ALAMEDA (BCN) — An East Bay blues legend was killed in a traffic accident in Alameda on Monday.
Augusta Lee Collins, 69, made a name for himself as a session drummer with numerous bands coming through the Bay Area, including sitting in with jazz greats Herbie Hancock, “Cannonball” Adderley, Sun Ra and Bobby Hutcherson.
But over the last 30 years, Collins reinvented himself as a blues singer and guitarist and was a fixture at farmers’ markets and blues jams in the region.
While he never achieved great fame, his long career left an impact on local musicians who remember him as influential and inspiring but very humble. In the course of his reinvention from drummer to singer and guitarist, he overcame a drug problem and homelessness but always remained an icon, Bay Area Blues Society executive director Ronnie Stewart said Wednesday.
In 2010, Collins was inducted into the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame.
Collins’ musical career dates back to the thriving West Oakland music scene of the 1960s, when his band the Metropolitan Sound Company would play downtown clubs, high school dances and outdoor concerts.
Stewart said he first became aware of Collins while attending Fremont High School in 1966, when he would jump on an Alameda-Contra Costa Transit bus in East Oakland to go out for parties and dancing. Metropolitan Sound Company was among the bands he’d see.
“He was part of that whole era of young musicians who were making that crossover from blues to R&B,” a movement that defined what came to be known as the “Oakland sound” in funk and R&B that drew the attention of artists nationwide, Stewart said.
That first band played until the early 1970s, according to Stewart. After that is when Collins embarked on a career as a session drummer playing on albums and live for numerous artists working in and visiting the Bay Area.
During that time, he played at the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and at Stanford University, and appeared on recording sessions for jazz labels Pyramid Records and Fantasy Records.
But in the late 80s, as drugs swept through Oakland, Collins developed addiction problems and lost his home, Stewart said. He continued playing music, carrying a guitar with him and writing songs while playing out in the parks, eventually forming a band called the Homeless Trio.
Collins was hired to play events around Oakland in the early 90s and continued to improve at guitar, finding new life as a Mississippi Delta-style blues player and singer.
“I can’t believe how he did that. He turned out to be a hell of a Delta blues artist,” Stewart said. “You come out of something that most people could never get out of.”
Collins quit drugs entirely and had been sober for many years when he died. He got married and eventually settled in Alameda.
He died not far from his Alameda home when he was hit by a car while crossing Constitution Way near Marina Village Parkway just after noon on Monday.
He had gigs booked even this week, including one this morning at a San Francisco farmer’s market and another with several other blues artists in Alameda this weekend.
“He was so proud because he lived there and he hadn’t done no big events there,” Stewart said.
Sunday’s Blues, Brew and BBQ event in Alameda will go on Sunday, starting at noon at the U.S. Bank parking lot at 1414 Webster St., but will now feature a remembrance of Collins, his life and work.