Larry Gatlin’s baby sister gets back to gospel-country roots, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison

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LaDonna Gatlin, baby sister of Best Country Song Grammy winner Larry Gatlin [1976’s “Broken Lady”], chews the fat on her parents’ unconditional love, West Texas, meeting Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, why she left the Gatlins, would she consider reuniting, and much more in an engrossing interview. Aw shucks, did I just sing that? Gatlin returns to her first love — gospel music — as she takes audience requests at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Georgia, on January 28, 2014. Photography by Wenda Gaile Bailey / Berrien.SmugMug.com

Stepping out of your older brother’s shadow can be a grueling quagmire, particularly if your sibling is revered country singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin. But LaDonna Gatlin has beaten the odds, establishing herself as a sought-after motivational speaker, author, and singer. The charming Southern lady revisits her experiences as the youngest member of the Gatlin Quartet, a group that preceded her elder brother’s climb to the higher echelon of the country music aristocracy, in an anecdote-filled interview below.

During a well-received, albeit brief engagement at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce annual awards banquet in Nashville, Georgia, the singer capably delivered renditions of such pop and jazz standards as “Moon River,” “Young at Heart,” and Ray Stevens’ “Everything Is Beautiful” to the accompaniment of an instrumental CD. It was a missed opportunity when none of her brother’s 28 Top 20 country hits were attempted, although LaDonna fleetingly crooned the title of the Grammy-winning single “Broken Lady” which she originally sang on in 1975.

LaDonna found her sweet spot when she abandoned the artificial accompaniment, finding her way to a beckoning piano just below the stage. LaDonna’s piano proficiency was on fine display as she took gospel requests from the 150 or so attendees. A devastatingly heartfelt rendition of “Because He Lives,” a jaunty “I’ll Fly Away,” and impassioned takes of perennials “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” fell on receptive ears. Due to time constraints, only one or two verses of each selection was performed. Still, it was obvious that a formidable gospel music streak permeates her veins.

LaDonna later demonstrated her propinquity as a raconteur, hilariously explaining what happens when a three-year-old grandson becomes curious about potty training. Perhaps she didn’t feel it appropriate to mention at the banquet, but LaDonna has experienced a long struggle with mental illness that nearly cost her her life, career, and family in 2008 — a failed suicide attempt exacerbated by 31 ingested Ambien.

Keep reading as the Chicken Soup for the Soul contributor waxes nostalgic about growing up as the daughter of a strict blue collar oil field worker-former marine and a homemaker who thought rock ’n’ roll was the devil’s music. LaDonna’s no-holds-barred account of her Texas-born roots, brazenly attending the World’s Fair and performing to a packed crowd, why she left her brothers, whether she might consider reuniting with them, and meeting Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison are the tip of the iceberg.

Backing vocalist-acoustic rhythm guitarist Rudy Gatlin, backing vocalist-tambourine player LaDonna Gatlin, frontman-acoustic guitarist Larry Gatlin, and backing vocalist-bassist Steve Gatlin are the Gatlins circa fall 1975 from the legendary sweat-soaked stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Captured during the height of “Broken Lady,” the Larry Gatlin-penned ballad won a Grammy Award for Country Song of the Year. Image Credit: The LaDonna Gatlin Collection

The LaDonna Gatlin Interview

How much of your success is due to your parents, Curley and Billie Gatlin?

There’s not a one of us Gatlins that would stand on a stage today if it hadn’t been for my mom and dad’s unconditional love and support. My dad married my mom the day after her 18th birthday on December 22, 1946. They got married on a Sunday morning in between Sunday school and church. Does that tell you what kind of wedding they had? They celebrated 70 years of marriage together until Mom’s death at age 88 on September 15, 2017.

My dad was a blue collar worker in the oil fields of West Texas and a former marine. He had two ways of doing things — the “marine” way and the wrong way. That’s kind of the way we were raised. He would never let us listen to or sing rock ’n’ roll music. That stuff was just devil music. Instead, we listened to The Lawrence Welk Show or Andy Williams.

My mother was a homemaker and a baby maker. She gave birth to three boys — Larry, Steve, Rudy — and myself in a span of only six years. I’m the baby. When the Bible said to multiply and reproduce the Earth, my mother thought it was all up to her [laughs].

My parents moved back to Nashville in 2013. For 10 years my folks lived across the street from my husband and me in a premier adult active community. We moved them to Nashville because my husband and I are the only two that are left in Texas. Most of the family, including numerous grandbabies, resides in Nashville now. I think they were getting kinda bored living across the street from me [laughs].

