January 18th, 2008 | Interviews

The Collins Kids were an Oklahoma brother-and-sister who were on Town Hall Party with everyone from Eddie Cochran to Johnny Cash before they were even barely near eighteen. They did “Lonesome Road” and “Whistle Bait” and worried people the same way Wanda Jackson did. They speak now to Nikki Darling before their first California show in fifteen years.

What was it like to be on Town Hall Party so young?
Lorrie Collins: Well, it was extremely exciting for us. I don’t think we were really able to capture how exciting it really was and we were literally new to California. I don’t think we’d been there a couple months before we auditioned for the show—I think it was a Thursday and then we went and were on the next night. We grew up in Oklahoma on a dairy farm and I don’t think any of us were really that worldly at that point, and of course my mom had great belief in us because she was a musician and a mandolin player. She was a musician—the fiddle and the piano—and I think she really wanted us to have the chance to do something with our music, so she’s the one who talked our dad into selling our dairy cattle and moving to California. We were nine and eleven and we were really young and it was a great thrill, and as I look back on it wasn’t like we were that nervous—we went out and just had a great time! It wasn’t until we were much older and we realized that we were on television and had all these great fans that we saw how blessed we were to able to do all that at such a young age.
You dated Ricky Nelson and he had such a squeaky-clean image—can you tell us any dirt on him? Things people would be surprised to know?
Lorrie Collins: Well, I think the biggest surprise to people would be how really shy he was and that he never felt as comfortable or as good as the other musicians. His father was not gung-ho about him doing the rockabilly and rock and roll scene, so he always had low self-esteem. Of course later he was a force to be reckoned with. People wouldn’t realize that because he was a TV star and well, we all have our own crosses to bear, but we had a great time—we would go to drive-ins and he’d come over and my mom would make us fried chicken. He was just very nice. And of course Larry was always a spy for our parents—a sort of chaperone. Being on Town Hall we had an opportunity to work with people like Johnny Cash and they really respected him and didn’t make fun of him or put him down. They thought he had he had a great future in the music business—Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Autry. Actually that’s how he got to know me—he used to watch the show every Saturday night and he got a friend of his and he asked if we could be introduced.
I interviewed Wanda Jackson a while back and she discussed the difficulty of being a woman and singing rock ‘n’ roll in the early days—you were a woman singing rock ‘n’ roll and a child, too, plus you never changed your song lyrics when you were doing covers to fit your gender.
Lorrie Collins: You multiple what Wanda got and my age and you get a small idea of what I got. I got tons of flak and ridicule. People were most awful to my parents, saying, ‘You shouldn’t let her sing those kinds of songs! You shouldn’t let her dress like that!’ And since I was a child and in Town Hall Party I just did what I did—I had to be professional. It was very hurtful in many ways, and at one point it got so awful I began to think, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t sing that way, or maybe I shouldn’t move or wear my hair this way,’ and people were so bothered by the fact that I moved! But I had to! And it got to a point with my parents—and by that time we had managers—they all said to just go with it and not change. I was being myself. I never changed for Town Hall. I wasn’t going to change now. I got so much flak but mostly mine was for of my age. A lot of women for different reasons never got to be what was intended for them, and a lot of people who had the kind of talent that we did never got to show it. The reasons we got to go out there was that we were fresh and untouched—no one had seen kids do what we were doing. I watch clips of Larry when he was young—he’s just become—I’m just amazed—it blows my mind what a great artist he is and that he taught himself. When we very first started, it was exciting to just get to go on stage and sing. We weren’t thinking about how we would influence kids and music. After we had been on the show, they started bringing kids to see us and we reached so many kids. I don’t know—I think it was catching. When you see an entertainer on stage that loves what they’re doing its catching—you get enthusiasm. I really feel we had no idea ever in our wildest dreams that we would become what we became. Ever.
Larry, what made you turn to writing and producing?
