MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. --
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Collins, 4th Combat Camera Squadron, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., is celebrating Christmas this year, away from his family, with the Tops in Blue All Stars, touring overseas bases.
As the Air Force's premier entertainment showcase, and one of the oldest and most widely traveled group of its kind, Tops in Blue formed their first all-star team this season for a whirlwind holiday tour for the troops, to commemorate the organization's 60th anniversary of performing for military and their families around the globe.
They called back previous members, some of who have gone on to establish successful civilian music careers, to create the All Star team, which arrived at Joint Base San Antonio, TIB headquarters, Nov. 14, 2013, to begin a grueling three-week schedule of creating, practicing and performing a new production. In the mix is Collins, a March reservist, who performed with the 2009 TIB.
Since that time, Collins has continued with the group as a contractor, their rehearsal and vocal coordinator. He also still works in music and helps high school students prepare their performances for various competitions.
"I was selected (for the All-Star tour) because of my vocal skills, leadership ability and my knowledge of what Tops in Blue wants to take on the road," Collins said.
Collins received a call from Edward Jones, the group's performance director, who began listing alumni and asked Collins what he thought of them. When Collins said he thought they were all great, Jones asked what he thought about Jeffrey Collins alongside them, and then there was silence.
"What are you saying, Ed?" Collins asked.
Jones explained the formation of the all-star group and how the tour would work, asking Collins to be a participant.
"I was at a loss for words, completely honored," Collins said.
Upon arrival at the Texas headquarters, it was like old home week, Collins said.
The first thing he did when he arrived was go to the TIB productions center, which is half studio and half museum, Collins said. There is a poster from every single show since the inception of the group in 1953.
"We met all our brass and from that point on it's been 100 miles an hour every day," Collins said. "(There have been) 12-14 hours a day of singing and rehearsing. That's the only way to get a show ready in three weeks."
The normal time allotted for putting together a TIB show is three months, Collins said.
"We know what's going to happen at the end of this," he said. "When we get to the AOR (Area of Responsibility) and start our shows, the effect we have on them is amazing! That's the main reason I said yes," Collins said.
The difficult part of putting the show together is the long hours, Collins said, but no one is complaining because they love it so much.
"When you finish a show and you see grown men, from generals to Airman, without a dry eye, it's worth it," he said. "The realities are much harsher overseas, than me here with a microphone in my hand."
The group has to have some fun during those long, rehearsal hours. Collins relayed one of the funniest moments.
Tom Edwards, Chief, Tops in Blue, is the one who puts the puzzle pieces together. He changes a lot from the performance, and Collins said it is sometimes difficult to remember the changes when the original piece is drilled into your head, by practicing it over and over again.
"We're going crazy and doing our thing during a Jennifer Lopez song. I play Pitbull," Collins said.
They had all practiced going into the audience on a certain part, but Edwards changed the sequence and had them remain on stage.
"I remembered the queue to stay on the stage, but my partner (Jennifer Lopez) took off. The other 12 people (who also remembered the change) didn't follow her," Collins said. "She flies down and runs around. Then when she turns around, she sees us all up on stage. I was dying laughing. It was funny," Collins said.
It's moments like that that get them through the long hours of preparation, said Senior Airman Blake Whilden, 452nd Force Support Squadron, and a member of the TIB team during 2008 and 2009. Whilden was the assistant lighting director his first year with the team and the lighting director in 2009, when he worked with Collins.
"He was the hardest working person on our team," Whilden said about Collins. "He was on the rigging team and helped out with lighting (in addition to singing and dancing). The highlight of our year-long tour in 2009, was we had the fastest set ups and tear downs."
They spend most of their long days together rehearsing, eating, resting when and where they can. To each other, they are family.
Two other members of Collins' 2009 TIB Troupe join him for the all-star performance--Tigh Lewis, a saxophone player, and Naomi Keen, a vocalist.
"It's so weird. When you go out on tour for a year with someone, they're your family. (There's) no leave," Collins said. "When I saw them (for the first time since 2009), it was like I'd seen them the day before."
As they rehearsed, they reached for what Collins said was called "that Tops in Blue sound." Many churchgoers listen for a choir to hit those notes, he said, "the ones that rub your earlobes the right way, the ones that go through your body and move you.
"It takes a while to get that blend with a new group. We want to move the audience, which we can't do until we get that blend," Collins said. "The most memorable and best times are when we actually start coming together like that. At the end of a song (during rehearsal), when that happens, it's silent."
Collins, who lives in San Diego, Calif., said he loves his life and family but misses the entertaining.
"I love to be on stage. It's my way to give back to the Air Force for the family I have," he said. "I want them (the troops) to feel like they are at home for an hour and a half."
His wife, who is also a reservist in the 4th CTCS at March ARB, met Collins when she was a TIB member. Staff Sgt. Jennifer Collins, who still teaches choreography for TIB, supports her husband's all-star opportunity even though it will take him away from her and their 19-month-old daughter, Kylie, during the holidays.
"We keep in touch over the phone and with social media," Jennifer said. "Whenever Kylie gets my iPad, she watches video clips of him and says, 'Daddy! Daddy!'"
When Collins got the call, he was afraid to tell Jennifer, she said.
"I don't know why. I was excited for him and knew he could do it. He's a better person when he can be on stage like that."
Before the all-stars left the states, Jennifer attended their first concert at Joint Base San Antonio on Dec. 7.
"It's a unique format, very concert-like and contemporary," she said. "I was nothing short of amazed by the talent and it made me wish I was up there too. It makes me proud (to be alumni)."
So, for the Collins family, like so many away from home this holiday season, the celebration will have to be put on hold.
"As much as I want to be with them during the holidays, she understands just how much we mean for the Airmen over there," Collins said.
(Follow Staff Sgt. Collins and the troupe at www.facebook.com/TeamMarch