Born Larry Donn Gillihan, 7 June 1941, Bono, Arkansas
Larry Donn is best known for the great double-sider “Honey Bun”/“That’s What I Call A Ball” (1959) and for his columns in the British R&R monthly Now Dig This (1990-2007). He was equally capable on guitar and piano and was an energetic live performer.
An only child, Donn was born in the small town of Bono, Arkansas, where he has lived all his life. He grew up on a farm and was raised on country music. His first exposure to live rock and roll took place in the summer of 1955, when he attended a show by Sonny Burgess. Soon thereafter Donn saw Elvis Presley perform in Bono and decided that he wanted to be part of this new musical movement. Forced to have some rest after a lawn mower accident, he learned to play the guitar. Back on his feet he entered a talent show at his high school, in which he won second place. It was there that Larry met 14-year old Benny Kuykendall, who came third in the contest. Together with Benny’s brother Scotty Kuykendall and drummer Eddie Reeves, they started their own rock n roll quartet, playing all over Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri.
On August 13, 1958, Billy Riley gave Larry the chance to record for Sun. That’s when Donn recorded the first version of “That’s What I Call A Ball” and one other song, called “Molly-O”. However, the tapes of this session have stubbornly failed to surface so far. Later in 1958 the band broke up and Donn joined Bobby Brown as his bass player. Brown had recorded a single for the Vaden label and introduced him to label owner Arlen Vaden, who inquired if Larry wanted to make a record. This led to the recording of the Benny Kuykendall composition “Honey Bun”, coupled with a remake of “That’s What I Call A Ball” (February 1959, Vaden 113). According to Arlen Vaden, only 1,000 copies were pressed (to sell at shows), but the record quickly became popular in parts of Arkansas and Missouri and is now considered a true rock & roll classic. Teddy Redell, a fellow Vaden artist, played piano on both sides, while Benny Kuykendall played lead guitar.
In 1960 Donn received an offer from Sonny Burgess to link up and form the “Sonny Burgess - Larry Donn Show”. Larry gladly accepted and with Sammy Creason on drums they hit the road, soon establishing themselves as a crowd puller. That year also saw the release of Donn’s second record, “The Girl Next Door” (also recorded by Elvis around the same time), with “Today” by Sonny Burgess on the other side (Ad Bur 100).
In 1962 Larry became a disc jockey at radio station KNEA in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and also formed another band which he called the Cotillions. They secured a contract with Joe Lee’s Alley Records and had two singles released on the label, one instrumental (as by the Cotillions), one vocal (credited to Larry Donn). After splitting up with Sonny Burgess in 1965, Larry rejoined Bobby Brown’s band, this time as a piano player. In 1966 he quit his job at KNEA, formed another band (The Good Guys) which toured around the USA, until Donn accepted a job at KAIT-TV in Jonesboro in 1968. Next, he worked as an insurance investigator for two years.
Donn recorded many demos during the 1960s (usually covers of well-known rock and roll songs), but these remained unreleased until Cees Klop of the Netherlands issued some of them on a White Label LP in 1980 (one side devoted to Larry Donn, the other to Sonny Burgess). A far more comprehensive CD release (which also included “Honey Bun” and “That’s What I Call A Ball”) followed in the 1990s, on Klop’s Collector label. In the 1970s Donn had three albums released on the Shelby label, a mix of country and 50s rock & roll. He kept on performing through the 1980s, still striving for stardom.
In 1989 Donn undertook his first trip to the UK, where he was virtually unknown until that time. The tour went well and would turn out to be the first of many he would play in both the UK and Europe. In December 1990 he started his “Rockabilly Days” column in Now Dig This, which was an instant hit with the readers and lasted until December 2007. By that time Donn was tired of all the travelling and had become disillusioned with the music business in general. Following poor sales of a 2007 CD with new recordings, he decided that enough was enough. Larry Donn passed away om May 1, 2012, from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, in a hospice facility in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He was 70 years old.
More info :
Discography / sessionography :
CD : That’s What I Call A Ball (Collector CLCD 4429, 1995). 32 tracks, a mix of studio recordings, live recordings and demos, some in lo-fi sound quality. Liner notes by Tony (uncredited).
Acknowledgements : Tony Wilkinson, Bo Berglind, Trevor Cajiao.
Dik, May 2017
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