Forgotten Artists: Tommy Collins (1930-2000)

Paul W. Dennis | September 22nd, 2008

Tommy Collins

In the Spring of 1966, the local country music stations in Tidewater, Virginia (WCMS & WTID) were playing the sounds of Tommy Collins’ new single “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl.”

I whistled at pretty girl, on a corner downtown
She saw me when I winked my eye and then she turned around
She came and took me by the arm, I told her that I meant no harm
She said to me with a certain kind of scowl
If you don’t mean it then don’t whistle, if you can’t bite don’t growl

It was released on Columbia, his first release for them after more than a decade recording for Capitol. It appeared to be a career renaissance for Tommy, reaching #7 on the Billboard and Cashbox Country Charts, and his first real hit since 1955. Instead, it proved to be a last hurrah as he never again cracked the top forty as a performer, although a number of his songs continued to chart well for other performers.

Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the names that immediately come to mind when the term ‘Bakersfield Sound’ is mentioned. While those are the two most prominent names, Tommy Collins and (slightly later) Wynn Stewart were at least as important to the development of the bright and tight electric guitar sound that came to dominate Bakersfield music.

Born Leonard Sipes near Oklahoma City, OK, Tommy Collins was the first of the Bakersfield artists to reach prominence. His second Capitol single “You Better Not Do That” reached No. 2 (for seven weeks) in 1954 and was the first of a string of six novelty hits that ran through the end of 1955. In contrast, Buck Owens was not to chart until 1959 and Merle Haggard did not chart until 1963.

Collins spent his entire childhood in Oklahoma, graduating from high school in 1948. After that he attended Edmond State Teachers college, recording his first singles for an independent label and working for radio station KLPR radio in Oklahoma City. While at KLPR he met and made friends with Wanda Jackson, who had her own show on the station. Collins served briefly in the military; after discharge, he and Wanda Jackson (and her family) moved to Bakersfield.

Wanda Jackson did not stay long before moving back to Oklahoma, but Collins made friends in the area, including Ferlin Husky (a/k/a Terry Preston and Simon Crum), with whom he roomed for a while. After recording some of Tommy’s songs, Husky convinced his label, Capitol, to sign Collins in June of 1953, upon which he adopted his stage name Tommy Collins. He immediately assembled a band featuring Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens on lead guitar. Following the success of “You Better Not Do That,” Collins recorded more novelties. “Whatcha Gonna Do Now” was the immediate follow up, reaching No. 4, followed by “Untied” (No. 10) and “It Tickles” (No. 5). In October 1955, the double A-sided single “I Guess I’m Crazy” and “You Oughta See Pickles Now” charted both sides into the top twenty, but that marked the end as far as his sustained success as a recording artist as he became more interested in religion. He would not chart again until 1964.

In 1957, he enrolled in the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary with the intention of becoming a minister and did eventually become a pastor in 1959. While he continued to record for Capitol, including some novelties such “All of The Monkeys Ain’t in The Zoo,” his records received little promotion. His Capitol contract expired in 1960 and was not renewed.

In early 1963 he decided he was not meant to be a minister. He headed back to Bakersfield, re-signed with Capitol and in 1964 he returned to the lower rungs of the charts with “I Can Do That,” a duet with his wife Wanda.

Collins then signed with Columbia in 1965 (apparently with an assist from friend Johnny Cash). After the aforementioned “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl,” he had a string of minor hit singles, none of which cracked the country Top 40. Plagued by personal problems, including a drinking problem, Collins muddled through this period touring, at times with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, usually opening the show for them. Both Owens and Haggard were artists who had recorded songs Tommy had written.

Tommy would not chart again after 1968 and from that point forward his importance to county music would be as a songwriter. In 1972 Haggard had a huge hit with “Carolyn,” and in 1981, Haggard again paid tribute to Collins with “Leonard”, which focused attention back on Collins for the first time in many years.

While all of Tommy’s success as a recording artist came with novelty songs, other artists had considerable success recording some of his more serious songs. Faron Young had a major hit with “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’),” reaching No. 2 for three weeks in 1955, and George Strait took the same song to No. 1 in 1988. Merle Haggard had hits with “The Roots of My Raising,” “Carolyn” and “Sam Hill.” Mel Tillis took “New Patches” near the top in 1980 and numerous other Tommy Collins songs can be found in various albums recorded by country singers of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Discography

Tommy Collins was not prolific as a recording artist–those who still honor vinyl can occasionally find his Capitol and Columbia albums online or in used record stores. They are all good, so if the album is in decent shape, don’t be afraid to purchase it. None of the Columbia material is available on CD.

PureCountryMusic.com has some of his material available.

They do have the Bear Family Box Set Leonard which covers everything he recorded on Capitol and Columbia. Bear always does an excellent job, but these sets are expensive and they are overkill for all but the most diehard fan.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop also has some CDs available.

Probably the best single CD collection is titled The Capitol Collection. Released by Koch in 2005, it has 18 songs including all of his Capitol Hits.

