An updated and expanded version of an article previously published by The 9513.
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
The song was released on Columbia, Tommy’s 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, as should be expected given their staggering commercial success. 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 on September 28, 1930, near Oklahoma City, OK, Tommy Collins was the first of the specifically Bakersfield artists to reach prominence, although there was an active California country music scene before his arrival. 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, at which time 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 religiously oriented. 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 Tommy 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 country 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.
Tommy Collins died March 14, 2000 at the age of sixty-nine.
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.
Several vendors including PureCountryMusic.com and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop have Tommy Collins material available.
The most exhaustive set available is the Bear Family box set Leonard which covers everything he recorded on Capitol and Columbia. Bear Family always does an excellent job, but these sets are expensive and they are overkill for all but the most diehard fan.
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. This collection is now out of print but may be located with some effort.
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.
The Best of Tommy Collins is available from Curb. Featuring songs culled from a pair of albums recorded for Tower Records (a Capitol subsidiary) in 1966 and 1968. While the title is misleading, the material is interesting. This CD sells for $5.99.
The British label Cherry Red Records recently released This Is Tommy Collins which is essentially a two-fer of the Capitol vinyl albums This Is Tommy Collins and Music County Style plus six bonus tracks from the religious album Light of The Lord. Although the juxtaposition of the religious material at the end of the disc is a bit incongruous, this is the best single disc collection currently available
The British Archive of County Music (BACM) issued a CD-R on Tommy Collins 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. BACM does not mass issue their high quality CD-Rs – they issue a small supply and then produce more as the demand warrants so you may have to wait a while for your order to be filled – but you will get it eventually.