Benoit always kept a secret from his friend Albert Collins
Tab Benoit has a natural gift for gab, as did bluesman Albert Collins when he was alive, so it’s no surprise that the two became friends. What is surprising is that Collins never knew Benoit also was a guitar player.
Benoit, 2007’s Blues Music Awards’ Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, performs Feb. 16 at Crystal Bay Casino. He said he was blown away the first time he saw Collins, “The Master of the Telecaster.”
“I had a friend who was really into the guitar blues, and he turned me on to Albert King and Freddy King, and stuff like that,” Benoit said by telephone from his home in Louisiana. “I was in New Orleans doing something and I would always stop by Tipitina’s to see what was going on. I saw Albert Collins’ name on the sign and I called him up and said ‘Have you ever heard of this guy Albert Collins?’ He said, ‘Don’t leave. Stay and see that guy.'”
A couple of years later Benoit began to get his own shows at Tipitina’s, so when Collins came there to play, Benoit had access backstage, where he was able to meet the blues great.
“He was just the nicest guy I’d ever met, but I never told him I played,” Benoit said. “He liked talking to me. We’d talk about everything but music. It would be anything like fishing or cooking or mechanical stuff because he drove and worked on his own bus.”
Guitarists would often interrupt the backstage conversations, asking Collins if they could play with him.
“I thought it was pretty arrogant,” Benoit said. “I mean you show up to a legend’s gig with a guitar on your back? This is kind of crazy. I never even thought of doing that. I don’t think I would even have the balls to do that.”
Benoit dearly wanted to let Collins know that he was also a blues guitarist, but he didn’t want to ruin the relationship he had developed. He didn’t want Collins to think of him as one of those audacious guitarists who ended up paying a price.
“Every time these guys would get up there with him, he’d blow them away with one note,” Benoit said. “I thought ‘I ain’t going for that. I’ll sit and watch. I don’t want to get cut.'”
Benoit had regrets when he learned of Collins’ death in November 1993. “Man, I should have just told him,” Benoit remembered feeling. “I should have at least gone up there and played with him once.”
Benoit often pays homage by playing Collins’ songs and telling stories about him. That was the case during a Las Vegas show when he closed out a set with a story and three straight Collins songs.
Backstage, Benoit was startled by some news from his road manager.
“He says, ‘Man, Albert Collins’ wife is here, and she wants to talk to you.’ And he didn’t say it like it was a good thing. He said it urgently, like, oh God! And I wondered, did I offend her or what?”
Benoit’s trepidation increased when the widow stoically entered the room and gave him a stern look before beginning to speak.
“She said, ‘Man, all kinds of people try to play Albert’s stuff, and nobody does it like him.’ And she says, ‘But you – I like the way you do it.’ She said, ‘You keep on and don’t stop.’ I took that as a thumbs up that I did the right thing, and I got my reward for handling it the way that I did. It was better to be accepted that way.”
– Next week: In New Orleans, a town known for it piano players and jazzmen, see how Benoit rises to the top as a blues guitarist with a Cajun bent.
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