Deke Dickerson charts the path of the energetic & talented 13-year-old hillbilly named Larry Collins, who recorded the first punk rock record in 1958, and influenced Dick Dale with his invention of surf guitar
It’s always a little pretentious when some expert on the internet proclaims something to be the first, the origin, the beginning, of a music genre. America’s rich tapestry of music, after all, was formed by a bunch of tiny threads that all interwove to form something beautiful.
Contrary to popular opinion, Jimmie Rodgers didn’t invent country music, but he was the first to sell a bazillion records and show a lot of people what country music sounded like. No, Elvis didn’t invent rock and roll, but was the first to take raw black music out of the clubs and expose it to millions of consumers. No, Blue Cheer didn’t invent heavy metal, but they did somehow manage to be the loudest band in the world at a very important crossroads in both culture and music in the late 1960s. The list goes on and on, and in the sphere of influence these artists can’t be denied, even if they didn’t really invent whatever it is they’re credited with inventing.
“What Larry Collins chewed up in 1958, the Sex Pistols spit out, twenty years later.”
When I was young, we were told the Ramones, or the Sex Pistols invented punk rock. If you got into debates with record collectors, many thumped their chests and insisted that punk was invented by the Dictators, or Iggy and the Stooges, or (in Lester Bangs’ estimation) with the 1960s garage band groups, such as the Count V and their warped “Psychotic Reaction” from 1966. Depending on how you defined ‘punk,’ any of these answers might be correct.
In my opinion, however, the very first punk rock record was a strange little ditty called “Whistle Bait,” recorded by 13-year old Larry Collins in 1958.
Larry and his sister Lorrie were Okies who moved to Southern California with their family in the first half of the 1950s, looking for their own piece of the American dream. Lorrie was one of the best-looking women in history, and the fact that she had an amazing, mature singing voice in her early teens made her a shoo-in for show-biz success.
Larry was a precocious little kid who played guitar and sang, tremendously talented and full of youthful energy. Boy, was he full of youthful energy! When Larry and Lorrie (now renamed The Collins Kids) got hired on as regulars on the popular Los Angeles live country music television show Town Hall Party, Larry (9 years old at the time they joined the show) was mentored by two of the greatest guitarists in American music history—Joe Maphis and Merle Travis. Joe’s huge, unwieldy custom-built Mosrite doubleneck guitar was his signature instrument, and by 1956 Larry had one built for him, too. Although the doubleneck Mosrite was one of the heaviest and most cumbersome guitars ever built, the visual impact of Joe Maphis and Larry Collins on dueling doublenecks was pure electricity on live television of the era.
Joe Maphis was the Eddie Van Halen of his day—fast, fleet-fingered, dizzying—but by 1956 the 11-year old Larry Collins was no slouch, either. He could play the living hell out of that doubleneck Mosrite guitar, all the while dancing and jumping around like an escaped monkey on helium, literally running circles around his sister, singing harmonies and backing her up on guitar.
The Collins Kids were signed to Columbia Records, along with many of the Town Hall Party cast (Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Freddie Hart, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Bond). Columbia tried pushing the Kids into a corny “kiddie” corner with pre-teen novelty material like “Hush Money” and “Oh Ma, Won’t You Make Him Behave,” but as early as 1955, Larry and Lorrie were among the first white acts on the West Coast to play rock and roll music. Columbia Records didn’t really know what to do with them, and label honcho Mitch Miller famously hated rock and roll. Eventually, the businessmen at Columbia knew they had to do something to compete with Elvis Presley’s sales, and The Collins Kids were allowed to cut more rocking material. Some of the resultant recordings by Larry and Lorrie are among the best rockabilly records of the era, with an undeniable high energy charm complete with hot guitar licks and hot vocals. “Hop, Skip, and Jump,” “Hoy Hoy,” “Mercy,” “Hot Rod,” “(Let’s Have A) Party” were all solid killers, and probably would have been hits if Columbia had known how to promote them properly.
“In my opinion, however, the very first punk rock record was a strange little ditty called “Whistle Bait,” recorded by 13-year old Larry Collins in 1958.”
In retrospect, The Collins Kids were considered a little too hillbilly for the rock and roll crowd (they always dressed in rhinestone Nudie suits, the de facto ornamentation for country stars of the era) and too rock and roll for the hillbilly crowd—though the West Coast country music people seemed to be much more receptive to rock and roll than their Nashville counterparts.
One of the great things about living in the modern era is that we have so much of this archival footage at our fingertips. Just go to YouTube and do a search for ‘The Collins Kids,’ and you’ll be treated to hundreds of vintage clips that bring their whole 1950s magic to life, more vividly than any words I can write here. A clip of Larry performing the Duane Eddy instrumental “Ramrod,” became somewhat of a viral hit a year ago, accumulating several million views, which goes to show that good schtick is good schtick, regardless of when it was made.
