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Albert Collins; Award-Winning Blues Guitarist, Recording Artist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Albert Collins, a Grammy Award-winning blues guitarist who was a popular recording artist for three decades, died Wednesday of lung cancer. He was 61.

Collins died at his home in Las Vegas, Alligator Records announced.

Nominated five times for Grammys in the 1980s and 1990s, Collins won the award in 1986 for his collaboration with Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland on “Showdown.”

He established himself nationally as an artist in 1962 with his hit “Frosty.” As his records earned increasing respect, Musician magazine dubbed him “the most powerful blues guitarist in the world.”

Some of Collins’ better-known records included “Truckin’ With Albert Collins” in 1969, “Get Your Business Straight” in 1972, “Ice Pickin’ ” in 1978, “Frostbite” in 1980, “Frozen Alive!” in 1981, “Don’t Lose Your Cool” in 1983, “Cold Snap” in 1986 and “Iceman” (his industry nickname) in 1991.

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In the late 1980s, Collins appeared in a wine cooler commercial and the film “Adventures in Babysitting"--work sent his way by actor Bruce Willis, who sat in with Collins and his band, the Icebreakers.

Collins was also known as “the master of the Telecaster” for his special technique with the electric guitar. No picks for him--he pounded the strings with the thumb, index and middle fingers of his large hands, much as a keyboardist might strike a piano.

“I decided that I needed to find me a sound of my own,” he told an interviewer two years ago. “I never wanted to play like anybody else. I wanted people to listen to me play and say, ‘Well, that’s Albert Collins.’ I worked on it for years before I developed my own sound.”

Born to a sharecropping family in a log cabin in Leona, Tex., Collins started out studying the piano with hopes of becoming an organist like his idol, Jimmy McGriff. But his cousin, guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, also taught him the guitar, including a distinctive retuning of the instrument, which Collins incorporated into his own style.

Collins grew up in Houston’s black ghetto with two other future professional guitarists, Copeland and Johnny (Guitar) Watson. He was playing with bands as a teen-ager and at 21 became a session musician, replacing Jimi Hendrix in a session with Little Richard.

Collins and his Icebreakers worked steadily and his records and awards proved his success, but he never felt he achieved mass popularity.

“I feel I’ve been underrated for so long,” he told The Times in 1989 during a concert at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. “I might not get to be a household name, but I hope so. B.B. King got across to both black and white, all types of people. That’s the goal I’m working on.”

In addition to his Grammy, Collins won a dozen W.C. Handy Awards, the blues world’s top honor, presented by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation.

“I was glad to get those,” he told The Times. “They mean a whole lot, just as much to me as a Grammy. It makes me want to keep on playing because that’s what I’ve tried to achieve through life, to have something to show for my music, something to say that I worked for.”

Collins is survived by his wife, Gwendolyn, and his father, Andy Thomas.


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