note I know, and I got a nice response from the people. He hit one note, man, and sliced me down. Sliced me down, man. I was frozen, man. My hair stood up on my head, I had chill bumps through my body. And he was just looking at me with this look, I could not explain it to you. I get goose bumps just talking about it now. He just looked at me and it was like “I got you now.” That right there taught me, it ain’t how much you know, it’s what you do with what you know. Albert came from somewhere else when he threw that note on me. You can’t learn that, you’ve got to earn that, and have been through some stuff.
Paul DeMark: (At the rehearsal/audition) Albert sets up his amp and he looks at me and says, “Drummer, do you know ‘Frosty?’ ” It was nothing complicated, but either I knew it or I didn’t, and I knew it. A straight ahead shuffle with a stop a couple of times. So we played it and I hit the stops and the fills and at the end of it he stops and says, “I think everything’s going to be all right.”
Ronnie Baker Brooks: My father lit the fire and Albert Collins threw gas on it. He said, “You can play, boy. All you have to do is listen. Always keep your ears open to any musician that’s playing anything. If it’s the horn player, you listen to him because he’s going to phrase something different that you would phrase.” That’s where he said he got his own style, from listening to horn players and organ players.
Robert Cray: Albert Collins played at my high school graduation. I went up and talked to him after the show. I said, “You’re fantastic,” and he said, “You play guitar? Man, keep it up.”
Ronnie Baker Brooks: One time we were in L.A. doing a show and I was messing up and Albert was looking at me. He grabbed me and said “Boy, don’t nobody know you’re messing up but you.” You quit frowning up there!” Because, when I mess up I frown and get mad at myself. He said “Next time, smile.” And I tried that and you know it’s true. Nobody knows your messing up at times but you. So he helped me build confidence in myself.
Tommy Castro: A lot of guys who are my contemporaries are all about guitar. And that’s great. It gives guys like me something to listen to for entertainment purposes. I love listening to guys like Robben Ford or Larry Carlton or really great blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughan or the originators Albert King, and guys who are amazingly gifted like Albert Collins. Those guys, their guitar playing was outstanding. There was nobody you could really compare them to. They were their own giant guitar playing selves. Guys like us can aspire to that, but we’re not really in the same category.
Paul DeMark: At the Monterey Jazz Festival everybody played in precise 45-minute time slots. On the last song he’s walking with his guitar and a 100-foot cord. We were on a very high stage and you have to go down steps to get down to the people. We have no eye contact with him. People on the side of the stage are giving us the cut sign, which meant it was time to stop. But if we stop playing it’s going to be a musical train wreck. Albert keeps playing and the crew is gesturing more for us to stop. Hey, we were the sidemen. We’re not going to leave him hanging. Finally, the director of the festival, Jimmy Lyons, he comes out and takes the mic. “Let’s hear it for Albert Collins. Albert! Albert come back! Albert come back!” And the curtain goes down, and Lyons is out there with the mic. And we’ve lost contact with him. We had no idea where he was. As soon as the curtain comes down these backstage equipment people come rushing out to us and say “Stop Now!” They surrounded us. It was very intense. We came to the end of the verse and we tried to musically make it as obvious as possible to Albert that we’re going to end the song. When we ended it, it was just like we thought. The guitar just keeps playing. It was a horrible train wreck. So Albert comes back saying “I’m really sorry guys.” His head’s down and he apologizes to Jimmy Lyons.
The state of the blues
Ronnie Baker Brooks: The blues is in a bad state, but I also remember when my dad (Lonnie Brooks) couldn’t work when the disco came in. It knocked all the musicians out of work and then it went to DJs. Then it had its revival again with Stevie, and then Robert Cray blew up, and then Buddy Guy and then Luther Allison, before he died he had a nice buzz. And then Albert Collins, before died, and then it just kind of dwindled away after that.
Tinsley Ellis: The blues were healthier before when we had bona fide hero like Stevie Ray Vaughan that were leading the way in selling millions of albums and talking about Buddy Guy and Otis Rush and Albert Collins in every interview. But he’s gone and there doesn’t seem to be anybody whose doing anything near that well now. But we have good people still now. Keb Mo is very good, and Buddy Guy. But that sort of crossover type thing that’s going to attract new people to the music, I don’t see that. Somebody may come out every once in a while like a Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Johnny Lang and they’ll have a good amount of success with bluesy music and then they sort of abandon it on their second album.
