Local Outer Banks musician Mojo Collins is impeccably dressed as he takes the stage—any stage. It doesn’t matter where; his style is consistent…his white handlebar mustache is perfectly groomed, he favors multi-colored slacks—sometimes a Hawaiian style shirt, and a stylish straw hat—always a straw hat.
Then he begins to play guitar, and when he does, how he is dressed, where he is playing…none of that seems to matter. His voice, his style, his lyrics—all of it creates an image of a classic blues man from years ago sitting on his porch in rural North Carolina playing his guitar, and playing it better than just about anyone.
The way he looks on stage and the way he sounds is a tribute to his father. “My daddy always said, ‘Son if you can’t sound worth (anything) you can at least look good.’”
He’s come a long way since his childhood in Raleigh. He learned to play from his father, Bill, a musician, and a successful one, by all accounts.
“He played in 11 different bands in the triangle. Mostly piano and guitar,” Mojo said.
Born in the 1940s and named after his father, Collins wanted wider horizons than he thought he could have in Raleigh and he joined the Air Force. It was an important decision for a number of reasons.
That’s where he got his nickname in a way that wouldn’t be believable if it was in a movie script.
“Muddy Waters dubbed me Mojo after hearing me play in a bus station in Chicago back when I was headed to my first assignment from Lackland AFB in Texas,” he said. “True story,” he adds.
He ended up at Glasgow Air Force Base, a now closed SAC facility on the Canadian border in Montana, and that’s where he began his career in music. By 1965 he had a group—Mojo’s Mark IV—and they toured the Pacific Northwest and west coast.
Out of the Air Force and wanting to do more with music, the band moved to Haight Ashbury in 1967, the summer of love. The band name changed to Initial Shock, a reference to how the band played their music according to something Collins told an interviewer.
“The name came from the fact that we were the loudest band, and initially it would shock fans,” he said.
The band was also innovative. Guitar is just one of the instruments Mojo plays; he plays keyboard as well, and what he was doing was noticed.
“In the 60s with Initial Shock…we were one of the only bands in Haight Ashbury that had a (Hammond) B3 organ,” he recounts. “As a matter of fact, the first show we ever did with the Grateful Dead, Pigpen, the lead singer…he flipped out on the organ. ‘Man I got to get one of those.’ Next time I saw them they had a B3 organ.”
It was a time of extraordinary musical creativity, and Mojo was in the middle of it.
“There were a lot of people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. I knew all three of them. But they’re not hear and I am. The reason is moderation,” he said.
But he left that scene. A trip home to see his father after a heart attack convinced him a change was needed.
“I stayed home two weeks…and I went back out there and everybody was shooting (drugs). And I said if I stay out here, I won’t make it home,” he recalled.
He came back to North Carolina and met his wife, Bonnie, and hasn’t left North Carolina since.
“I met Bonnie in Raleigh,” Mojo said. “We went to high school together. And she said, ‘I got a job at the Galleon Escalade dressing windows for George Crocker in Nags Head. Do you want to go?’ That was 45 years ago. I tell everybody I got stuck in the sand and never left.”
Over the years, he hasn’t lived exclusively on the Outer Banks. There was a stint down in Wilmington, but it has been all coastal North Carolina.
He has never stopped playing. During his San Francisco days and a time in the early 1970s, he had a group—Sawbucks—that toured the East Coast. The band had the hard driving rock and psychedelic sound of the era.
That is not what he plays now.
When he performs these days, either as a solo act or with his band Triple Vision, Mojo is the blues. Original songs, rooted in the traditions and history of North Carolina. The sound is crisp and clean, the guitar work outstanding, and he creates a feeling of being someplace where the blues is still king.
“I love the blues,” he said. “That’s the root and that’s basically where all my music comes from. Some of it finds other …chords that I work in there. But the basic root of all my music is the blues.”
If music and the blues is the root of what Mojo does, it’s not his only creative outlet. Over the past few years, he has turned to painting. Using wood as his canvas, there hasn’t been much formal training, but his art blends muted colors into paintings of remarkable vibrancy.
He points to a long thing painting of a sunrise over the ocean, saying, “That one took me two years to get it right.”
His painting, as good as it is, seems almost a hobby to his profession, to his music, something that has been a part of his life for so long and will always be there.
“I am so thankful that I’m still alive and still playing after 65 years,” he said.