The British Archive of County Music issued a CD-R on Tommy called Think It Over Boys. It covers 25 songs Tommy recorded from June 1953 to July 1956. This label specializes in the obscure and issues releases in CD-R format–you can order from them through several sources. They basically stick with music that has fallen out of copyright in the UK (50 years or older), but there doesn’t seem to be anything too obscure for them to issue–they feature US, Canadian, UK, Australian and New Zealand country music artists.

Tommy Collins/Singer, Songwriter, Comedian is on the Gusto label and includes material Tommy recorded for Starday after his major label days were over. Tommy re-recorded some of his hits for this label–they are okay but lack the sparkle of the originals.

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  1. John Maglite
    September 22, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Great article, Paul. I’ve been waiting for this entry in the series and it didn’t disappoint. I especially appreciate the Discography section, since I didn’t know exactly where to look after The Capitol Collection.

  2. Hollerin' Ben
    September 22, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    so rad man.

  3. Rick
    September 22, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    Great article, Paul. A few months back I bought a Capitol double LP from the early 60’s that featured songs by all of their country artist roster at the time and “All of The Monkeys Ain’t in The Zoo” is fortunately one of the cuts. I definitely need to hear more!

    My favorite Merle Haggard album is “Let Me Tell You About a Song” and its the stories that Hag tells about Tommy on that album that help make it so special. Merle’s spoken word recitation of a poem Tommy wrote titled “The Funeral” is about as emotionally moving as anything I’ve ever heard (although “Doc Brown” on the same album gives it a run for its money). Any songwriter who is that highly revered by The Hag deserves to not be forgotten….

    I’m looking forward to any more articles you may write on the forgotten artists like Tommy and Wynn who helped forge the Bakersfield Sound. The Maddox Brothers and Rose, Ferlin Husky (as mentioned above), and Jean Shepherd all played their parts….

  4. ROSA CAIN
    May 8, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    What about merel Linsey he was on the sence before Hank Thompson and Wanda Jackson . Jude and Jody and Norma Jean. I went his dances when Wanda was just starting out and she sang at Linsey land on S. Shield Blvd.in Okla.City,Ok. How quickly we forget our real beginings. Merel had a band in Caifornia in 1939. Then he came back to Okla. Best songs WATER BABY BOOGIE AMD GOT A LITTLE RED WAGON. HAD A tv SJOW AT 5:30 SATURDAY AFTERNOON ON CHANEL 4 AO 9 I CAN NOT REMEMBER. JUST THOUGHT IT WOULD BE NICE FOR HIM TO BE REMEMBERED. HE PLAYED A LOT IN OKLAHOMA.
    iT WAS”MEREL LINSEY AND THE OKLLAHOMA NIGHT RIDERS. Does any one rember but my sister and I?

  5. Bert Wade
    April 23, 2012 at 12:34 am

    I was putting my LP in alphabetical order today,and noticed I only had one Tommy Collins LP. The title is “This is Tommy Collins”. I know I had “If you cna’t bite, don’t growl”.
    Further odd is in the late 1950’s, or early 6o’s I was allso entertaining, and booking artsts as well as managing talent. I booked Tommy Collins an Faron Young on the same tour, and have a great pic of the three of us. Tommy stayed the nite at our humble abode, and wrote a song while there. I am a died in the wool traditional country music fan. As a result that is reflected in in my LP collection and CD collection. Old Doc Brown, mentioned by someone else earlier was first done by Hank Snow, and a recitation I memorized for many friends and relatives. It, like Alan Jacsons new single, and the George Jones classic, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, kind of fall into the same category, theough He Stopped Loving Her remains the number one country song of all time. Also of interest, is the quandry about Bud Isaacs, and which artist recorded with Buds pedal steel first. I found Forgotten Artists by looking for Tommy Collins, and book marked it. The articles are great, and I applaud it’s author and the resources being put into it. Now, were there two Wanda Jacksons? the recording artist who fell out of grace with the industry, and the Wanda Tommy was married too? We went down to LA to record an artist we were managing, and while there had dinner at Tommy and Wandas, both super people. She did not look anything like the Wanda recording artist.

  6. Lyndale Roy Sims
    February 27, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Thank you very much for posting. My family and I have a very special attachment to Tommy. He was our Pastor in Lincoln California in a small First Baptist Church. We knew him as Brother Tommy. So naturally, we saw Tommy and his wife Wanda play many Spiritual songs together for us. Now 61, I was then only 11—maybe 12 when he finally left our church and went back to Country Music. I didn’t understand then really—even the sign post that said “Leonard Sipes” confused me. He once came to our house—and he and my father stayed up late discussing the Bible at our kitchen table. And once on a Sunday—He took me home with him where I spent the afternoon with he and his family. In fifth grade, I even had a distant school yard crush on his 4th grader daughter–Ronnie. He baptised my brother, sisters, and I—-and My Dear Late Grandmother–Floyce Sims—-truely loved Tommy and his family with all her heart. If I could ever get word to his family—-I would want them to know how much they all touched our lives—and that that touching, is still with us. Oh—-And I don’t believe Wanda is the same as Wanda Jackson. But the Wanda I knew as a Child had a stunning beautiful voice. When they sang together, I was always totally mesmerized. And I remember her nose.—They would have known me as Lenny. In my family there were seven children.

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