Courtesy: www.deltaboogie.com and Larry Donn
I was born Larry Donn Gillihan, two miles north of Bono, Arkansas on June 7th 1941 on my parent's farm.
The house I was born in was later converted to a barn for horses and cows. I was an only child, but our
neighbors had a son my age who also had no brothers or sisters, and we became like brothers to each other.
He is my wife's cousin, Larry Joe Patton. He has played on a few of my records, and played bass and rhythm
in my band for a while. My interest in music was natural, I guess, as several people in my family are
musicians. One of my uncles played with Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys in the 1940's. I listened
mostly to country or hillbilly music in my childhood, because it was the music my parents liked.
I learned the words to the songs on the radio and sang them in cotton fields as we picked cotton by
hand. In the early 50's I discovered Dean Martin, and began to pattern my singing after him. In 1955,
Sonny Burgess and The Pacers played a show at our school gymnasium. It was the first time I had heard
a live rock n roll band, and I was immediately hooked on this new style of music. One day in the fall
of 1955, while walking through the auditorium at Bono High School where I was a student, I noticed a
crowd of girls gathered around the announcement board in the hall, obviously very excited. I asked
one of them what the excitement was about. She replied, breathlessly, "Oh, Elvis is coming!" I said "Elvis
who?" Of course, in a few weeks I knew very well who Elvis was as did the whole country. Elvis, who
only did the one show at Bono, drew such a large crowd that the extra weight caused some of the floor
supports to crack. Fortunately, the floor did not collapse. Elvis said many years later in an interview
that he would never forget the show at Bono, because it was there that he first realized he was going
to be a big star.
In 1956, '57, '58, I was Junior Fire Marshall and Commander of the school Safety Patrol.
My troops were given the responsibility of guarding the dressing room doors in the gymnasium, where most of
the Sun stars performed during those years. As commander, I had access to all dressing rooms, and I had
several conversations with the stars. Roy Orbison had blond hair then and didn't wear glasses at all.
Johnny Cash, a skinny young man with oily hair, played his guitar and sang "Don't Slobber on My Red
Suede Tie" to the melody of "Blue Suede Shoes" in a fair imitation of country singer Lefty Frizzell.
We were in his dressing room waiting for him to go on. I helped Carl Perkins, his brother J.B and
Clayton, and W.S. Holland load their equipment into the trunk and on the top of a black Chrysler
after the last show they did at Bono. They were leaving for a show in Virginia, then the "Perry Como
Show" in New York, History has recorded what happened on that trip.
In 1956, each of the six classes in junior high and high school were given an assignment to produce
an hour long show to be presented to the rest of the school in the auditorium. When our turn came I did an
imitation, or pantomime, of Elvis Presley, while playing some of his records over the sound system.
I had practiced, Elvis' moves in front of a mirror and I painted sideburns on with shoe polish to
heighten the effect! The audience got into the act by screaming just like they did for Elvis, and when I
finished they mobbed me at the stage and tore at my clothes and asked for autographs. Some wanted me to
sign my name and some wanted me to sign Elvis' name. I was having so much fun, I would've signed President
Eisenhower's name if they had wanted it. After the show, as I walked to the next class, a girl came up to me,
sighed and said, "Oh, if you
could only sing..." The next month, another class produced a show and I was invited to repeat my performance. I did so,
and again received the same reaction.
In July of 1957, I had an accident while mowing our lawn, and cut two toes off my right foot.
While I was recuperating, I learned to play the guitar. Once back on my feet, my cousin persuaded me
to enter a talent contest at the school, singing and playing my guitar. I sang two Johnny Cash songs that
were popular then, "Home of the Blues" and "Give my Love to Rose", and won second place. First place
went to a three year old boy who is now one of my best friends. At the contest I met Benny Kuykendall,
a 14-year-old guitar player with a band which took third place. We became friends and began to play
together at parties and anywhere they'd let us play. Soon, Benny's brother, Scotty, joined us on upright
bass and Eddie Reeves played drums. We played church socials, nightclubs, between the the acts of school
plays in fact anywhere we could find an audience, all over Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri.
We soon developed a reputation as a good band.
In September 1957, I met Billy Lee Riley when his band, The Little Green Men, performed at the
Criaghead County Fair in Jonesboro, Arkansas, about 9 miles from Bono. Because my cousin was Riley's
neighbor, he and I became good friends. My band and I did an album with him for Mojo Records in 1979.
I played piano and assisted in the production. After I met Riley, I began singing his songs.
The first rock n roll song I say was "Pearly Lee". I sang it at a party and the girls went wild!
I decided then and there that I would do rock n roll from then on. I began to do all rock n roll
and rockabilly in our shows around Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri. For the next few
years I was heavily influenced by Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnnny Cash, Billy Lee Riley, Roy
Orbison, Jerry lee Lewis, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith and Ricky Nelson. In early 1958, I say
in with Bobby Brown and The Curios at a local club. They were from St. Louis and had been playing in
our local area for a few weeks. Bobby was originally from Arkansas, but had moved to St. Louis several
years before. He and I became good friends, and when my band broke up later that year, I joined his band as
bass player. Soon afterwards, Bobby booked a tour of Canada, and since all musicians had to be over 21,
I could not go because I was only 17. After Bobby left for Canada, Benny, Scotty, and I got back together,
and we were joined by Sam Creason, who is now drummer for Kris Kristofferson. Late that year, we were
invited by Billy Lee Riley to go to Sun Records in Memphis and record. WE recorded "That's What I
call A Ball" in the old Sun studio at 706 Union. A second song was also recorded, but we decided
it was not good enough to release, so we went home with plans to write more songs and finish the
In 1958, on the second day of my last year in high school, the principal and
superintendent of the school singled me out for a dress code. I wore my collar turned up,
and the two top buttons of my shirt unbuttoned like all the other boys in school. For some
reason, I was ordered to turn my collar down and button my shirt all the way up, but those
orders were not extended to all male students. They admitted they were picking on me ...
singling me out. They said, " We're going to make an example of you", and when I refused to obey until
the 'dress code' was equally applied to all students, they expelled me from school. when my mother
called to question the expulsion, the principal cursed her. She promptly hung up on him and
informed me that I would not be going back to that school. I took a correspondence course
and got my diploma in 1961.
In the summer of 1958, I hitch-hiked back to Memphis, 65 miles
southeast of Bono, and went to the Sun Studio again to see Billy Lee Riley. Unfortunately,
he was out of town that day, but hadn't told anyone at the studio that he wouldn't be in.
Bill Justis was there, and he suggested that I wait a while, that Riley would probably be
coming inbefore noon, or shortly after. We called his home, but got no answer. During my wait,
I helped Bill fix a loose tile in the floor of the outer office. Shortly before noon, Johnny Cash,
Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant came in. A few minutes later, Justis turned on the speaker
in the office, and I heard "Down The Street To 301", and "Forty Shades of Green". I did
not know if it was an actual session, or merely a playback from a previous session, but
they played both songs several times. Later that afternoon, I decided Riley wasn't going
to show up, so I left about 3:00pm and hitch-hiked back to Bono.
P.O. Box 113
Bono, Ark. 72416
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