by Michael B. Smith
North Carolina's own Rock, Folk and Blues Legend & Premier Songwriter-Performer and recipient of 1999-2000 North Carolina Arts Council Music Fellowship in Songwriting, Mojo Collins has honed a unique musical talent during five decades of performance and experience. A renowned guitarist, often compared to Jimi Hendrix, Dickey Betts and Rick Derringer, his repertoire of original music includes blues, rhythm and blues country, folk, jazz, classical and easy listening. Mojo Collins is a concert class performer, with over 300 original songs to his credit.
In an exclusive interview, Collins recalls his early musical experiences, and his time in San Francisco playing with Ronnie Montrose and Chuck Ruff, and the heady days at The Fillmore and Avalon.
Tell us a little about where you were born and raised, and where you reside now.
I was born up a poor white boy in Raleigh, NC the capital city of our great state, on January 18th of nineteen and forty four. Being a war baby meant we drank dried processed milk and ate mostly grasshoppers and crickets etc.... even fatback was to expensive in those days. Grubbworms were a delicacy and sluggs were great fried in lard or pig fat. It's hard to remember all the places we lived, because everytime the rent was due, we had to relocate to another hiding place. One year I think I went to six different schools not learning much but how to pack it up and get on down the road. I finally wound up here in Wilmington, NC because I love it and am a SON OF THE BEACH!!!
Who were your earliest musical influences?
The earliest music I can remember was my daddy Wild Bill jamming on that goldtop Les Paul through a Fender amp hooked up to a Echoplex which made him sound like more than one guitarist. This if before I got out of the womb: mama used to stick her belly up to the amplifier and let me rock and roll, this is where I first learned to keep a beat with my left foot, and to this day I still remember the rhythms he played while doing the lead at the same time. My father was my biggest musical influence because after him no one else compared. After I was born up, the doctor sliced my wennie, and I never forgave him for doing that, then he had the nerve to smack my behind 'till I cried and then he had the gall to severe my bellycord from me and mama, leaving me hungry as hell.
To this day I eat whatever is put on my plate at any table or out of any trashcan.
Tell us about some of your early bands.
My first band was formed in nineteen and fifty four: it consisted of me and Ervin Hicks doing a duet of geetar and drums, on the intermissions at the ambassador theatre on fayetteville street in downtown raleigh. All of the kids would bring lettuce and tomatoes eggs etc.... and pelt us until we ran off scurrying for our lives. Ervin and I still laugh about those formidable years of paying our dues early on. Before my first group my grandmother Lorain taught me the "Wildwood Flower" on a tenor Stella guitar with four strings. I still perform this song to this day in her memory, she was about five feet nothing, and could stand on her silver hair and used to let me comb it and braid it for her. Back porch jams on the weekends mostly sunday, I learned to listen carefully to all my aunts and uncles mom and dad as they picked spooned and washboarded their way through a big sunday dinner and home made ice cream made in the shade of that ole sicamore tree in our back yard. The next band of fools was called everything in the book except our name which was Mojo's Mark Four. I formed this band in Glasgow, Montana, where the fire still burns to this day, I was eighteen and in the USAF stationed in the remote town aforementioned. Being the only white person in the group, I was the root man and sang muddy waters songs like "Mojo Working" and "Hoochie Koochie Man," with a twangy southern drawl. All of the other members of the band would say, now here is the Mojo Man and he is gonna put the blues on ya. This is how my nickname Mojo Collins was born and I have been called that for almost forty years now. The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and the Beatles were my next influences with the coming of the British invasion in '63 and '64. After my stint in the military was completed, I was hooked on playing and singing that ole B-3 organ and Fender Telecaster guitar. I came home to NC in 1964 and tried to find work here , but beach music wasn't really my calling, so I went on back out to Missoula, Montana and hooked up with a friend I had made named Brian Knaff, and he was a college jock and a member of sigma chi fraternity in Missoula at MSU. He was kind enough to let me live in the basement of thier frat house, and would sneak me food after meals and kept me alive until he graduated from college with a marketing degree in business. Needless to say he became the manager and booking agent for our group MOJOS MARK FOUR.
We competed with another band from Missoula called the VULCANS, who had a female lead singer and were really our only rival as far as gigs went in that area. The college descided to have a Battle of the Bands one semester in 1965 and my group won first place with the Vulcans coming in a close second. We became friends with their lead guitarist named George Wallace (not the governor) and soon joined forces and became the Chosen Few. That band played the northwest long before any grunge was borne. I guess you could say we were one of the first garage grunge bands from the sixties. As our name spread and fame was emenient, we opened for groups like the Wailers from Tacoma, Washington and Don and the Goodtimes from Seattle and the famous Kingsmen, of "Louie, Louie" fame. In the summer of 1966 we came all the way across the United States of America, 3500 miles, to perform at the famed Lumina Pavilion in Wrightsville Beach NC.
