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About John Collins

A superb guitarist in both small-combo and orchestral settings, John Collins had a truly epic career. His decision to make a life of music could be seen as following a family tradition, since his mother was the flamboyant pianist and bandleader Georgia Gorham. But the way Collins went about making music may have also represented a negative reaction to the out-front nature of entertainers such as his mother, who came out of the vaudeville and medicine show traditions. Guitarists such as Collins tend to stay way in the background, carefully crafting chord voicings that will hide them like mist. Collins' most famous playing relationship ended up being with Nat King Cole, a setting where the guitarist became famous for never taking solos! His first instrument, the clarinet, was a different sort of beast, incapable of doing anything but sitting on top of the rest of the band. Collins switched to guitar sometime before relocating from Alabama to Chicago, where Frank Langham was his first serious teacher.

Trumpeter Elbert B. Topp provided quality family time by hiring both the guitarist and his mother for a regular stint at Chicago's Radio Inn in the early '30s. Gorham had her son as part of her backing unit until the middle of that decade, after which Collins began gigging with Jimmy Bell & His Tampa Tunesters. Then came a Three Deuces gig that was his passkey into the world of heavyweight jazz combos: a trio with pianist Art Tatum and drummer Zutty Singleton. In the fall of 1936, Collins began performing with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, a collaboration that continued until 1940 and also included some tasty recording sessions by singer Billie Holiday. A musical relationship began between Collins and tenor saxophonist Lester Young, one of Holiday's favorite accompanists, and the guitarist also performed with players such as Fletcher Henderson and Benny Carter.

Like many musicians from this period, the Second World War created a hole in his career similar to that made in the side of a building by a howitzer shell. The action picked up again around 1946, with Collins jumping into the brilliant Slam Stewart Trio for several years. Some of Collins' finest work as a guitarist in small jazz ensembles began in the late '40s and continued into the next decade; he played beautifully with Erroll Garner, who took the guitarist on European tours, and was also heard back with Tatum and regularly with the pianist and educator Billy Taylor. Collins did delicious, downright lip-smacking work with Coleman Hawkins, and finally found a home away from home with Nat King Cole. From 1951 until Cole's death in 1965, Collins was the main guitarist in a trio that explored many aspects of songcraft and got plenty of work for the effort.

Collins was based out of California in the final decades of his career. In the '70s there were successful groups with trumpeter Cat Anderson and singer/songwriter Bobby Troup, but the guitarist's own group also finally came out the gate. He did not have any luck recording his own groups, however, during a period when the record labels wanted disco, and then more disco. Collins also kept active in recording studios, sometimes in conjunction with his pal from the '30s, the industrious arranger Carter. Although not really known as a songwriter, Collins seems to have assisted Bill Withers with the creation of a song entitled "Hello Like Before," the connection being vocalist Nancy Wilson, who both recorded the song and used Collins on several album sessions. Diana Ross also made use of Collins as a sideman when she began including a Holiday tribute in her repertoire. ~ Eugene Chadbourne