Larry Collins: You know, I never really turned to it—I’ve always done it. Lorrie and my mom and I started writing like, ‘Heartbeat’ with Columbia when we first got our record deal. I would always write the music to the songs we did back then and the riffs and rockabilly licks and it’s a gift—that’s how I’ve always looked at it, the gift of music. I was living in the Hollywood Hills after Lorrie and I stopped and Mack David inspired me to be a staff writer—Mack David is a great writer, very famous star, and this is before he became a star though. He came out from the South to run a music company and introduced Sharon Sheeley to me—she was famous and had written songs for Ricky Nelson and I happen to be married to her sister! Anyway, Sharon was engaged to Eddie Cochran—all kind of rockabilly and music goes through my family since we came to California and Mack asked me to sign to Metric and I did, as a staff writer. Mack finally left to be a big star—he did inspire me because he’s a great writer and I’ve always been a writer. When Lorrie and I were together, I was a session player. I played for everyone from Liberace to you name it. Lorrie and I finally had been tired from working—we were burnt out from the Collins and I co-wrote a song called ‘Delta Dawn’ that still pays a little bit. I guess what I consider the best award I’ve ever received was for a song called ‘You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma’—that was the Nashville songwriters song of the year. Those guys will tell you like it is—it’s humbling.
How have you changed as a musician over the span of your career? What surprises you most?
Larry Collins: You know, I love music as long as it’s music—it blows me away to see where all the kids have taken rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. So as a songwriter I believe in simplicity. The simpler it is the better—I was a writer for Paramount Pictures and I sold a treatment for Don Simpson when he hired me to see how a songwriter would be as a screenwriter, and for a songwriter what it takes a screenwriter three pages to write it takes a songwriter one sentence. So that was very interesting and I was very fortunate. If you want my theory of rockabilly, simple little rockabilly riffs—they still use ‘em today, the simpler the better, and now fans if they catch a little break and difference than how I did when I was ten years old, they stop me—but that’s not what the audience came to see. They came to see that rockabilly gui-tar—I try to sneak in some jazz or classical sometimes though, just for fun.
Is it strange being remembered as children now that you’re adults? I mean, most adults aren’t accustomed to thinking about their childhoods every day.
Larry Collins: A day doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t ask about it. There’s one way I think about all that. It’s humbling and it makes me very proud, and when I watch that hyper little kid going apeshit—excuse my language, going crazy—lets say that it makes me very proud. That’s me. That kid is still me. What Lorrie and I accomplished back then and what it would mean as years passed—we were so fortunate. Every great country star—I knew Eddie Cochran as a kid. Elvis, when he was in town, he’d call me ‘Little Cat’ and he’d critique me—say, ‘You were getting on, you were really movin’ it, but try this next time.’ Rick Nelson—Lorrie was engaged to him—every rocker that came through Los Angeles, I met them. I was Rick and Lorrie’s chaperone, and when they’d come home he’d—Rick, he’d come and wake me up and we’d pick guitars and write songs around our dining room table. Johnny Cash signed his deal with Columbia Records at our dining room table. Our producer signed us for Columbia Records and they were trying to get him—Don Law was—they wanted him to leave Sun Records and they all came to our house. We were always the children of the group but no one ever treated us that way. The shows were live—they’d say show up and do your part and don’t miss a lick and it was so much fun, and now when I see how much is put in front of me—my music career and all the fame, I don’t think it negatively had a bad effect on my life. I studied some pre-law—after the Collins ended I became an attorney because it was law or pumping gas. In fact, I was our attorney and I was nineteen. Later on in life after I graduated from Hollywood Professional School, I went with Tuesday Weld—the Mousketeers, they were all cool, and we were all normal kids. I really do think that every one of them that had problems would have had problems anyway. We’re people. I’ve had some crap in my life, but early fame—I don’t think that’s why. Some people now say it’s not a good thing, but if anything it enriched and added to my life.