We did an afternoon gig and a 5 hour evening set for 90 days in a row that summer. What a thrill to be at the beach and be a great band that got all the chicks. After the summer we went on tour with the Count Five ("Psychotic Reaction") for a few weeks and wound up in New York playing the famous Chettah Club for the mafia. They liked us a lot and arranged for us to play other Chettah Clubs in other states. Heading back to Montana for the winter of '66 I was 22 and ready to rock.
How did you end up in San Francisco, and what bands did you have there prior to Sawbuck?
Two of our roadies were sent to San Francisco to check out the scene, as we had heard through the grapevine that something was going on down there. They were supposed to be gone for a weekend, and showed up three weeks later with a big grin and a smile laughing profusely. Later we learned that they had discovered LSD, peyote buttons and hooch and had plenty for everyone. We were excited to learn from them that the Haight Ashbury was a kicking and the Avalon Ballroom and famed Fillmore West were happening big time, so we packed up our things and set out for fame and fortune. Landing in Berkeley, first we lived there until we could find an apartment in the Haight section of San Francisco.
Once settled in we quickly became popular with the locals and started opening shows for The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Big Brother, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, Steve Miller, The Charlatans, Grace Slick and The Jefferson Airplane... one of the reasons we were able to get those gigs was we had accumalated quite a public address system that was able to rival even the Fillmore and Avalon's. It was around this time that we changed our image from the "Paul Revere and the Raiders outfits" to the t shirt and jeans scene. Our name became The Initial Shock and we were LOUD!!!!!!! Back in those days miking amps was not a practice so everyone bought these huge Marshall stacks and Fender Showmans and played on 12 or 13 most of the time. We tried unsuccessfully to get signed over the next three or four years, and opened many shows at the Fillmore and Avalon.
The band finally disbanded after a few new members were added to replace others and I found myself without a place to live and any money to speack of. I was a street musicain for awhile, pandhandling money and playing for food and handouts.
How did Sawbuck come to be formed?
One day I stumbled into the office of the Fillmore and met the secretary Annie, we quickly became friends and she opened the door for me to get a 45 record to Bill Graham, owner and manager of theJefferson Airplane and Marty Balin. He liked the record and I got hooked up with Annie and her friend Starr Donaldson who was playing Wolfie in the San Francisco version of "Hair" at a local theatre. We became friends and later I met Ronnie Montrose and Chuck Ruff along with Bill Church, who replaced our original bassist Kooch. This was the basic foundation for what became Sawbuck. We were signed to Fillmore Records and an album entitled "Sawbuck" was recorded in 1970-71 produced by the famed David Rubinson who also produced Moby Grape, Santana, Janis Joplin, The Chambers Brothers, Elvin Bishop, Cold Blood and Tower of Power.
For the next year or so we toured and opened for major acts and played the final week of the Fillmore West before it closed. During the making of the album, Ronnie was approached to do some commercial jingles and one was heard by Van Morrison, and Ronnie was gone, he later wound up with Edgar Winter and recruited Chuck Ruff from Sawbuck for The Edgar Winter Group, and that pretty much ended our tenure as a performing band. I came home to NC and tried to put together another Sawbuck, with my brother David Collins and a few of his friends, we toured for awhile when the album was released but fizzled out because of lack of support from the label. Around this time David Rubinson and Bill Graham split there partnership and Sawbuck was shelved.
What did you do next? What are you up to these days?
I was crushed and bewildered with the business and met an ole girlfriend and moved to a remote area called Nags Head to try and regroup. We later married and have two grown sons Keith and Shane, and are now grandparents of three grandsons. During the next 20 years I lived and played on the outer banks of NC and recorded an album entitled "Duamond Shoals and Tales Untold" folk and rock and blues songs about that part of the country. It has sold well and has become a favorite of many toursists that visit that part of the country even today.
I left that part of the country in 1992 and relocated to Wilmington NC and have be involved with four album projects in the past 8 years. I tour solo and with a trio Triple Vision more than 200 days a year and make a living playing music, which is not a simple thing to do these days. This past year I received a fellowship for songwriting from the NC Arts Council in Raleigh to develop two album projects about NC. One is almost finished and entitled "That Old Carolina Tradition", a collection of folk and blues and rock tunes with a Carolina theme, the other is a classical project about the famed Lost Colony located in Manteo, NC on Roanoke Island. I have been busy touring and trying to complete these two projects and am loving every minute of it. I have been playing for 50 years this year and am just now beginning to realize what its all for. I dont listen to anyone anymore but myself as I try to be as original as possible without any outside influences. My plans are to try and live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up and try and make as much music as possible for them to enjoy after I am gone. God has his plan and being a Christian, I believe we will be jamming together in the near future. stay tuned.