Lorrie Collins and her brother, Larry, billed as the Collins Kids, were stars before they were teenagers, regularly featured on television variety shows.
Lorrie Collins, who along with Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee was one of the most dynamic female rockabilly stars of the 1950s, died Saturday at her home in Reno, Nevada. She was 76.
Her brother, Larry, with whom she performed and recorded as the Collins Kids, said the cause was complications of a fall.
Collins was the winner of talent contests in her native Oklahoma when she was 8, and by the time she turned 12 she was appearing onstage with her brother, a guitar prodigy who sang high harmonies above her declamatory lead vocals.
They dressed in flashy Western wear, and Larry, two years Lorrie’s junior, played a double-necked electric guitar and hopped around onstage. The duo’s visually captivating performances were well-suited to television variety shows.
Preternaturally self-possessed, Lorrie Collins was also highly photogenic — a factor that, coupled with the novelty of the siblings’ youth, earned them regular invitations to appear on shows starring household names like Jackie Gleason and Dinah Shore.
Their first big break came in 1954 on “Town Hall Party,” a variety show on the Los Angeles station KTTV hosted by country singer Tex Ritter. Memorably encapsulating their electrifying appeal, Ritter introduced the Collins Kids whenever they came on the show as “those two little bundles of bouncing T-double-N-T!”
“Town Hall Party” was also where Collins met teenage idol Ricky Nelson, whom she briefly dated, and with whom she appeared in 1958 in two episodes of the popular ABC sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
“We had a great time,” Collins said of her relationship with Nelson — some accounts say they were engaged to be married — in a 2008 interview with the magazine L.A. Record. “We would go to drive-ins and he’d come over and my mom would make us fried chicken. He was just very nice.”
Nice, however, was hardly how some viewers who watched “Town Hall Party” thought of Larry Collins gyrating onstage while he and his sister sang rockabilly material rife with sexual innuendo. (“I’m only 14, but I’m goin’ on 15/But I wanna be 16, so I can get me a hot rod,” Lorrie purred over the hurtling rockabilly groove — of “Hot Rod.”)
“I got tons of flak and ridicule,” Lorrie Collins told L.A. Record. “People were awful to my parents, saying, ‘You shouldn’t let her sing those kinds of songs! You shouldn’t let her dress like that!’”
For the most part, though, the Collins Kids were well received by television audiences. The same could not be said of their experience with radio; country and pop stations alike proved indifferent — perhaps because of a lack of promotion by their label, Columbia Records — to the frenetic songs, like “Hop, Skip and Jump” and “Hoy Hoy,” that they recorded between 1955 and 1962.
Nevertheless, thanks to rockabilly aficionados in the United States and overseas, as well as their influence on the music of neo-rockabilly and punk bands like the Stray Cats and X, the Collins Kids’ catalog has remained in print or been reissued, just as their hyperkinetic early TV performances have been preserved on YouTube.
Lawrencine May Collins was born on May 7, 1942, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, to Lawrence and Hazel Juanita (Robinson) Collins. Her father was a dairy farmer and later worked as a crane operator in a steel mill. Her mother was an amateur singer and mandolin player who became her children’s de facto manager once their musical gifts became apparent.
Lorrie’s first victory at a talent contest came at a show hosted by guitarist Leon McAuliffe, formerly of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, at the Tulsa Ballroom in 1950.
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McAuliffe was also the one who urged Collins’ parents to leave Oklahoma to pursue a musical future for their children in California. They moved to Long Beach in 1953. The siblings auditioned for “Town Hall Party” in February 1954 and found themselves performing as members of the show’s cast the next evening.
Five years later, while she and her brother were touring with the Johnny Cash road show, Collins, then just 17, met Cash’s manager, Stu Carnall, and eloped with him. In 1961 she gave birth to the first of the couple’s two children and decided to become a stay-at-home mother, all but retiring from the music business, apart from limited touring and the occasional TV appearance. (The marriage ended in divorce.)
Her brother pursued a career as a songwriter. He had his greatest success as the writer, with Alexander Harvey, of “Delta Dawn,” a Top 10 country hit for Tanya Tucker in 1972 and a No. 1 pop single for Helen Reddy in 1973.
The Collins Kids reunited for a performance at a rockabilly festival in England in 1993, after which they continued to perform until Collins’ death.
In addition to her brother, Collins is survived by two sisters, Nicki Jean Collins Marmelzat and Sherry Madden; two daughters, Christy Hall and Lynn Mullins; and four grandchildren.
Former child performers like the Collins Kids often have difficulty, after their early flush of fame, adjusting to ordinary life. But in a 2007 interview he and his sister did with The Washington Post, Larry Collins insisted that they were anything but recovering adolescent stars.
“We grew up with Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Carl Perkins,” Larry Collins told The Post. “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.”
“Lorrie and I,” he said, “had the luckiest childhoods of anyone that you can imagine.”