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Larry Gatlin of Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers stops by the Roy Orbison offices in Nashville, Tennessee, to say hello and share some stories with the late “Only the Lonely” balladeer’s youngest child Alex Orbison on April 7, 2015. Image Credit: Roy Orbison’s official website

How did the Gatlin Quartet originate, and did you have an opportunity to record any albums?

Mom realized that we all loved to sing, so she put us in our first talent show at the Ector County Coliseum in Odessa, Texas, when I was five years old in 1959. We named ourselves the Gatlin Quartet. We sang a little gospel medley, and we won first place. Our prize was a Shetland pony. That was the meanest animal on God’s good Earth.

Interestingly enough, second place went to a little rock and roll group who had a lead singer from Wink, Texas. His name was Roy Orbison [LaDonna sings an all-too brief line of Orbison’s “Crying”]. They won a gift certificate to the best Chinese food restaurant in town, and we were so mad about that. We rarely got to go out and eat.

[Author’s Note: It is debatable whether Orbison played any talent show in 1959. Orbison and backing group the Teen Kings earned a prized recording contract for Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records in Memphis a full three years earlier in March 1956 partly based on the recommendation of Johnny Cash. The song that sealed the deal in Phillips’ eyes was the double-talking rockabilly stomper “Ooby Dooby.” Major success inexplicably eluded Orbison on Sun, and he was soon signed to RCA by Chet Atkins with middling success. By 1959, the operatic singer had briefly abandoned recording and touring, relying on songwriting contributions to publisher Acuff-Rose to sustain his livelihood. Music executive Wesley Rose liked what he heard, contacting Monument Records impresario Fred Foster. He added Orbison to Monument’s roster in May 1959, and a star was born].

In the summer of 1985 Bee Gees founder Barry Gibb co-wrote “Indian Summer” with Larry Gatlin. The latter asked Roy Orbison to join him for a duet with Gibb and the Gatlin Brothers supplying harmonies. Featuring such high caliber collaborations, “Indian Summer” was oddly never distributed as an A-side by Columbia and wound up as the finale on the Gatlin Brothers’ Smile album. Click to watch “Indian Summer” above. Video Credit: Columbia Records

Within a year, we were recording our first album — The Old Country Church — for the independently owned Sword & Shield in Arlington, Texas. The small label specialized in sacred music. It’s amazing that I was in a bona fide recording studio by the time I was only five or six years old, but we were all just kids.

We ultimately made three additional albums on a blue collar oil field worker’s wages in a span of six years — I Shall Not Be Moved [1962], Tenth Anniversary [1964], and The Gatlin Quartet Sings from the Heart [1966]. Sadly, none of those original Gatlin Quartet records are available anymore. My parents have copies, and I’ve seen them for sale on eBay before. I have to remind teenagers that records were originally big black vinyl shiny things with a little hole in the middle — 33⅓ rpm [laughs].

The summer when I turned 10 years old, we traveled all the way across the United States from California to New York. We sang in New York City at the 1964 World’s Fair, although we were never officially invited to sing there.

My little 5 foot two inch, 95-pound spunky mother found the guy that was in charge of the music. She got right up in his face and exclaimed, “Look buddy, I’ve got four young‘uns that can sing anybody off that stage. You better let ’em do it!” Perhaps begrudgingly, he agreed. We brought the house down.

Once Larry went away to college in 1966, the Gatlin Quartet pretty much “retired” until the mid-1970s when he began to make his mark in Nashville. Singer Dottie West took Larry under her wing and helped secure a contract with Fred Foster of Monument Records, the same label where Roy Orbison notched so many of his fabulous hits.

Larry eventually brought us in to record and tour with him. We were billed as Larry Gatlin, Family, and Friends. I remember standing around a microphone with my brothers and singing background vocals on “Broken Lady” [№5 C&W], a huge hit that won Larry his only Grammy for Best Country Song. I am featured on the Rain / Rainbow [September 1974] and High Time [August 1975] albums, respectively.

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During his brief month-long sojourn as baritone singer with the Imperials Quartet, Larry Gatlin met Elvis Presley at the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas on February 25, 1971. Left to right are keyboardist Joe Moscheo, lead Terry Blackwood, tenor Jim Murray, Presley, bassist Arnold Morales, and Gatlin. Presley was visiting the Imperials after a Jimmy Dean concert featuring the gospel group. Image Credit: FECC Elvis-Collectors message board

Did you meet Elvis Presley?

Funny that you should ask that. I met Elvis when I was 17 years old and still in high school. I recall that J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet were singing background vocals for him. I was singing with Larry in Las Vegas and we visited Elvis’ penthouse suite at the Hilton. He just kinda breezed in and breezed out, so our meeting was only in passing.

