He’s Got His Mojo Workin’
He played with Chuck Berry. Opened for the Grateful Dead, Santana, Pink Floyd, and others. Hung out with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and a galaxy of other stars in the 1960s and ’70s.
After making the decision to escape the California rock-and-roll lifestyle that would claim so many lives, Mojo Collins found his way back to North Carolina, found happiness on the Outer Banks, and in 1973 found himself performing his first OBX gig at the Jolly Roger.
“The Jolly Roger hired me for three hours, said they’d pay me $30,” Mojo recalls over breakfast at – you guessed it – the Jolly Roger. “I played and the manager came up at the end and said, ‘I didn’t hear one song that I recognized.’
“Well, that’s because I’m an original songwriter and performer,” Mojo explained. “And he said, ‘You’re not worth 30 bucks. Here’s 20.’
“Welcome to the Outer Banks!” Mojo exclaims with a laugh.
More than 45 years later, Mojo Collins seems to be getting the last laugh on just about everybody. He lived the rock-and-roll lifestyle – in moderation, he mentions – and lived to tell about it. He married Bonnie, the girl of his high school dreams, and spent five decades making music at the beach while touring nationally and receiving international acclaim, including the NC Arts Council Fellowship in Music for Songwriting in 1999-2000. New projects continue to crop up for a singer-songwriter who says “I’ve probably got many moons left in me” and who celebrated his 75th birthday in January by performing at a renowned blues venue in Durham.
Mojo, with his thick white mustache, trademark hat and colorful shirts, will bring his mix of folk, blues, rock, country, four-part harmony and more to the Mustang Spring Jam in Corolla in May, then hopes to book a special series of shows this summer that focuses on the Outer Banks. Because even though his first gig on the beach didn’t go as planned, Mojo has a love for the Outer Banks that manifests itself in song.
In 1974, when Carolista Fletcher Baum embarked on her crusade to save Jockey’s Ridge, Mojo joined the fun and wrote a song, “Shining Star Over Jockey’s Ridge.” Folks in the “People to Preserve Jockey’s Ridge” raised some $900,000 from local donations, took the money to state officials, and the state park was born in 1975. Mojo has sung “Shining Star” at an annual dedication ceremony ever since.
“Can you hear her calling you? She’s in need – precious land.
Can you feel her, drifting through, sifting through greedy hands?”
A few years later, Mojo heard a couple of fishermen in Hatteras talking about how the encroaching ocean was threatening the lighthouse: “I went home, got inspired, wrote the song ‘House of Light,’ made a little 45 record, took it to Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms in Raleigh – they kind of brushed us off,” Mojo recalled of the former governor and senator.
“I just want to know, will I stand and shine brightly?”
Eventually, of course, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse would stand 2,900 feet further inland, and continues shining brightly today. At the rededication ceremony, Mojo was asked to sing “House of Light” for the assembled dignitaries and descendents of the Hatteras lightkeepers, and two of his songs are included on a production WRAL did on the moving of the light.
And in an amazing feat for any songwriter, Mojo got the phrase “Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station” into verse in a tune called “Freedom Call” when efforts were being made to preserve that bit of Outer Banks heritage.
The songs are all part of a 1979 album entitled Diamond Shoals, Tales Untold, Folk Songs of the Outer Banks that features life on the OBX from Corolla to Ocracoke. The album is on record with the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo, but Mojo has been chatting with people about putting together a summer outdoor concert series that pairs his music and images from the places he sings about. He’d also love to see “Diamond Shoals” used in a video series highlighting life on the Outer Banks.
“I’ve made my mark here, and I’m hoping this Outer Banks thing will come to fruition,” Mojo says. “The wheels are rolling. It’s been a dream. I’m still here. I’m able to still dream a little.
I think a lot of people need to see something like that, hear this music. It is truly the Outer Banks in song. It kind of makes me tear up a little to think about it.”
It would be a remarkable and unlikely legacy for a man who grew up in the Triangle, the son of a well-known local guitarist named “Wild Bill” Collins, who headed to California to make his mark. Mojo’s band Initial Shock opened for the Grateful Dead at the legendary Fillmore. Mojo’s later band, Sawbuck, included Ronnie Montrose on guitar before he headed off with Van Morrison. One of Mojo’s favorite stories from that era is when Chuck Berry yelled at Mojo one night in the middle of a show at the Fillmore because Mojo was backing up his idol too well.
“Sometimes I look back and think, ‘Wow, did I really do that?’ ” Mojo says with a laugh.
And yet, he walked away in an instant: “It wasn’t hard at all. It was life or death. I chose life. I knew Janis, Jimi, Jim – they all died from drugs and I didn’t want to go that way. I’m alive now because of my choice to come back East.”
And Bonnie. The former Miss North Carolina competitor was a majorette who dated the high school football star in high school, but fate eventually brought Bonnie and Mojo together, and they married in 1973. She was working as a designer/artist for George Crocker at the old Galleon Esplande and has always helped Mojo make music.
“I was real fortunate. My wife is also a lifelong creative professional. We are a good team,” he says. “I give her the credit for handling the legal/business end of my music as well as the visual, promotional and booking details.”
The legends of rock who succumbed to excess don’t get to do things like perform at their third-grade granddaughter’s class and enjoy family life on the Outer Banks. Mojo and Bonnie have two sons – Shane Collins and Scooter Raynor – and eight grandchildren who think it’s pretty cool that their grandpa, “Momo,” is a rock star.
That’s why when you hear Mojo, either solo or in Triple Vision with Bill and Chris Jolly, you hear lyrics like “the blues have always been a joyful ride” and upbeat toe-tapping tunes off his latest album, New Gladitude. That’s now more than 300 songs and 30 releases of CDs and DVDs that receive airplay in nine different countries in a career that literally has stretched from coast to coast.
“I’ve always played for the love of the music, never for the money. I don’t play for people any more. I quit doing that 50 years ago,” Mojo says with a laugh. “I play for myself. And if I love it, I know other people will, too.”
For more information on Mojo and his schedule go to: facebook.com/MojoCollinsBlues/♦
Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.