Larry Collins 1944-2024

Larry Collins 1944-2024

Larry Collins, a guitar prodigy mentored by renowned flatpicker Joe Maphis, and half of the ’50s brother/sister act The Collins Kids, died January 5 in Santa Clarita, California. He was 79 and passed from natural causes.

Growing up on a dairy farm near Tulsa, Larry (born October 4, 1944) and his sister, Lorrie, were raised by parents who nurtured their emerging musical talent; their mother played mandolin, violin, and piano.
After singer Lorrie won a talent contest, Leon McAuliffe, steel-guitarist for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, suggested she move to Southern California, center of a burgeoning country-music scene. Convinced, the kids’ parents sold the cattle operation and in 1953 relocated the family.
After the kids won separate talent contests, their father suggested they perform as a duo, a move that in ’54 earned them a spot as The Collins Kids on the cast of Tex Ritter’s “Town Hall Party” (broadcast on KTTV and later dubbed “Ranch Party” for syndication). Just 10 and 12 years old, respectively, Lorrie sang lead and played rhythm on her Martin 000-18 while Larry played blazing fills and lead breaks
“Larry essentially came up with his style in a vacuum,” said Dan Forte, VG’s Editor at Large. “When I interviewed him for Guitar Player in 1991, I asked who his early influences were. He mentioned Maphis and Merle Travis, but said they came after the move to California. Pressing him to unlock how he got so proficient so young, he only said that he liked boogie-woogie piano and heard gospel singing at a nearby church at night.”
At first, Collins played a Gibson LG-2, but almost immediately, the kids were sent to guitar builder Paul Bigsby’s shop in Downey, where he had customized or built instruments for Travis and others on “Town Hall.” For Larry, he dressed a 3/4-size Gibson ES-140 with an inlaid armrest and pickguard with Larry’s name, much like what he’d done on Maphis’ Super 400. He also added a Bigsby pickup near the bridge. In the years that followed, Larry worked with Semie Moseley on several fancy guitars including doublenecks and a tripleneck.
On “Town Hall Party,” the Collins Kids played a style of music that was simultaneously emerging as a regional hit in Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right.” Rockabilly pioneers Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis wouldn’t hit with “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Crazy Arms” until ’56. They also appeared alongside major country stars of the day as well as young rock-and-rollers like Perkins, Lewis, and Gene Vincent. Perhaps most notably, Larry began to play astounding guitar duets with Maphis, some of which appeared on the 1958 EP of instrumentals, Swinging Strings.
Another star who played alongside Larry on the show was surf-guitar legend Dick Dale. Forte interviewed him in ’83.
“Dick dated Lorrie for a time and told me that sometimes, when he’d bring her home, he’d wake Larry and ask him to show him some licks,” he recalled. “Larry corroborated this with a chuckle.”
From ’55 through ’63, The Collins Kids were signed to Columbia, where they recorded songs aimed at teens, such as “Hush Money” and the rock rave-up “Hoy Hoy,” as well as rockabilly tunes like “Hop, Skip and Jump,” “Hot Rod,” and “Whistle Bait.”
“Columbia was under Mitch Miller, who hated rock and roll,” Forte said. “At their age, the Collinses were too young to be marketed as rock and too wild to be marketed as country. They were truly rock-and-roll pioneers who got lost in the shuffle.”
In 1961, Lorrie gave birth to her first child and largely stepped away from music. Though the duo made a few TV appearances, Larry was forced to go solo. Working primarily as a songwriter, he collaborated with Alex Harvey on “Delta Dawn,” which was a #1 country hit in ’72 for Tanya Tucker; the following year, Helen Reddy’s version topped the Billboard Hot 100 and earned a Grammy nomination. In ’81, David Frizzell and Shelly West scored a country hit with “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” written by Collins and Sandy Pinkard.
“Larry was one of the most-talented and least-appreciated guitarists in the history of the instrument,” said Walter Carter, a guitar historian who interviewed Lorrie for the October ’18 issue of VG. “His hot-rocking playing on the old ‘Ranch Party’ videos is still impressive. When you consider that he was barely a teenager, that it was the ’50s – the infancy of rock and roll – and that he was dancing and grinning through it all, it’s a shame he never got the national exposure that his talent deserved.”
“Watching the Collins Kids on those black-and-white broadcasts of ‘Town Hall Party’ brings a smile for both visual and aural reasons,” said VG contributor Willie Moseley, who interviewed them for a February ’13 feature. “It’s fascinating, watching Larry’s rapid-fire stage antics – a tyke with a crew cut, sporting a fringed Western outfit and that doubleneck. His prowess is still mind-blowing almost 70 years later.
“I was also impressed by Larry’s loyalty to Semie Moseley,” he added. “They stayed in touch over the decades, and wherever Mosrite guitars were produced, Larry would order another doubleneck.”
In 1993, Larry reunited with Lorrie to appear at a rockabilly festival in Britain, and they continued to perform occasionally until 2012. Lorrie died in 2018 and was inducted to the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame the following year.
Collins is survived by a daughter, two grandsons, and a sister. – Ward Meeker

Click to read about the Collins Kids.


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