Siblings Lorrie and Larry Collins sprang into the public eye in the mid 1950s – dawn of the television era – on a program called “Town Hall Party.” The big-sister/little-brother act starred Lorrie on acoustic guitar, backing the prodigous Larry, who showed off his fleet-fingered style.
Add the mentorship of co-stars Joe Maphis and Merle Travis to the show’s Southern California locale, and it made for exciting times.
The Collins family hailed from Oklahoma, where the kids’ parents, Lawrence (Larry, Sr.) and Hazel, were an early influence. “She was extraordinary,” Larry said of his mother. “She could play almost any stringed instrument – fiddle, banjo, a little keyboard – and she’d take us to church, where I’d sing high tenor, Lorrie would sing lead, and our sister, Sherry, would sing alto. Mom also played at square dances; she never got to the professional level, but she was very gifted.”
Lorrie’s first instruments were mandolin and piano, but a trip to watch “Louisiana Hayride” and subsequently meeting Johnny Horton and Hank Williams made her want to learn guitar. “I liked Doc Watson, as well – it was amazing to watch him pick up and start playing,” she said.
The trip inspired Larry, as well. “Hank Williams in his white suit made a big impression,” he said. “So I asked for a guitar for Christmas. When I started playing, I was listening to a lot of blues and gospel, and I practiced a lot.”
When the family moved to California, the two garnered a spot on “Town Hall Party” in 1954. “We auditioned on a Friday night and they put us on as regulars Saturday night,” he said. Viewers took to the duo’s exuberant performances, which employed uptempo songs and enthusiastic “dancing” by Larry as he barreled through tunes without missing a note.
“I was the original poster boy for Ritalin!” he recalled with a laugh. “Whatever we did – even songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ – was high-energy. That’s why some people branded it ‘rockabilly.’ For me, it was just ‘Give me somethin’ to dance to!’”
He recalled that Maphis and Travis weren’t teachers, per se. “They didn’t sit me down and teach. But I listened to and watched them closely – and they watched me, too! We never really rehearsed, but we’d warm up backstage, and it was certainly inspiring.”
When the Kids started on “Town Hall Party,” Larry used a small Gibson acoustic (see sidebar, “The Kids’ Instruments”), followed by an early-’50s Gibson ES-1403/4. “That was my first electric guitar – it was easy to play while I did my gyrations!”
The show also served to introduce the kids to luthier Semie Moseley, who built a tripleneck guitar and brought it to the show for Maphis – and Larry – to see.
“We played with it for awhile backstage,” Collins remembered. “Joe thought it was a little over-the-top, and its weight was a concern. Joe asked what I thought. I agreed, but told him I thought a doubleneck would be cool. A couple months later, Semie brought Joe a doubleneck.” A month after that… “On live television, Joe and Semie presented me with my own doubleneck,” Collins said. “They let me rock out with it for an hour or so, and before I was done, all the acts scheduled for that time were with me onstage.
“The guitar was beautiful, and played great – it will always be my treasure. It’s been around the world several times and appeared on countless shows, as well as tours with Johnny Cash, and of course ‘Town Hall Party.’” Its most notable appearance may have been the first live network presentation of “The Grand Ole Opry.”
Lorrie’s mainstay instrument for decades has been an early-’50s Martin modified by Moseley in 1955. “It wasn’t a repair job,” she said of its neck replacement. “It was customized, and played better because its new neck was thinner – the original was way too wide.” After several decades of heavy use, she has worn a hole in its the upper bout. “It still sounds fine, even with that extra sound hole!” she laughed.
The Martin was seen on an episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” where she played the role of Ricky’s girlfriend – which she also filled in real life. The two had a mutual love of music and guitars.
“I was the first one he really cared about,” she detailed with a chuckle. “He used to watch us on ‘Town Hall Party.’ He was just getting into music, and I have some wonderful memories about playing guitars, singing, and writing songs with him on many nights.”
When James Burton moved to California to play with Bob Luman, and later with Nelson, Lorrie got to know him, as well. “He was a great guy, and still is,” she said.
