Larry Collins, Rockabilly Guitar Prodigy, Is Dead at 79

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Larry Collins, the prodigious child guitarist who worked with his sister Lorrie as the exuberant 1950s rockabilly duo the Collins Kids, died on Friday in Santa Clarita, Calif. He was 79.

His death, in a hospital, was announced by his daughter Larissa Collins, who did not cite a cause.

Although they didn’t sell millions of records or enjoy widespread radio play, Mr. Collins and his sister were ideally suited to the then emergent medium of television and became bona fide stars of the early years of live country music TV. As members of the cast of “Town Hall Party” — a popular TV barn dance hosted by the cowboy singer Tex Ritter in Los Angeles — they brought an untamed, proto-punk sensibility to the West Coast country and rockabilly scenes of their day.

Larry was just 9 years old and his sister 11 when the siblings, clad in matching Western wear, became regulars on “Town Hall Party” in early 1954. “Two little bundles of bouncing T-double-N-T!” was how Mr. Ritter introduced them when they took the stage.

Lorrie stole the hearts of many of the adolescent boys in the audience. But it was often Larry, as video clips from the era attest, who stole the show — hopping, bopping and duckwalking around the stage while his sister sang unabashedly of adult situations and emotions.

“They said I came out of my mama with one leg shaking,” Mr. Collins said in a 2018 interview for pleasekillme.com, the companion website for a book of the same name about punk music. “I had so much energy they didn’t know what to do with me.”

His hyperkinetic antics and high vocal harmonies animated the duo’s performances — two-minute bursts of swagger and attitude that gave expression to the suggestive likes of “Hoy Hoy” and “Hot Rod,” both from 1958.

“I’m only 14, but I’m goin’ on 15/But I wanna be 16, so I can get me a hot rod,” Ms. Collins declared, all swagger and attitude, as her brother laid down a series of headlong guitar riffs behind her.

Mr. Collins played everything from jagged single-note sequences to reverb-drenched bass-string runs on his double-neck Mosrite guitar, a gift from his mentor, the West Coast guitar virtuoso Joe Maphis. Mr. Collins also appeared on “Fire on the Strings,” an album of instrumentals recorded by Mr. Maphis (who also played a double-neck Mosrite) for Columbia Records in 1957.

Dick Dale, the man heralded as the “king of the surf guitar,” cited Mr. Collins’s staccato fingerpicking as a major influence on his playing, and on the evolution of surf music.

But Mr. Collins’s innovations as a guitarist extended beyond surf music and rockabilly. Noting similarities between his playing and that heard on touchstone punk recordings by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, the guitarist Deke Dickerson argued that the Collinses’ 1958 single “Whistle Bait” anticipated punk rock by some two decades.

“‘Whistle Bait’ was the first rock ’n’ roll record to divorce itself from rhythm and blues, or country, or jazz, or anything; it was like nothing that came before it,” Mr. Dickerson wrote in a 2018 profile of Mr. Collins on pleasekillme.com.

“Call it pure id, call it free-association rockabilly,” he went on, “but it was just a really weird record. It was the first punk-rock record.”

“Rock ’n’ roll was what we were doing,” Mr. Collins explained in the notes to “The Rockin’est,” a 1997 collection of the siblings’ recordings from the 1950s. “All the material was high energy. Our approach was always ‘Let’s make this a little faster.’”

Lawrence Albert Collins was born on Oct. 4, 1944, in Tulsa, Okla., the only son of Lawrence and Hazel Juanita (Robinson) Collins. His father was a dairy farmer and, later, a crane operator. His mother was an amateur singer and mandolinist who nurtured her children’s talent.

Larry and Lorrie’s first break came when she won a talent contest hosted by the steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe at the Tulsa Ballroom in 1950. Mr. McAuliffe also urged the siblings’ parents to move from Oklahoma to California to promote their children’s musical careers.

In February 1954, having relocated to Long Beach, Larry and Lorrie auditioned for “Town Hall Party” and made their first appearance on the show the next night.

Two years later they performed as guests on the first televised broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. They also began releasing incendiary rockabilly recordings for Columbia, like “Hop, Skip and Jump” and “Beetle-Bug-Bop” — but, whether they were too country for rock ’n’ rollers or too rocking for fans of country music, none of them reached the Billboard Hot 100.

In 1959 they joined Johnny Cash’s touring revue. Lorrie met and eloped with Cash’s manger, Stu Carnall; gave birth to two children; and became primarily a stay-at-home mother. (The marriage ended in divorce.)

The Collins Kids officially called it quits in 1965, following an appearance on the pop-music TV series “Shindig!” Mr. Collins pursued a career as a songwriter, finding success as the co-writer of “Delta Dawn” — a recording by Helen Reddy became a No. 1 pop hit in 1973 — and “Tulsa Turnaround” (1979), a song popularized by Kenny Rogers.

In 1993 Mr. Collins and his sister reunited for an appearance at a rockabilly festival in England. They performed together intermittently after that until Ms. Collins’s death in 2018.

Besides his daughter, Mr. Collins is survived by his sister Nickie Collins and two grandsons. Another sister, Sherry Madden, died in 2020.

As a child entertainer, Mr. Collins hardly had an ordinary life, especially when it came to school, which he did not attend regularly, and to developing relationships with his peers.

“I practiced a lot, maybe eight hours a day,” he told the music historian Colin Escott in an interview for the notes to “The Rockin’est.”

“But it was a gift,” he went on. “It was what I was supposed to be doing. I just can’t believe I ever had that much energy. I look at those old videos, and I say, ‘The kid’s gone crazy.’”



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