by The People’s Minister of Information JR
Augusta Lee Collins is one of the premiere Blues musicians in Oakland who was still around, hungry and on the scene. His hair was gray, but his tenacity for life was as youthful as a teenager leaving his parents’ house to become a musician.
I would see Augusta in the streets playing the Blues around downtown Oakland at some of the local spots for years before I formally met him. I was introduced to him at Dave Petrelli’s Twinspace in San Francisco where thespian Anita Woodley performed her “Mama Juggs” one woman play about 5 years ago.
Since she was the one that I knew that worked closest with Augusta Lee Collins, I thought that it would be fitting to get her to talk about her colleague, musical comrade and friend, who transitioned after being hit by a car in Oakland. Here is Anita Woodley in her own words.
M.O.I. JR: How did you and Augusta Collins meet? When? Doing what?
Anita Woodley: We met in 2010 through Facebook, but not in the traditional way. You see, at the time I was working for the National Public Radio affiliate WUNC-FM as a producer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
I was fast asleep and still didn’t have a story idea for the next morning to pitch in the meeting. We aired personal stories of trials and triumph, so I was desperate to come in with a really great person to interview.
Suddenly I was awakened by a voice I like to call the “ancestors’ ghost” about 3 a.m. and it said, “Get on the computer, log onto Facebook, click this page, that page, scroll down to this event listing in Oakland, click on it, and call the guy who left his number on the page.” And there was his name, Augusta Lee Collins, hugging a guitar with a phone number that he listed to contact him for gigs.
Now keep in mind that I never heard of the pages I clicked on nor the event, being that I was living over 3,800 miles away on the East Coast. I called his number and he picked it up. Turns out it was his cell phone.
I told him how I came to know of him and asked, “What is your personal story?” He told me about being 1,000 miles from nowhere as a homeless person – and the rest is history. I booked him for our national show, producing one of the most listened-to shows before the show ended, called, “Six String Salvation.”
This is how we summed up his story: “One feature of summer, in many cities, is the blues festival. Augusta Lee Collins is familiar with that scene. His career spans 40 years, opening for and playing with music legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Miles Davis.
“This year Augusta Lee was inducted into the Bay Area Blues Hall of Fame. Augusta Lee knows the Blues because he’s lived it. He was homeless for two years, and at the time he serenaded passersby with odes of living on the street. But now, Augusta Lee Collins is using Blues to celebrate – the music has given him his life back.”
M.O.I. JR: What was it about Augusta that made you so close to him?
Anita Woodley: He was just real, man! Augusta loved life with a smile and laugh simultaneously. This dude and I, despite the age difference of a few decades, played all through Oakland and down to Los Angeles, touring my show, “Mama Juggs.”
His music really captured and let me know that he could “feel me.” He felt our struggle as a people and, most importantly, he captured his struggle in bars, notes and guttural tones that were brazen and pronounced.
After we met in person six months after the interview when I visited Oakland, it turned out that Augusta lived one block away from where I used to play and grew up in Oakland’s Funktown on 13th Avenue, 20 years prior. As he took me around West Oakland, recounting the stops throughout his life, we found more similarities of places we both lived or dwelled.
If he was there, I was two decades later, and we never knew one another. We were destined to meet and push one another to higher heights as artists, and that mission was accomplished. I located the albums that Augusta recorded while a drummer for the Pyramids in his 20s. I ordered the albums from Germany, where they were recorded, as a surprise to him.
The other kick was hearing the joy in his voice when I designed business cards with a taxi cab motif and created his website in my spare time. He would call me his “Angel Professor.” I believe that is true. It was an honor to celebrate his existence and assist in getting more shine for him. He deserved it and I learned so much about myself, including that there was no limit to what I could manifest.
M.O.I. JR: How would you describe Augusta’s sound?
Anita Woodley: His sound was hot sauce on your favorite food followed by a shot glass of kale smoothie to me. Augusta would say his sound was “ham hocks and chitterlings, and those black-eyed peas, and a side hotter corn bread!” the lyrics from his song, “Big Legged Woman.” Augusta’s sound was alive, eclectic, yet reminiscent of a time past that fed the present.
When I learned that Augusta never had a solo album recorded, I volunteered to produce his first self-titled, full length solo album on CD, complete with interviews about the songs. We used Skype to record the stories and then I used my skills as a journalist to mix and master the album.
It was a priceless experience for us both – a true labor of love that manifested easily. I read an article written after he was killed on Labor Day that said, “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.”
This is the most inaccurate statement I have ever heard, and obviously they didn’t do their research. Augusta Lee Collins had the opportunity to open for Miles Davis with his band, was recently interviewed by overseas radio stations and played for other greats. Yes, he did achieve great fame! His sound will always be with us and referenced in the future. Those of us who’ve experienced him will be sure of that.
M.O.I. JR: How would you describe Augusta’s music hustle?
