Mid-20th century Los Angeles country music performers were such a wildly colorful community that they made their competitors in Nashville seem more like undertakers than entertainers.
One of the most dazzling acts were the Collins Kids, who will make their first Los Angeles-area appearance in 19 years on Dec. 3 at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank.
The duo, consisting of siblings Larry and Lorrie Collins, broke into local prominence on the popular KTTV television show “Town Hall Party” at ages 10 and 12, respectively, trading in some of the hottest, flat-out explosive rockabilly and boogie of the era. Within a few short years, they were a nationally known force, traveling to New York for guest shots on NBC's “The Steve Allen Show” and playing at Madison Square Garden.
Clad in the elaborately embroidered and rhinestone-spangled uniforms of rodeo tailor Nudie and specializing in a hot, aggressively amplified brand of hillbilly music, the Collinses' energetic, fly-heel presentation — showcasing Larry's dazzling fretwork and Lorrie's clear-toned, declarative vocals — was nothing short of astonishing. And while Larry was mentored, on “Town Hall Party,” by the prominent Los Angeles-based banjo-guitar virtuoso Joe Maphis, the self-taught prodigy was already a self-made phenomenon.
“Joe and his wife Rose Lee were a huge part of our lives,” Lorrie Collins said recently. “And Larry and Joe played together on the show, but I think Larry blew Joe's mind with how talented he was, at such a young age. Joe would play something and Larry could remember it note for note. He never really taught Larry anything — Larry just inhaled everything that Joe did.”
Big sister Lorrie was no less impressive a talent, and gained even greater fame after a smitten Ricky Nelson, himself a burgeoning teen idol, began dating her, which led to an appearance on ABC's highly rated “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
The pair had a classically humble country music origin: “We grew up on a dairy farm in Oklahoma, and Mother and her sisters were all musical. Every Sunday after church they'd come over, we'd have a big supper, and they'd all sing and play music, so I got interested in singing myself.” Lorrie Collins said. “We moved out here to Long Beach in 1953, and around that time, Larry started playing and we did a lot of talent shows. After we both won separately on Squeakin' Deacon's talent show at the Riverside Rancho, my dad decided that we should get together as an act.”
An audition, as a duo, for “Town Hall Party” quickly led to their induction as regular cast members, and the Collins Kids were off and running. “We auditioned on a Friday, and then they asked us to be on Saturday night's show. It was unbelievable, after all the talent shows we'd played, how lucky we were and how easily it started.”
The Collins Kids' career was eventually burdened by their growth out of pint-size novelty status and Lorrie's subsequent decision to leave the music business to settle down and start a family. But their memorable songs, much of which were self-penned, were exemplary gems of fast-moving, deliciously reckless rockabilly. It was captured on wax by Columbia Records legendary A&R; man Don Law. Collins classics like ”Whistle Bait,” “Hot Rod,” “Soda Poppin' Around” and “Hoy Hoy” still carry such a broad appeal that, despite a 20-plus-year hiatus, the pair continue to work a worldwide circuit of festivals and concert hall dates.
“The people wanted to hear our old stuff. And then the music was reissued and really became popular in Europe. An agent called us from England, asking us to do a show there. We kept putting him off and then decided 'To heck with it, let's just do it,'” says Lorrie. “And there were thousands of fans, most of them young people, and, really, it revitalized us and made us want to get back out there.
“It's just wonderful. There are so many heartfelt fans, and we really look forward to playing now.”
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”
Who: The Collins Kids
Where: Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: Monday, Dec. 3, 8 p.m.
Cost: No cover, two-drink minimum
More info: (818) 729-0805