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Larry Collins, Oklahoma rockabilly legend, dies at 79

The Collins Kids in a 1957 publicity photo.
Oklahoma Historical Society
The Collins Kids in a 1957 publicity photo.

Larry Collins, a fiery guitarist who helped create classic rockabilly music, died on Jan. 5 in Santa Clarita, California at the age of 79.

Larry was born in 1944 and raised on a dairy farm in the community of Pretty Water near Sapulpa. When he was six years old, his older sister Lorrie won a talent contest in Tulsa hosted by western swing steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe.

McAuliffe encouraged the Collins parents to take Lorrie to California to foster her singing career. Larry, who was a couple of years younger than Lorrie, soon followed, having recently been given a $12 Stella guitar for Christmas.

By February 1954, the 9-year-old Larry and 11-year-old Lorrie landed a weekly television gig on Tex Ritter's "Town Hall Party." Their live appearances on the show were highlighted by Larry bouncing around the stage, fiercely playing a double-neck Mosrite guitar that was almost as big as him.

It was on “Town Hall Party” where Larry would meet his mentor Joe Maphis, a flashy country guitarist who also played a double Mosrite guitar.

The Collins Kids would go on to sign with Columbia Records and record dozens of songs like “Hoy Hoy,” “Whistle Bait” and “Hop, Skip and Jump.”

Success would follow, with performances on the Grand Ole Opry, national television shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and Steve Allen Show and tours with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.

A few years into their career, Lorrie began dating singer and actor Ricky Nelson, even appearing as his TV girlfriend and singing on an episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Their romance eventually ended, and during a tour with Johnny Cash, Lorrie eloped with Cash’s manager Stu Carnall in 1959. While The Collins Kids would continue in fits and starts, the act was largely retired in 1961 when Lorrie started a family.

Later, Larry would find success writing songs for Tanya Tucker (“Delta Dawn” & “Pecos Promenade”), Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (“Tulsa Turnaround”) and more.

Arguably his biggest songwriting credit came in 1981, when he and Sandy Pinkard wrote “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” The country duet by David Frizzell and Shelly West was featured in the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can and would be nominated for a Grammy Award.

The Collins Kids reunited in 1993 for a rockabilly concert in England, and performed occasionally until Lorrie's death in 2018.

In a 2007 interview with The Washington Post, Larry reflected on meeting and touring with Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Carl Perkins all those years ago.

"Lorrie and I had the luckiest childhood of anybody that you can imagine," he said.

Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.