Anita Woodley: He went hard for his artistry – 24/7/365/and a leap year hard. As Augusta would say, his music was “Tops! 100%! On the one! Bloom, bloom, bloom and zing, zing, zing!” He was always on the go via foot and public transportation! Augusta would plaster the AC Transit bus lines, libraries, streets, museums, everything, everybody and everywhere with his fliers to spread the word about his gigs at places like the former Pizza Piazza, Farmer’s Market and The African-American Museum.
He went hard for his artistry – 24/7/365/and a leap year hard. As Augusta would say, his music was “Tops! 100%! On the one! Bloom, bloom, bloom and zing, zing, zing!”
He knew how to say thank you and sometimes he said it so much it got annoying, if you lost perspective of where he was coming from. I often had to remember that this dude was an experiencer of some of the hardest life experiences. He would always tell me, “I stay hungry, Professor! My angel, I have to get it now!”
He would be referencing gigs and the opportunity to perform, be recognized and known as the Blues Legend Augusta Lee Collins. He was straight out of McClymond’s High School in West Oakland. His 50-year-long musical career began as a drummer for the Metropolitan Sound Company.
A real O.G. that weathered the storm and got to experience the sunshine and rain in this lifetime before passing over: This is why I was honored to call him “Griot” and he called me “My Angel Professor.” We were dynamic together as artist, musicians and conscious that we are the descendants of African Kings and Queens here to complete their missions through our artistry.
M.O.I. JR: Why did you like for Augusta’s music to score your plays?
Anita Woodley: It seemed as if Augusta’s songs were written for my plays. When we Skyped and went through the scenes of the play, every song had a theme that would really bring the emotional point home for the audience. I have never experienced this before with another musician.
I still will sing his hit song “Big Legged Woman” in my play “Mama Juggs” in the scene when my mama talks about going to Sweet Jimmy’s with her gold and black shawl and dancing while the guitar man plucks away his tunes.
Working with this Griot encouraged me to write my own songs and express my blues in 10 productions to date. He once said to me that I reminded him of the great Abbey Lincoln, Moms Mabley and Billie Holiday. That meant a lot and I am still embodying their strength, courage and wisdom with my own style.
Now that I am the lead vocalist in a free jazz improvisational band called “Not For Human Consumption (N4hc),” we honor Augusta with his songs with each gig. This dude Augusta’s work will always score my work and I will speak of his genius until I join him with the other ancestors.
Now that I am the lead vocalist in a free jazz improvisational band called “Not For Human Consumption (N4hc),” we honor Augusta with his songs with each gig.
M.O.I. JR: How do you think Augusta would want to be remembered?
Anita Woodley: I remember him telling me that he wanted to be remembered as a person who played for the rats and roaches when there was no one to sing to. Remembered as someone who was still standing despite everything he went through.
Augusta would want to be remembered as a person who went with the flow and never gave up even when the cold ground was his bed at night and rocks were his pillow, too. On a recording he told me that he wanted people to know how thankful he was for their support of his work.
Augusta Lee Collins understood how life as a full-time self-employed artist worked. We have energy that goes out and can only feel welcomed to return with a handful of thank you to the givers.
He is eternally a good person who loved to make people laugh and smile through his jokes and music. I will also remember him as a great friend and husband to his wife Marchelle Collins.
M.O.I. JR: What kind of void will Augusta’s absence leave on the Bay Area Blues scene?
Anita Woodley: I believe the void will be great on a physical level in the Bay Area. However, on an energetic level and spirit level, there will not be a noticeable void, if you are paying attention.
Augusta Lee Collins touched so many people and has influenced the sound of countless artists that you will hear his riffs, you will see his style, you will feel his presence around in coffee shops, festivals and restaurants. He left such a legacy imprinted on the work of painters, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, politicians, lawyers, curators, librarians, children, farmers’ market goers, everyday people, music lovers, those without shelter and journalists like myself to name a few.
This dude, this man, Augusta Lee Collins, will indeed live forever. Join me in sharing memories of Augusta on a Facebook.com page I created to celebrate his legacy as a musician, Griot and our friendship. Just type in his name.
Augusta Lee Collins touched so many people and has influenced the sound of countless artists that you will hear his riffs, you will see his style, you will feel his presence around in coffee shops, festivals and restaurants.
In this lifetime, my friend Augusta Lee Collins played that guitar until the strings popped off! And for that and many reasons, he will forever be in our hearts. Also visit his website, www.augustaleecollins.blogspot.com .
M.O.I. JR: Are there any community celebrations of Augusta’s life coming up?
Anita Woodley: There are a few community members who have contacted me with interest in doing a longterm remembrance of Augusta Lee Collins and I have connected them with his wife Marchelle to see what her wishes are. Here in the Durham, North Carolina, I am honoring him constantly through my free jazz band and my production company by performing his songs and speaking of his work, life and legacy.
If anyone has condolences they want to send to his wife, it would be my pleasure to forward them to her. Please mail letters to me at: Augusta Lee Collins, c/o Anita Woodley Productions, LLC, P.O. Box 9821, Chapel Hill, NC 27515.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.