[Author’s Note: The Stamps replaced the Imperials in November 1971 over a salary dispute. Backing Presley onstage and on record since July 1969, the Imperials also performed with Jimmy “Big Bad John” Dean. Larry actually auditioned for the Imperials and had a brief month-long tenure in the group in 1971 during a Dean engagement in Vegas. Presley later cut two of Larry’s compositions — the stark gospel cry of “Help Me” and the country ballad “Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall.” Longtime Presley girlfriend-songwriter-actress Linda Thompson has stated in multiple interviews that her former beau religiously devoured Larry’s debut album The Pilgrim at Graceland].

I’ve been blessed beyond measure in my life. I also met Johnny Cash and his lovely wife, June. We toured with Tammy Wynette for 14 months. I’ve been backstage with Barbara Mandrell and on the hallowed stage of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s all like ancient history to me. I have to just really call it up to even think about it, because it’s such a different part of my life.

Watch the Gatlins unleash “Broken Lady,” a No. 5 C&W hit in December 1975 on Fred Foster’s Monument label. The “Hee Haw” video is a rare opportunity to witness younger sister LaDonna Gatlin supplying harmonies shortly before she married and left the group in 1976. Video Credit: Gaylord Entertainment

Larry was on the cusp of widespread acclaim. So the million dollar question — why did you leave the group?

Right in the middle of making all that music with my brothers, something happened that completely changed my perspective on my life, not to mention my career. I got married. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that even though I loved making music with my brothers, I loved making out with my husband a whole lot more. I wasn’t stupid [laughs].

I didn’t figure 250 days a year on a customized tour bus chasing this country music career around with my brothers was going to be very conducive to the kind of marriage that I wanted to build with my husband, Tim Johnson. I was at a crossroads in my life, and we figured out with a lot of the good Lord’s help that we were gonna sing a different song apart from the Gatlin boys.

I often tell folks — they went on to produce hit records — I went on to produce two kids. My brothers got famous — I got stretch marks [laughs]. Simply put, God in his infinite wisdom knew that we had a different song to sing. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing all these years later.

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Do you wanna go number two or what? LaDonna Gatlin hilariously explains what happens when a baby grandson becomes curious about potty training on January 28, 2014, at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Georgia. Photography by Jeremy Roberts

How did leaving impact your relationship with Larry, Rudy, and Steve?

The first year was really tough. Everyone’s feelings were hurt. And I can certainly understand that. We had sung together all of our lives. The thought of one of us leaving the group had never crossed anyone’s mind.

My brothers assumed — as I had up until that point — that their dream of being in country music was my dream as well. We had just recorded a hit album, High Time, containing a hit song, “Broken Lady.” How was all of this going to play out?

But eventually they realized they could still make great music without my voice in the group. In fact, the absence of my voice created the signature harmonies they’re so well known for. They quickly saw that indeed I had made the right decision, and they became very supportive.

People ask me why I don’t reunite with my brothers for an album or tour. Once I made my decision to leave, I didn’t look back. I have been on the road since 1995–100 days a year — performing speaking engagements.

We have done a few gospel television specials where we sang a song together — a Bill Gaither Homecoming and an April 2013 episode of RFD-TV’s popular Country’s Family Reunion called “Kinfolk.” Getting everyone together onstage or in the recording studio is easier said than done but sure, I would be thrilled if an opportunity presented itself.

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LaDonna Gatlin, born and raised on gospel music, performs a devastatingly heartfelt rendition of “Because He Lives” at the January 28, 2014, Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Georgia. Photography by Wenda Gaile Bailey / Berrien.SmugMug.com
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My brothers got famous…and I got stretch marks! LaDonna Gatlin gives a no-holds-barred account of her Texas-born roots on January 28, 2014, part of Gatlin’s brief speaking engagement at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Georgia. Photography by Wenda Gaile Bailey / Berrien.SmugMug.com
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Proud Texan LaDonna Gatlin discusses growing up as the youngest sibling of Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers on January 28, 2014, part of Gatlin’s brief speaking engagement at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Georgia. Photography by Wenda Gaile Bailey / Berrien.SmugMug.com
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LaDonna Gatlin goes for the high notes during an especially wintry evening in South Georgia on January 28, 2014, part of Gatlin’s brief musical engagement at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Georgia. Photography by Jeremy Roberts
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LaDonna Gatlin and author Jeremy Roberts pose together on an especially wintry evening in South Georgia on January 28, 2014, at the conclusion of Gatlin’s brief musical engagement at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Georgia. Photography by Wenda Gaile Bailey / Berrien.SmugMug.com
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LaDonna Gatlin autographs writer Jeremy Roberts’ trusty journal on January 28, 2014, at the conclusion of her brief musical engagement at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Georgia. Photography by Wenda Gaile Bailey / Berrien.SmugMug.com

© Jeremy Roberts, 2014, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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