(Lang’s) shifted gears and he certainly has the right to do that but it happens so many times in people in blues get a hit song and then they abandon the genre totally. Stevie Ray Vaughan was an exception to that. He’d do blues music but then he’d continue to do Buddy Guy and Otis Rush and Albert Collins and Lonnie Mack and Albert King songs.
Ronnie Baker Brooks: That’s a true point. It’s got some validity to it. I don’t know if it’s totally true. I think a lot of it has to do with the record companies and things like that. The thing I could say about Stevie, I had the pleasure to know Steve and play with Stevie. He was true to the blues. He really was dedicated to the blues. That’s where is heart was, not to say that any of those people you named, their heart isn’t. But them being so young at the time they were signed, they had a lot of influences and I can’t blame them for that.
Tommy Castro: Interesting thought. I think he’s probably right about that. Robert Cray came along and really contributed a lot, and Keb Mo has been a good crossover blues guy in recent times. You know what it really needs is somebody really (f******) good. That’s all it needs. Somebody who shakes up the world by talent and playing good songs, good vocals, making good records. Really strong guitar playing is always a plus. People are always looking for the next blues guitar god to turn up. And really since Stevie Ray Vaughan there hasn’t been any. Nobody’s really filled that big shoe.
Paul DeMark: I would think Tommy Castro could be the guy. At least on the West Coast people are thinking this guy has a chance. He’s got the sound and he’s got the looks and he’s got a lot of the elements that would help him cross over and been the next guy.
Tommy Castro: I didn’t think of any of this stuff on my own. I kind of take it all in and put it back out. It goes through a Tommy Castro filter. So I hope there’s something about my personal contribution and delivery that really holds up. I’m comfortable doing a Freddie King song, I’m comfortable doing something that sounds like an old soul tune. Your right, Stevie Ray would put an Albert King song on one of his big crossover records. But this business about crossing over and not playing straight-ahead blues; I think the reason for that is, in my case anyway, I don’t see any point to continue to do the same thing that somebody else has done so well that way. That was a style that came up at that particular time with these guys in Chicago or in Texas. When those kinds of songs were being done, that was contemporary blues of the time. Now, the challenge for us is to say something of our own and we’re all trying to do that, and when you do that you’re gonna make it different. You are not necessarily abandoning the genre, you’re just saying it in your own way to the point where people say, “Well that’s not the blues. So what is he trying to do? Is he trying so hard to cross over? Is he trying to sell out?” No I’m just trying to do my own thing. That’s all. And if you listen closely you hear that it all comes from there. The Rolling Stones, the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, they started out a blues band. Fleetwood Mac started out a blues band. ZZ Top, Eric Clapton started out a blues band. Bonnie Raitt. You have to try to make it yourself, and if you do that you are going to get criticized.
Ronnie Baker Brooks: I’m a musician and if anybody can break through it’s good. I am rooting for whoever. If they can break through it’s just going to make it better for all of us. But I would like to see the blues looked upon as with the same respect as other genres and continued respect. People in the industry do respect it, but it all comes down to dollars and cents and if your not selling the Brittany Spears numbers, it’s not gonna get that kind of respect. People like Aerosmith are really great musicians, they’re not just pop stars or rock stars. They really love and appreciate the people who helped them carve what they’re doing. Maybe that’s the role for the blues, I don’t know. I do know it definitely needs more support from the industry. And then it boils down to the people, but I think the people only support what they’re familiar with. If it’s on the radio all the time, that’s what they’re going to like. If it’s on television all the time, that’s what they’re going to like. Stevie was a prime example. When it was played on the radio and put on MTV, he had a buzz going. When Eric Clapton was dedicated to the blues and went full force with it, it was on the radio and television. We need some more people like that and not just one. Just bring a bunch of them like the country stars do and take care of our own. I don’t know the solution. I’m just a soldier in the fight. I love this music and God willing, I’m going to play it until the day I die.
Deanna Bogart: Blues are like many of the other genres that are indiginous and real and genuine, they just don’t go away. Sometimes they are more grass roots than mainstream or organic but that’s all right. To have lucrative or mainstream success, that’s really not why any of us does this. We’re just lucky to be able to play music and make a living and enjoy our musical lives together.