To anyone watching television in Southern California in the late 1950s and early 1960s, sibling duo Lorrie and Larry Collins, better known as the Collins Kids, were inescapable.
“Every local TV [music] show out of L.A., they were on pretty consistently,” said Chris Hillman, a San Diego native who was a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Desert Rose Band and other groups. “If you think about it, nobody [from the West Coast] ignited Nashville, but the Collins Kids were as good or better than anything that came out of the southeast.”
Lorrie Collins died on Aug. 4 at 76 in Reno, where she had been living in recent years. Her brother revealed the news via Facebook, saying her death was the result of complications from a fall.
Initially regarded as something of a novelty act because of their youth — Lorrie was 12 and Larry 10 when they started performing professionally as a duo in 1954 — the Collins Kids soon became one of the best-kept secrets in rockabilly music, the early hybrid of country — often referred to as “hillbilly” music — and its driving, rhythm-and-blues infused offshoot soon to be known as rock ’n’ roll.
Although Lorrie never achieved widespread fame, many early-rock aficionados put her on a par with some of the greatest singers in pop and country.
“I think she’s criminally underrated,” said roots-rock guitarist and bandleader Deke Dickerson, who backed the Collinses for numerous performances in the last quarter century.
“She’s one of those female singers who was so good in her heyday that I would put her up there with Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee or Wanda Jackson,” Dickerson told The Times on Wednesday. “But she never had the opportunity, the timing or the right song to break through. She was not billed as a solo artist. But as far as the talent goes, she had the pipes to compete with anybody during that era.”
The sister-brother act was a study in striking similarity and contrast: she looking elegant and cool on camera, he a ball of energy with a geometrically perfect flattop haircut and a prodigy on the double-neck electric guitar he mastered under the tutelage of country musician Joe Maphis. Both typically dressed in eye-popping fringed, western outfits and boots, their names inlaid into the necks of their guitars.
The Collins Kids “reflected the spirit of early rock more thrillingly in the 1950s than rivals Wanda Jackson or Brenda Lee, both of whom are in rock hall of Fame,” tweeted The Times’ former pop music critic and author Robert Hilburn. “The Collins Kids will always be among my fondest memories of the energy and celebration of rock’s first decade.”
Their youth and undeniable musical talents landed them guest spots on national TV programs including “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “Hollywood Palace,” “The Steve Allen Plymouth Show” and “The Grand Ole Opry.”
Lorrie flirted with fame after national TV’s first bona fide teen idol — actor-turned-singer Ricky Nelson — spotted her on one of the Collins Kids’ weekly appearances on KTTV-TV’s “Town Hall Party” country music showcase hosted by radio and film star Tex Ritter.
Nelson invited her to appear with him on his family’s hit network series, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” where they sang a duet in 1958 of “Just Because,” a country-pop standard that Elvis Presley had recorded for Sun Records in 1955. Collins and Nelson also began dating, sparking considerable speculation over the depth of their romance.
“Back in the ’80s,” country singer, songwriter and historian Marty Stuart said Thursday, “I worked hard and [actor] John Ritter helped me get all those [syndicated] ‘Ranch Party’ shows his dad hosted. But getting [rights to rebroadcast] the ‘Town Hall Party’ shows was like getting something from behind the wall of East Berlin.
“For all the times I’d heard about those shows, when I got to see them for the first time watching on a Betamax machine, there was such a glamour to them. They had such a different kind of fire than those 30-minute syndicated shows that Nashville had. Just great, it was awesome.
“What’s amazing to me,” Stuart said, “for [how briefly] ‘Town Hall Party’ and their Columbia Records deal sustained, every year there’s a new generation of fans that discover them somehow. When people see them the first time, they’re always taken in by the sheer thunder of it all. Their act was glamorous, it was far afield. They had it all. It’s amazing that their legacy is intact, and how new ripples just keep happening every year.”
The Collins Kids were early adopters of the new sound and energy of rock on the West Coast, Dickerson noted, performing the likes of R&B singer Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll” not long after Bill Haley & His Comets recorded it in 1954.
“For West Coast audiences,” Dickerson said, “they were complete trailblazers as far as rock ’n’ roll was concerned. I’m not sure any other white act was playing that kind of music at that point, but here’s these hillbilly kids singing it.”
Among their own recordings were hotly charged rockabilly songs such as “Hop, Skip and Jump” and “Party” in 1957 and “Hoy Hoy” the following year.
Lawrencine May Collins was born May 7, 1942, in Tahlequah, Okla., to Lawrence and Hazel Juanita (Robinson) Collins, and was drawn to music early under the guidance of her mother, an amateur singer and mandolin player who would also serve as her children’s manager when their musical abilities became apparent.
At 8, Lorrie won a singing contest, and two years later the family moved to California, following the precedent set by thousands of other Oklahomans who trekked west starting in the Dust Bowl years amid the Great Depression looking for better conditions.
“They were little kids in the rock ’n’ roll era,” Dickerson said. “They were marketed as this kiddie act, which was kind of unfortunate. If they’d been five or seven years older, they’d have been in the same age group as Elvis, and they could have been marketed better. But because of when they were born, they got shuffled off into this quote unquote kiddie category.”
Still, they were taken under the wing of a number of more established country acts they charmed, including Johnny Cash, who in 1958 signed with Columbia Records, the label that three years earlier had signed the Collins Kids.
“Mitch Miller was head of A&R [talent development] at Columbia at that time and he pushed them into the kiddie category and made them record some horrific novelty songs, which kind of killed their career,” Dickerson said.
Their momentum also hit a wall when Lorrie, just 16, eloped in 1959 to marry Cash’s manager, Stewart Carnell, who was 35, putting the Collins Kids’ act into hibernation for a time.
She and Larry resumed performing together in the early 1960s, but when the Beatles ignited Beatlemania and the British Invasion in 1964, many American acts, especially country-leaning performers, saw their careers tail off dramatically.
Nevertheless, the Collins Kids continued touring, sometimes on country revues with Cash and others. They also tapped into the burgeoning lounge music scene in Las Vegas and Reno. By the 1970s, Larry had moved to Nashville and was focusing on songwriting, co-writing hits including “Delta Dawn” for Tanya Tucker in 1972, and “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” for David Frizzell in 1981.
Lorrie and Carnell focused on raising a family for the next two decades. Then in 1993 she and Larry accepted an invitation to return as the Collins Kids for a rockabilly festival in England, the Hemsby Rock ’N’ Roll Weekender in Norfolk, an appearance that set rockabilly fans young and old atwitter.
Health issues forced her to quit singing in 2012, but for nearly two decades they were greeted at performances with adulation, said Dickerson, who featured them at the Guitar Geek Festival he organized for years in conjunction with the National Assn. of Music Merchants’ massive musical products annual convention in Anaheim.
Along with her brother, Lorrie is survived by two daughters, Christy Hall and Lynn Mullins; sisters Nicky Jean Colins Marzelmat and Sherry Madden; and four grandchildren.
A public service is scheduled for Aug. 17 in Reno. Dickerson said the family is requesting that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Recording Academy’s MusiCares wing, which provides assistance to musicians in need.
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1:13 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from country musician Marty Stuart.