Collins Kids:
Still Young at Heart

By Richard Harrington, Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

"Hi, I'm Lorrie ..."
"... and I'm Larry ..."
"We're the Collins Kids!"
           And they laugh at being able to say that some 50 years on. It's been a while since Larry and Lorrie Collins were kids. They were the mid-'50s' hottest pre-pubescent duo, best known for a series of sterling rockabilly singles and for co-starring on "Town Hall Party," a weekly Los Angeles television show hosted by country star Tex Ritter when Lorrie was 13 and Larry was 11. In fact, Lorrie was one of the first female rock-and-roll singers, precociously belting out tunes with the brassy, insouciant authority of someone twice her age, while Larry attacked his double-neck Mosrite guitar with lightning speed and ferocity belying his youthful appearance.
           Some of those incendiary performances can be found on YouTube, and three DVD sets of "The Collins Kids at Town Hall Party" are available on Bear Family Records. The DVDs feature the pair racing through such future rock classics and frenetic rockabilly originals as "Beetle Bug Bop," "Whistle Bait," "Hoy Hoy" and "Hop, Skip and Jump," the last an accurate description of Larry's onstage moves. No wonder Ritter often introduced them as "those two little bundles of bouncing T double-N T!"
           "I look at Larry, and at the time it didn't seem as humorous as it does now," Lorrie Collins admits, "but I'm thinking, 'How in God's name can he dance like that and play the guitar?' He was a weird guy! Our grandkids watch the tapes, and they get the biggest kick out of Uncle Larry dancing around like that, and they try to emulate him.
           "We had a lot of energy, and we still do. Probably more than we should at this stage - and Larry still dances around, trying to kill me!"
           Over a five-year period starting in 1954, the Collins Kids tore it up on television with regular appearances on variety shows hosted by Arthur Godfrey, Perry Como, Dinah Shore and Steve Allen; recorded for Columbia Records; and toured on country package shows with the likes of Johnny Cash and Bob Wills (who once threw up on Larry in the back seat of his limousine). Lorrie played teen idol Ricky Nelson's first girlfriend on the top-rated family show "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet." Life even imitated art when they were briefly engaged.
           Then in 1959, 17-year-old Lorrie eloped with Stu Carnall, Cash's manager and a man twice her age. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child and pretty much retired from recording, though the Collins Kids continued to do shows on the Nevada and California resort circuit for another decade. Larry turned to golf and songwriting, co-writing a couple of country No. 1s with "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma" and "Delta Dawn," the latter the first hit for another 13-year-old singer, Tanya Tucker.
           And that was pretty much it for the Collins Kids for the next few decades, though in that time their recordings became staples in the rockabilly revival, with scratchy bootleg tapes of their "Town Hall Party" acts circulating in a rockabilly underground that was particularly fanatical in England. In 1992, after years of fruitless entreaties, organizers of a British rockabilly festival convinced Larry and Lorrie that they should revive the Collins Kids for the first time since they were, well, kids.
           Lorrie, who was selling real estate, admits that "it was something that I missed - the traveling, the audience. I just missed the music. It was something we had done for most of our life. Also, I felt that's what I was put on Earth to do, to sing, and I wasn't doing it."
           Larry still had a hand in the business as a writer, "and then I ignored that for a while. But neither one of us had any idea how hot we were in Europe - we nearly lost our minds! They'd asked us several years in a row to come over there, but I kept saying no. Finally they just made an offer you couldn't refuse."
           Except, he adds, "they didn't want to hear any of our new stuff or any of the songs I'd written. They wanted to hear 'Hot Rod,' 'Mercy,' 'Beetle Bug Bop' and 'Whistle Bait,' which is like a standard over there as far as rockabilly goes - stuff that we'd written when we were 9, 10 years old. We thought: 'That's cool. Let's do that.' "
           When the Collins Kids arrived in London in 1993 for the rockabilly festival, they were greeted by six huge bodyguards. According to Larry, "it was like stepping into 1954 and we were as hot as we'd ever been."
           Raised in Pretty Water, Okla., as Lawrence and Lawrencine, the Collins children and their parents - their father was a dairy farmer, their mom something of a stage mother - moved to California in 1953. Talent scouts had told Lorrie she had great potential but couldn't do much with it in Pretty Water. Larry, who'd gotten a guitar at age 5, sometimes tagged along at auditions and talent shows in Los Angeles, but at that point, they weren't singing together.
           At one particular show, both performed.
           "I think that's the first time my dad came up with 'Don't embarrass me, son,' " Larry recalls to much laughter.
           "It turned out I came in second, and Larry came in first," Lorrie says.
           In February 1954, the now-partnered Collins Kids took part in a talent contest for "Town Hall Party" and were hired to perform the next day. They would appear in more than 40 episodes.
           Within a year, the Collins Kids were with Columbia, releasing a stream of singles featuring Lorrie's exuberant lead vocals and Larry's high harmonies and tasty licks played on his custom-built double-neck guitar. Many of those licks he learned from the legendary Joe Maphis, King of the Strings and a regular duet partner on "Town Hall Party," with one favorite being the aptly titled "Fire on the Strings." Larry's speedy bass string runs would end up inspiring many California surf pickers in the early '60s.
           As for their long "break," "Lorrie and I were basically hiding out for a number of years," Larry says, though he hates anybody suggesting that the Collins Kids were "recovering child stars."
           "Lorrie and I had the luckiest childhood of anybody that you can imagine. We grew up with Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Carl Perkins. Everybody that came to California when they first started did 'Town Hall Party.' All those acts, Lorrie and I got to meet them, know them, travel with them, work with them.
           "Back then we drove everywhere -- there was a fleet of Cadillacs going down the road with Cash in one, Lorrie and I in one, maybe Lefty Frizzell in one, all through Canada and just about every part of the United States. We did it for years and then started working Vegas and Reno and Tahoe for six months of the year. We really worked."
           Adds Lorrie, "There was always a pact between Larry and I: If we weren't having a good time on stage, then that was it ..."
           "... and we reached that point in Lake Tahoe," Larry admits. "We had just burned ourselves out."
           Until fans relighted the flames. When the Collins Kids decided to reunite, it was noticed. Larry was, as he is wont to do, playing golf one day in late 1992, and "I had just finished the 18th hole and this big tall gentleman with a beard and gray hair who looked like some aged rock star walked onto the green carrying a double-neck guitar. It was Semie Moseley, the guy who made my first double-neck guitar in 1954 and Joe Maphis's - the first "And he handed it to me and said, 'Go back to work.' I cried like a baby."
           Larry has three of about 15 custom-built Mosrites, including that first one for which Moseley "built the necks to fit the palm of my hand as a 9-year-old, and another when I got in my teens and my hands got bigger."
           Since the 1993 festival reunion, the Collins Kids have continued to perform select dates. They recently returned from a three-week tour of England, Spain, France and Italy, where a crowd of 12,000 seemed as familiar with their songs as if they were 5 months old, not 50 years.

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