Earl Collins (June 24, 1915–May 18, 1988) was a native of eastern Kansas who was inspired to learn the banjo by two musical brothers who lived nearby. In 1937 Collins joined the Twin Falls, Idaho-based Reno Racketeers, seen below in a publicity photo. Gibson PB-3 Mastertone #66-2 had been shipped to Sampson Music Co. at 913 Main Street in Boise, Idaho on November 25, 1936 and it appears that Collins’ purchase of the banjo coincided with his joining this new band. While the exact purchase date is unknown, Mr. Collins definitely had the banjo by February 27, 1937 when he noted in his diary, “Played dance at Jerome. Made $5.50. Paid $4.64 on banjo.”
Fellow Reno Racketeer Bill Bennett was a lifelong friend of Earl Collins and appears to have bought a new Gibson L-7 archtop guitar around the same time that Earl Collins acquired #66-2, possibly also from Sampson Music. The friends and bandmates posed for a photograph with their new instruments:
Earl Collins also performed in the late 1930s with the Yakima Sage Riders, billed as “(a) cowboy band that plays modern swing rhythm as well as your favorite old tunes”:
One Yakima Sage Riders engagement was obviously ill-fated; the same July 1938 newspaper that ran an ad for the band’s upcoming appearance at the Pine Cone Inn in the Altamont area of Klamath Falls, Oregon also featured a news story about the destruction of the Pine Cone Inn by a fire.
Earl Collins was stationed in New Caledonia in the South Pacific during World War II. He appears to have left PB-3 #66-2 at home and used his circa 1925 PB-Granada (with homemade pickup) during this time:
After the war Earl Collins settled in the San Francisco Bay area, where for a time his musical activity included playing electric guitar (a Gibson ES-175) in a Hawaiian band known as Billy’s Beach Boys:
Despite his tenure with Billy’s Beach Boys, Mr. Collins’ first love remained the banjo. The following 1957 photograph, showing Collins with his sister at the piano and an unknown guitarist, is the earliest known picture of PB-3 #66-2 with its new neck. The banjo appears to have suffered an accident early in its life which required its original neck to be replaced with another from the Gibson factory; while the banjo originally featured an unusual (for the model) fiddle-shaped peghead, the neck that was on the banjo when found in 2009 has the typical double-cut peghead shape and the serial number EA-5347, dating to 1939, stamped on the back. While no firm documentation related to the neck replacement has been found, an entry in Gibson’s shipping ledger for May 25, 1942 shows a PB-75 neck being sent to an unspecified location by the Railway Express Agency; style 3 had morphed into style 75 within two years of Mr. Collins’ purchase of #66-2, and PB-75s were produced in low enough numbers that it is fairly likely that this neck is the one installed on #66-2.
In the mid-1960s Earl Collins formed the East Bay Banjo Club in Concord, California, which at one time was the world’s largest all-banjo band with 125 members.
In the early 1970s Mr. Collins and his wife Jean, who by then had also taken up the banjo, moved to Oregon. Collins was featured in local newspapers and magazines as “the mild-mannered repairer of appliances” who was actually “‘Banjo Man.'” In his later years Mr. Collins often played an original flathead Bella Voce plectrum banjo dating to the late 1920s.
Mr. Collins’ outstanding musicianship is much in evidence in this recording of him playing the standard “Bill Bailey.”
Thanks to Ann Collins for supplying such a wealth of material documenting her father-in-law’s life and musical career, to Ken Landreth for his assistance with photo restoration, and to Joe Spann for graciously providing scans from Gibson’s shipping ledgers.