Dick Dale, guitar hero of “Miserlou” fame, began his music career in the late 1950s. Before he became known as the ‘King Of The Surf Guitar,’ Dale was another aspiring Elvis-influenced singer, playing rockabilly and occasionally guesting on Town Hall Party. Like any other red-blooded, pompadoured teenage kid who stood a chance and had any wits about him, he had a big crush on Lorrie Collins.
Dick Dale wanted to be a guitar hero. He played upside down and backwards, and in the late 1950s was playing a Magnatone guitar flipped over left-handed and customized, much like Larry and Joe Maphis’ Mosrites. Dale idolized the guitar theatrics of Larry and Joe, and would hit up Larry for picking tips at the same time he was hitting up Lorrie for a date.
Joe Maphis was an experienced, blazing fast picker who would play one quick note per pick stroke, enabling him to play fiddle parts on guitar with a speed unmatched at the time. Larry, on the other hand, played a mixture of Joe’s alternate picking and what would technically be called ‘staccato’ picking, or playing one note with a bunch of quick pick strokes. The former was done with a quick wrist; the latter with elbow strokes. The former was hard to master; the latter was simple and perfect for rock and roll.
Larry rocked the hell out of his twangy picking on the low strings of the guitar. When Dick Dale would come to the Collins’ home in the San Fernando Valley to attempt to woo Lorrie, he took pointers on the staccato picking style from Larry, and went home to woodshed. By 1960, Dale’s attempt to play fast boogie woogie guitar like Larry Collins and Joe Maphis had turned into something else entirely—‘Surf Music.’ If you’re unfamiliar with what Dick Dale wrought, it is the sound of “Miserlou” that we all know from its inclusion in the movie Pulp Fiction.
As Larry politely puts it, “Sometimes, in a few interviews, Dick admits that he got that style from Joe Maphis and I.”
Joe Maphis, Larry Collins and Merle Travis – Wildwood Flower
In addition to influencing the invention of surf guitar, Larry was an unstoppable whirling dervish, the most visually memorable part of the Town Hall Party television show. The kid had so much energy, watching him today makes you marvel at how good he was at such a young age, while simultaneously filling you with the impulse to slap him to get him to settle down. Knowing the backstage environment of country music’s stars of the 1950s, I had to wonder—were they giving this kid drugs? Why was he jumping around like that?
Larry remembers: “We toured with Johnny Cash, Gordon Terry, Merle Travis, all those guys, legendary hell raisers, so I saw all that. It was all around us. There was alcohol, there were pills, and cigarettes—god, I can still remember that smell. Bob Wills once vomited on my cowboy boots! But no, I wasn’t on pills. I never did that stuff.“They said I came out of my mama with one leg shakin’. They thought I was crazy! I had so much energy they didn’t know what to do with me. When I started playing guitar, they just said, now he’s got somewhere to focus all that energy. It’s a good thing I never did any of those drugs, if I had, I think my heart would have exploded. I was already flyin’ all on my own. I couldn’t keep still!”
At this point, many of you readers, accustomed to clickbait articles built around a gnat’s attention span, are wondering: What does this have to do with punk rock?
It came out of nowhere—the first punk rock record—a raw slice of energy, teenage angst, and pure hormonal overdrive. Released in 1958 as a Collins Kids record but featuring a solo vocal by Larry, the record was called “Whistle Bait.”
Larry: “I’ve never told anyone this story, but one day my dad was driving me home from school, and he saw a real good looking girl standing on the corner. He turned to me and said, ‘you know, you need to write a song called “WHISTLE BAIT.”’ He didn’t play any instruments, hell he could barely play the radio, and he never wrote any songs, but he loved women. And the title of that song came from him. Luckily, my mom (Hazel ‘Hurricane’ Collins) isn’t around to hear this story. I’ve never told anybody about it until now.”
Larry went home, and with his dad’s song title suggestion, wrote a song called “Whistle Bait.” It was….different. It was really different, even with the radically changing world of rock and roll music in the late 1950s. Besides the title, where did Larry get the inspiration to write it?
Larry: “When we drove home on Saturday nights from Town Hall Party, we’d have the radio in the car tuned to Wolfman Jack, on his [Mexican] border radio show. We used to love listening to him. He had that cool, weird personality, and it rubbed off on me, I guess. We played country music, but we loved rock and roll, too.”
“Whistle Bait,” even sixty years later, is one of the weirdest goddamn rock and roll records ever created. What did the Columbia Records people think when Larry brought his new song in the studio to record?