In ’56, Larry helped Moseley build a single-neck guitar, dubbed the Larrico.
“We developed the design from a 3″ block of wood; I drew the cutaway. They wouldn’t let me get anywhere close to the band saw, so Semie cut it. The headstock was one Semie had been working on for the his signature design. My job was to sand, sand, and sand some more! I chose the pickguard material from a pile of plastic, and Semie had me sign a piece of cardboard that was then cut as a template for the pickguard. He then matched the signature with the ‘Larry’ inlay. The black-and-burgundy sunburst was my choice. Semie gets credit for naming the guitar.”
Collins didn’t often play the guitar, as the show’s producers – and audience – demanded he play the doubleneck.
By the late ’50s, Mosrite was up and running, and Collins’ doubleneck was ready to be retired. He ordered a replacement from Moseley, and they created the instrument called Betsy. Dressed with what would become typical Mosrite appointments – headstock silhouette, pickups, vibrato, and German carve on its hollowed body – it traveled with the Kids as they toured Vietnam and was used extensively on the Las Vegas/Reno/Lake Tahoe club circuit.
Though loyal to Mosrite, Larry has taken turns on other instruments. One he particularly cherishes is a ’57 Fender Telecaster. “In the late ’60s or early ’70s, that little jewel came to me by way of Rick Nelson,” he remembered. “I like to think of it as payback for all those late nights in the mid ’50s when he’d bring my sister home from the drive-in; he’d wake me up and we’d write songs and play guitar all night.
“My dad and I rigged a spring-loaded B-string puller to its strap,” he noted. “We also added a phase tap switch between the knobs.”
A friend who is half-Cherokee once borrowed the guitar, and brought it back with a new finish and an Indian-head decal. “Having a little Cherokee in my blood, I dig it. I played a lot of studio sessions and toured with it.”
Collins also has a prototype Mosrite with what he believes is a hickory top. Made in the late ’60s or early ’70s, Mosrite closed its doors shortly after building it. “It was supposed to be the new high-end Mosrite electric,” said Larry. “Billy Joe Walker, Jr., who is one of my best friends and one of the greatest guitar players, wanted to meet Semie. So we took a run to the factory, had a great day with Semie, then he loaded us up with new guitars, two of which were this new prototype. I believe there were only two ever produced. He gave serial number 01 to Billy and I received number 0.”
Larry stayed active in music, working sessions (including recordings with Liberace, as well as movie soundtracks), and co-writing “Delta Dawn,” and “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” Lorrie teamed up on duets with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
When Mosrite attempted a resurgence in the late ’80s, Larry ordered yet another doubleneck even though he had tapered his music career. “The body matches the shape of my original doubleneck. I’ve tried several pickups in it over the years, and it currently has new Hallmark pickups, which are hot and crisp.”
The instrument was given to Collins by Moseley at the Hidden Valley Country Club in Reno.
“I was getting ready to putt, and noticed a man – or maybe it was Bigfoot – standing under a huge old cottonwood!” he said. “After I shot, this figure started walking toward me. As he came closer, I noticed he was carrying something. I realized it was Semie, sporting shoulder-length hair and a full beard. I got tears in my eyes to match those in his, then I saw this beautiful doubleneck. Semie leaned over and whispered in my ear as he was handing the guitar to me. He said, ‘Go back to work.’ Promoters had been calling Lorrie and me for four or five years to do rockabilly festivals in Europe; I kept turning them down because I was working on my mediocre golf game.
“Thanks to Semie’s inspiration and that guitar, Lorrie and I accepted the dates in Europe. We still do festivals around the world.”
More recently, the Collins Kids have formed a relationship with Hallmark Guitars.
“Lorrie and I were doing a tribute show to Link Wray in Maryland, when Bob Shade introduced himself. Then, some years later, he got in touch through Deke Dickerson and said he was working on a tribute CD for (custom-car icon) George Barris. It was about hot rods and guitars – sounded right to me. My chore was to write songs for the Fireball 500 and Wing Bat guitars.”
In addition to writing and performing “Fireball 500” and “Wing Walker,” the Collins’ re-recorded “Hot Rod,” which they wrote in the ’50s.
