Singer-songwriter Tommy Collins has died in his Ashland City, Tenn., home of complications from emphysema. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame last September. He was 69 when he died March 14.
Country music authority Jonny Whiteside said, “More, I think, than Hank Williams, Tommy Collins really deserved the title of ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare.’ He took baroque romance and blended it seamlessly with everyday language.”
Among the chart-topping songs Collins wrote for major country stars were “Carolyn” and “The Roots of My Raising” for Merle Haggard.
“It’s a peaceful day for Tommy,” Haggard said of Collins’ death. “He’d been suffering a long time.”
Penning for Haggard
Collins also wrote the early Haggard hits “Sam Hill” and “Shade Tree Fix-It Man” and the gospel classic “High on a Hilltop.” Haggard wrote one of his most enduring classics, the 1981 hit bio-ballad “Leonard,” about Collins, whose real name was Leonard Sipes.
Mel Tillis scored a Top 10 hit in 1984 with Collins’ tune “New Patches.” Collins’ most recent excursion to the top of the charts was country star George Strait’s 1988 version of the 1954 Faron Young hit, “If You Ain’t Lovin’, You Ain’t Livin’.”
Branching out into acting, Collins played a small role in the film comedy “Uphill All the Way,” which co-starred several country music performers.
West Coast newcomer Capitol Records, formed by retailer Glenn Wallichs and songsters Johnny Mercer and Buddy De Sylva, took advantage of the opportunities presented by Southern California-based country acts such as Collins and label mate Ferlin Husky, who emerged as major stars along with other Capitol acts such as Wes Tuttle, Merle Travis, Tex Ritter and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Signed to the label in 1953, Collins penned “You Better Not Do That,” which took him No. 2 on the national charts in 1954. Collins continued to chart singles over the next 14 years, with a break to change careers and take up the ministry. He returned to recording action in the 1960s for Columbia Records.
Collins’ Top 10 successes were “Whatcha Gonna Do Now” (1954), “Untied” (1955), “It Tickles” (1955) and “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl” (1966).
In 1994, Bear Family Records released a five-volume box set of reissues of Collins’ recording work.
Kern County scene
Originally from Oklahoma, Collins became a seminal figure in the Kern County country music scene of the early 1950s and one of the architects of the famed “Bakersfield Sound,” a hard-edged honky-tonk strain of country music that contrasted with the smoother Nashville records of the time.
A star first on the local TV show, “Cousin Herb’s Trading Post,” Collins made the trek down the Grapevine to Compton where he was among the stars on Capitol Records exec Cliffie Stone’s TV show “Town Hall Party,” which helped popularize acts from Joe and Rose Lee Maphis to Johnny Cash.
When Collins’ guitar player Husky broke out as a singing star, he was replaced by a then-unknown Buck Owens. One of the first to recognize the talents of Owens, Collins used him as lead guitarist on several Capitol recording sessions and for his first appearance at the Ryman Auditorium in 1954. The Capitol work led to Owens’ long career for that label. Later Haggard emerged as a Capitol star from the Owens band.
Collins is survived by his wife, Hazel, three daughters and two sons.