Larry: “They thought it was a little strange, everybody was looking at each other. I remember (country singer) Skeets McDonald was playing electric bass, but he couldn’t figure out the song. Finally I got Quincy Snodgrass (real name: Leon Silby, a comedian/musician from Town Hall Party), who was hanging around in the studio, to play bass. I was telling him the bass line and he’s the one on the record. But, yeah, everybody thought it was a weird song!”
Other songs by other artists certainly bordered on punk rock in the 1950s. “Rumble” by Link Wray. “Train Kept A Rollin’” by Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. “Love Me” by The Phantom. “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis. “Fujiyama Mama” by Wanda Jackson. All of these records had swagger, and attitude to spare. Dissect them musically, however, and they’re all based on rhythm and blues, basic variations of the 12-bar blues chord progression. Louder, faster, yes, but still the same train on the same track.
“Whistle Bait” is different. Based around a caveman, repetitive, moronic melody (and I mean that as a compliment), “Whistle Bait” is just a greasy chord grind. Realistically, it doesn’t even HAVE a chord progression. It’s just a crazy concoction made up by a 13-year-old kid who couldn’t stop his leg from shakin’. “Whistle Bait” is the birth of punk rock as we now know it.
Compare the chord grind of “Whistle Bait” to all your punk classics from twenty years later. “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” by the Ramones. “Janie Jones” by The Clash. “God Save The Queen” by the Sex Pistols. “Wild In The Streets” by the Circle Jerks. Sure, the guitars are more distorted, and the drums more plodding. But that hyped up, jackhammer guitar over that same chord grind, the shrieking vocals—it all started with “Whistle Bait.”
“Whistle Bait” was the first rock and roll record to divorce itself from rhythm and blues, or country, or jazz, or anything. It was like nothing that came before it. Call it pure Id, call it free association rockabilly, call it the by-product of cheeseburgers and the inhalation of gas fumes with lead additive, but it was just a really weird record. It was the first punk rock record.
When it was released, “Whistle Bait” was not destined to be a hit.
As Larry politely puts it, “Sometimes, in a few interviews, Dick admits he got that style from Joe Maphis and I.”
Larry remembers: “We heard it on the radio, while driving in the car. That was exciting! But it wasn’t a hit. Now they tell me that DJ’s all over the world play it at rockabilly festivals, and of course I still perform it at my shows. But at the time, it was just kind of….forgotten. It didn’t really do anything.”
In terms of influence, it’s doubtful that any of punk rock’s originators heard “Whistle Bait” and based their movement around it. And yet, it’s all there, if you listen. What Larry Collins chewed up in 1958, the Sex Pistols spit out, twenty years later.
By the end of the 1950s, The Collins Kids crashed and burned, with Lorrie leaving her then-boyfriend Ricky Nelson for Johnny Cash’s manager Stu Carnall (a more detailed account of what happened can be found in the Cash biography The Life by Robert Hilburn), leaving Larry to go it alone, playing the county fair circuit and making more records that never seemed to quite catch on. “T-Bone” was an excellent guitar instrumental. “One Step Down” was a Conway Twitty-inspired vocal that sounded like a hit but wasn’t. By 1961, Town Hall Party was cancelled, and things were never quite the same as they had been.
Larry kept playing, and achieved success as a songwriter (his co-writing credit on “Delta Dawn” has paid many bills for the last several decades). Lorrie sold real estate and still sang until recently. The pair reunited in the mid-1960s and played the lounges in Las Vegas and Reno for years. The Kids reunited in 1993 and began packing in throngs of the faithful to rockabilly festivals worldwide. The last time Larry and Lorrie played in Anaheim, Dick Dale stopped by during sound check, to try hitting on her yet again.
I’ve been fortunate to be a part of many of The Collins Kids reunion shows since the early 1990s. Larry is always good for a quote. “LET’S TEAR ‘EM A NEW ROCKABILLY!” was a good one, right before hitting the stage in England for their first reunion show. While playing in the rain and standing on a pile of electrical cables at Lincoln Center in New York City, Larry turned to me and yelled “IT’S A GOOD DAY TO DIE!” And at one of The Collins Kids’ first reunion shows, backstage in Seattle, a local reporter began asking Larry specific questions about recording sessions in the 1950s. Larry pointed over at myself and the other guys in the band, and remarked: “Ask these guys. They studied this shit. I just lived it.”
Johnny Rotten always has a few good quotes on hand, but he’ll never be as punk as that.
Collins Kids and myself, at the Viva Las Vegas Festival 2017 “Rockin’ Gypsy”
Interview with Larry Collins conducted February 9, 2018.