Onstage at the show in May of ’09, Shade and Barris presented the Collins’ with Hallmark instruments – Lorrie’s based on a Gruggett Stradette from the late ’60s. “Other than the Martin, it’s the only guitar I use,” she said. “Bob put ‘Hoy’ on the back, after our ‘Hoy Hoy’ song. It looks good and plays great; it’s got really cool pinstripes!”
In 1993, they performed at the Hemsby Festival, in England, and have since been in high demand at rockabilly festivals worldwide. Lorrie resides in Nevada, while Larry lives near a beach in California, writing songs and living life at his own pace. And, thanks to the ubiquitousness of youtube.com, new fans are constantly being drawn to the amazing Collins Kids.
The Kids’ Instruments Through The Years
Part of the magic fueling The Collins Kids’ music is an awesome lineage of unique instruments – a tradition started when they went to Paul Bigsby’s shop nearly 60 years ago.
When the Kids first appeared on TV’s “Town Hall Party,” Lorrie, was 11 years old and had a stock Martin 000-18, while little brother Larry played a Gibson LG-2 with a DeArmond soundhole pickup.
It wasn’t long before Larry and Lorrie’s parents realized their kids needed the “full custom setup” used by the other performers on the show. In the ’50s, custom was the name of the game, from wildly ornate Nudie suits to handmade boots and hats – guitars and amps followed closely behind. It just wasn’t “cool” to be a country music star in that era with a stock instrument. So, Larry and Lorrie made their way to Paul Bigsby’s workshop in Downey, California.
Bigsby had already made guitars for other stars on “Town Hall Party,” including Merle Travis, steel guitarists Dick Stubbs, Marion Hall, and Billy Mize – and most importantly, Bigsby had customized a Gibson Super 400 for Joe Maphis and a Martin D-28 for his wife, Rose Lee; Larry and Lorrie went seeking the same type of unique axes.
Larry’s first customized instrument was a 3/4-size Gibson ES-140. The guitar was retrofitted with the full “Gingerbread” treatment, just like Maphis’ Super 400 – a highly inlaid armrest and pickguard with Larry’s name in it. The P-90 was left in the neck position, with white pickguard material over it like Maphis’, and a Bigsby pickup was added by the bridge. The guitar was pure “hillbilly flash.” Lorrie’s new Martin D-28 received a milder customization treatment in the form of a custom Bigsby-style pickguard and carved walnut tailpiece, similar to those Rose Lee Maphis had on her Bigsby-modified D-28.
During this time, a young apprentice named Semie Moseley was working at Paul Bigsby’s shop. Moseley also hung around the “Town Hall Party” show and was a known gospel guitar performer himself. Moseley did much of the actual work on the Collins’ instruments at the Bigsby shop, and became well-known to the pair.
Within a year, Moseley had left Bigsby’s employ to concentrate on a new venture, Mos-Rite (later Mosrite) Guitars. Moseley had built a tripleneck guitar for himself, and convinced Joe Maphis to renege on his order of a Bigsby doubleneck and order a Mosrite of his own. The company’s name was an amalgamation of Moseley’s last name and that of preacher Reverend Ray Boatright, who financed Moseley’s first set of Sears & Roebuck woodworking tools.
Once Maphis adopted the Mosrite doubleneck as his signature instrument, the younger Collins begged to get one, too; he received one less than a year later. At the same time, Moseley customized Lorrie’s Martin by splicing on a new Mosrite headstock and adding an elaborate custom pickguard. The majority of Collins Kids promotional photos were taken with these two instruments during the kids’ era with Columbia Recording from 1955 to ’62.
Moseley’s guitars were made by hand in various garage workshops around L.A. The pickups were made by Carvin – one of the few outlets at the time that offered guitar parts for sale to the public.
The first Mos-Rite guitars were unlike those later played by the Ventures; in the mid ’50s, Moseley’s instruments were quite derivative of Bigsby’s, with birdseye-maple bodies and six-on-a-side headstocks. Numerous features were copied from Rickenbacker, where Moseley worked for a short time under the tutelage of Roger Rossmeisl and Paul Barth.
