Songwriter Tommy Collins — whose life Merle Haggard celebrated in his 1981 hit “Leonard” — died Tuesday (March 14) at his home in Ashland City near Nashville. He was 69 years old and had long been suffering from emphysema. Last September, Collins was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Born Leonard Raymond Sipes in Bethany, Okla., on Sept. 28, 1930, Collins moved to California in the early 1950s to pursue a music career. He soon began performing on the “Town Hall Party” radio show and in 1953 signed to Capitol Records. His first hit for the label was “You Better Not Do That,” one of his own compositions. It held the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts for seven weeks.
Collins continued to chart singles over the next 14 years, his last five for Columbia Records. His Top 10 successes were: “Whatcha Gonna Do Now” (1954), “Untied” (1955), “It Tickles” (1955) and “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl” (1966).
One of the first to recognize the talents of Buck Owens, Collins used Owens as his lead guitarist on several Capitol recording sessions and for his first appearance at the Ryman Auditorium in 1954.
In early 1955, Faron Young’s recording of Collins’ “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)” climbed to No. 2. George Strait cut the same song in 1988 and boosted it to No. 1.
Unfulfilled by the music business, Collins enrolled at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in 1957 to study for the ministry. He subsequently worked as a Southern Baptist pastor for five years before returning to music full time.
Merle Haggard recorded his first Tommy Collins song — “Sam Hill” — in 1964 and then moved on to such Collins-penned hits as “Carolyn” (1971) and “The Roots of My Raising” (1976), both of which went No. 1. Mel Tillis scored a Top 10 in 1984 with Collins’ “New Patches.”
Collins is the second member inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame last year to die. A. L. “Doodle” Owens passed away on Oct. 4.
Collins is survived by his wife, Hazel, three daughters and two sons.