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Cal Collins Dies at 68

Cal Collins, a self-taught guitarist who became widely renowned for his technical skill and distinctive style, passed away Aug. 26 at his home in Dillsboro, Ind. He was 68.

Collins was born and raised on a farm in Indiana and learned to play mandolin with local bluegrass groups; his first gig was at age five. Collins soon became captivated by the jazz he heard on the radio and intrigued by the harmonies possible on the guitar, as opposed to the single-line mandolin. His unorthodox technique, using all his fingers plus a pick in unusual combinations to play a distinct melody, shifting middle chords and a solid bass line, grew out of his attempts to imitate jazz pianists. Records by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, brought back to the farm by traveling uncles, also influenced the young Collins. Although he never had any formal training, he was in demand as an educator, especially toward the end of his life.

In the ’50s, Collins settled in Cincinnati, playing Midwest clubs and sometimes working on a daily TV show hosted by Nick Clooney, Rosemary’s younger brother. He rose to national prominence in 1975 after Benny Goodman played once with Collins and asked him to stay with the band. Collins worked with the Goodman group for about three years. His later career found him concentrating on freelance and solo work, playing in all-star bands, recording solo albums and playing stylish accompaniments, most notably for Rosemary Clooney.

His most prominent solo work was recorded on the Concord label in the late ’70s, although his work in the last decade, both with his quartet and solo, was some of his best.

Collins is survived by his wife, Susie Collins; seven children: Debbie Ford, Bruce Collins, Steve Collins, Marshawn McClain, Christine Kramer, Laura Ferguson and Scott Schwan, 18 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Originally Published