Overseas, Larry Donn is big. In Europe, they rank him in the elite rockabilly class with Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. Since 1989, Donn has toured six times there. Everywhere he goes in England, Germany, Holland, Sweden, or Finland, they give him the keys to their cities, and their hearts, they name their children after him (the she-babes they call Donna), damsels rush him (he, happily married, demurs), the crowds jump when he jumps, they quiver when he sings. Not for a moment do they doubt his greatness.
But here in America? Forget it. Even in Arkansas, forget it. Most of the local music nuts I’ve met—well-intentioned and open-eared mavens who come close to downright specializing in Arkansas music—haven’t heard of Larry Donn. (I’m not trying to position myself as a know-it-all. I came late to Larry Donn’s music and only after a record-shop owner in Bee Branch told me about him. But, late or not, and regardless of gaps elsewhere in my knowledge, now I proselytize.)
Cut in the glory days of March 1959, Larry Donn’s first 45 consisted of two songs, “That’s What I Call a Ball” and “Honey Bun,” one written by a bandmate, one written by a friend who would become a bandmate. Larry sings lead on both (he’s a pianist and guitarist, but not here). This 45, officially registered as Vaden 113, was the little label’s thirteenth release. Two vinyl hounds assert that this Larry Donn 45 fetches up to $2,500 and is in the “top twenty” of most collectible rockabilly records. Good luck trying to find a copy. I’m no rockabilly scholar but, with little flames darting from my fingertips, I’ve scoured for vinyl in some pretty far-out, small-town Arkansas dives without coming across one. Don’t know how many were sold, but supposedly only one thousand were manufactured. I overheard two dudes at the Arkansas Record Exchange talking about Vaden Records. One said that he’d heard a rumor that before liquidating Vaden Records, Old Man Vaden buried piles of unsold records on a plot of land. “Soil actually protects vinyl,” the other said. Some rumor! One day I will hitchhike, shovel in hand, to Trumann, Arkansas.
For most of us, Larry Donn has to be experienced the semi-old-fashioned way: via a CD of his early performances called THAT’S WHAT I CALL A BALL, which was put out in 1995 by Collector Records of Holland. Not Holland, PA, or Holland, Ohio. But Holland, Holland. (No other CD of his older work exists—unfortunate, if only because Larry Donn claims he hasn’t seen one cent in royalties, not one guilder, from Holland.)
It’s understandable why the Euros have flipped over “Honey Bun” and “That’s What I Call a Ball”: both cult faves are messy, revv’d-up rockers done up like Jerry Lee Lewis would’ve done them up. Who wouldn’t like hearing songs that sound like Jerry Lee? Other songs on the CD are done up Elvis style, especially, natch, the Elvis covers: “Baby Let’s Play House,” “Milkcow Boogie Blues,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” “Mystery Train,” and “Great Balls of Fire” (oops, that’s Jerry Lee). With this material, Larry Donn is forceful and believable. Clearly, the cat was in sync with Elvis and Jerry Lee; clearly, he spoke the same musical slang, drove the same heaps on the same old roads, saw many of the same old faces. But does Larry Donn ever sparkle, does he ever come out as fresh and insistent as Elvis and Jerry Lee did the first time we heard them? That’s a big order (hey, buddy, you as fresh or insistent as Elvis or Jerry Lee?). The answer though, I think, is yes—but not on the covers.
In 1963, Larry Donn got to make the second 45 of his young but sporadic recording career. The two songs on this Alley Records release, “I’ll Never Forget You” (the song we chose for THE OA CD) and “One Broken Heart,” both written by Larry Donn Gillihan (his full name), shoot this 45 into that rarefied stratosphere where the songs on both sides of a 45 record are great. The Beatles pulled that trick routinely, but who else?
Right off, there a few things that contrast Larry’s own songs on the Alley 45 with the covers he sings. First, the meter catches your ear. Both are in 6/8, double-waltz time. (Waltz rock!) Second, Larry sings these songs in a natural, not-trying-to-evoke-someone-else voice that is conversational and more tentative or searching, and less declamatory, than his other, more theatrical mode. Third, but really first and foremost, Larry Donn exhibits an otherworldly knack for tunefulness. I’d go so far as to say these songs show a hint of Buddy Holly zing. Chris Isaak is another fair comparison. Maybe also John Fogerty. The kind of song where you don’t even have to hear it the whole way through, or make sense of the words, before you say, “This is great.”
Another Donn-written tune that’s not on the Alley 45 is “She’s Mine,” a jaunty song that you could picture Buddy Holly owning. One other Donn concoction, “Lovely Avenue,” is not as special as these other three but is still an affecting, radio-quality ballad. So there you have it, on a thirty-two-song CD, you’ll find that Larry Donn wrote the music and lyrics for a total of five songs. Number five, “One More Time,” is solid but generic. So of the five Larry Donn originals (not counting instrumentals), four are…freakin’ great. Four hits out of five attempts in baseball, gives you a batting average of .800.
Later in his career, starting in the 1970s, he started to write more. (My spies suggest that Donn’s newer music might be as good as the early stuff, but I’m still absorbing the early stuff and haven’t worked my way yet to the newer releases.)
If Larry himself were doomed to never bust out of the bag with his own singing, there was still glory and big bucks to be yanked out of his songwriting. Why didn’t one of those shrewd SOB music swindlers hear these songs and rush over to Bono to sign up Larry Donn to an exclusive, backbreaking contract that would’ve forced Donn into writing (for peanuts) chart-topping tunes for other stars?
Elvis should have sung “I’ll Never Forget You” (although, I know, Elvis often gravitated toward bland material); you could’ve sold “One Broken Heart” to Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash; the bouncy but bittersweet “She’s Mine” could’ve worked for B. Holly, as I’ve said, or Elvis again, or you could have put it in a time capsule for Chris Isaak; “Lonely Avenue” would have forced the Elvis and Orbison camps into a moody-ballad bidding war.
You know what? You all can chase whatever Vaden 113s are stashed in the cold dirt of Trumann. I’m headed instead to Jonesboro, Arkansas, the former home of Alley Records, and I’m going to invest my toil into locating that double-threat recording of “I’ll Never Forget You”/“One Broken Heart”—that masterpiece. One day, the American market will properly value Alley Records 1012-191—and it will be like coming home.
Photograph courtesy of Larry Donn.