Within a year, Moseley realized he needed to come up with his own designs, and made updates to both Maphis’ and Larry’s doublenecks. Few photos remain of the instruments with their original blond finish.
The doublenecks were updated with sunburst finishes, and the headstocks were re-shaped into three-on-a-side tuner configurations, with an obvious nod to the D’Angelico flared shape, albeit with an inlaid M at the top of the headstock. This headstock design was later shrunk to become the famous shape of the Ventures models.
Despite the doubleneck’s bulk and weight (around 14 pounds), Larry performed fancy footwork and stage moves with the instrument. In ’58, Larry made his own instrument at Moseley’s shop – the Larrico. Essentially a standard/single-necked version of his doubleneck, Larry used the guitar in ’58 and ’59, but – as many doubleneck players have discovered – it’s difficult, from a visual standpoint, to go back to playing a “regular” guitar after you become identified with the unique visuals of a doubleneck.
In the late ’50s, Larry also appeared in one of Fender’s “You won’t part with yours…” print ads, sitting in a barber’s chair, holding a Musicmaster. Though Larry knew Leo Fender, he never endorsed Fender instruments, his name doesn’t appear on the ad, and there are no photos from the ’50s showing Larry onstage with a Fender.
By ’59, Larry had his original Mosrite doubleneck altered to reduce its weight. The body was further hollowed and new necks were installed with smaller headstocks. Lorrie had another Martin converted by Moseley, this time with a sunburst finish, and the smaller headstock. Larry and Lorrie used the instruments through the end of their Columbia Recording contract in 1962.
After Larry and Lorrie quit recording in ’62, their career continued. Larry matured from the “child prodigy” to a teenage idol, with a deep voice. The pair made many television appearances on country music shows like “Star Route” and mainstream rock-and-roll shows like “Shindig,” the latter of which Larry appeared playing a Rickenbacker 360/12.
In the mid ’60s, Moseley made a new doubleneck for Larry – a rarely-seen guitar unless you caught their live act at the time. Similar to his earlier doubleneck, but a thinner, lighter, double-cutaway version with stock Mosrite parts from the height of their big production era.
Larry and Lorrie soldiered on through the late ’60s and ’70s, mostly working as a nightclub and lounge act in Reno and Las Vegas. A promotional photo from that time show them in full hippie dress, with Larry playing a late-’60s Telecaster and Lorrie the period-obligatory tambourine.
When the duo retired their live act, Larry got heavier into songwriting, and scored several hits recorded by other artists, including “Delta Dawn” and “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma.” He also wrote several songs for the movies Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can. Larry appeared in the former playing a custom Mosrite in a bar scene. The guitar is one of the most unusual, with a potato-shaped body made of angled pieces of laminated wood.
In the ’80s, Larry and Lorrie essentially retired, with Larry enjoying the fruits of his hit songwriting (“Delta Dawn” has been recorded by more than 200 artists) and taking on golf as a professional hobby. Lorrie became a real-estate agent. Larry’s wife arranged for Semie Moseley to make another doubleneck as a surprise gift. The instrument, completed in ’88, was inspired by the ’50s doublenecks, but its shape, cherry finish, and hand-wound pickups were based on the JM65 reissue Moseley began making in the mid ’80s. Larry continues to use it today as his main stage instrument.
In recent years, Larry and Lorrie have endorsed Hallmark Guitars, the brand resurrected by Bob Shade. Through Shade’s association with car customizer George Barris (of Batmobile and Munster Koach fame), Hallmark created the Fireball 500 doubleneck for Larry and for Lorrie, a pink, purple, and white pinstriped Stradette with her name on the fretboard.
It’s hard to think of another act that have been performing music since the ’50s with such an interesting and varied group of instruments. As long as Larry and Lorrie are creating music, you can bet there will be a pair of uniquely cool guitars in their hands. Long live the Collins Kids, crazy customized guitars, and the “Beetle Bug Bop!” – Deke Dickerson
This article originally appeared in VG February 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.