Larry Gatlin's talent has brought him many rewards: international fame, a Grammy, a truckload of No. 1 hits, a starring role on Broadway, two films, and an aging, nasty horse named Old Dan, who was, in fact, the grand prize at the Ector County Jaycees Talent Contest in Odessa, Texas, back in 1959. Eleven-year-old Larry and his younger brothers Steve and Rudy (whose combined ages were probably far less than Old Dan's) harmonized their way into the Jaycees' hearts, beating out another promising act from nearby Wink, Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings. Roy, undaunted by the loss, persevered in show biz consoled by his 2nd place booty. "Orbison's group won dinner for four at the Blue Star Chinese restaurant in Midland, 20 miles away," drawls Gatlin. "It was a much better prize." But what of Old Dan? "He was so mean, I think my daddy finally sold him," Gatlin says, his voice not catching with emotion. "Old Dan went to the glue factory, I'm pretty sure."
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While Dan ended up in a Texas glue factory, Larry Gatlin's career has led him to the impressive, 2,000-seat Gatlin Brothers Theatre at Fantasy Harbour in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. After 17 years of recording, writing songs for names like Cash, Streisand, Mathis and Presley, and touring like a nomad, Gatlin and his siblings have created a place where the fans can come to them, 35 weeks a year. "This is our little corner of the world for the time being," says Gatlin, who tempers his success with a dab of Zen attitude. "It'd be very difficult to make it out there on the road right now. The new kids are the ones who're happening, so I want 'em to go and have fun and enjoy their lives. It must be part of God's big plan, and it must be His plan for me to be in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, because that's where I am. And that's okay."
Gatlin can well afford to catch his breath, he's been plying his trade since he turned pro at age seven. The Gatlin boys began singing on a Sunday morning radio show out of Abilene, Texas, for the slight but steady sum of 10 cents per week. But Gatlin wasn't in it for the bucks, gospel music had been around in his home for as long as he can remember; singing came naturally. "My folks took us to those old Southern style gospel quartet concerts, I loved it," he explains. "My first hero was James Blackwood from the Blackwood Brothers Quartet (also a major influence on a young Southern church-goer named Elvis). The music was infectious, inspiring-I just knew that that's what I wanted to do."
Though Gatlin continued to perform at "little gigs and talent shows," it wasn't the full-time life of music the singer yearned for. In a state of confused resignation, he entered the University of Houston on a football scholarship (playing with future pro Elmo Wright) and eventually entered law school. "I was trying to go to college and trying to be respectable somehow, but I knew that was not what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a musician," offers Gatlin. "Also, it's very difficult to know how to get into the music business. If you want to be a doctor you go to med school, if you want to be a musician, what do you do? So I had started law school, knowing all the time I was going to try and get this other thing going."
Early 1971 found Gatlin still working on statutes instead of scales when he found out that the gospel group the Imperials were looking for a baritone singer. "I was trying out with the Imperials for a month when they were working with Jimmy Dean and Elvis Presley in Vegas," Gatlin says. "I didn't get that job, but that's when I met Dottie West. I made up a song one night and she said, 'You're making that up, aren't you?' I said 'Yeah.' She said, 'Send me some songs and I'll try to help you.'" West was true to her word, and soon Gatlin brothers Steve and Rudy were still in college-had the life of a lawyer in his rear view mirror as the Nashville skyline approached. Dottie had sent him a one-way plane ticket to Music City.
Working days as a janitor at a local TV station, music filled his nights. Gatlin found songwriting "very easy. I was an English major in school, I love to read and write and I just fell into it, just had a knack for it." He is quick to admit that working with the large hunk of 70's Music City songwriting muscle helped grease the muse some. "Dottie threw me into the company of folks at Combine Music/ Monument Records like Red Lane, Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller. I met all those guys the first six weeks I was there. So if you have any knack for it at all, being around those guys it has to rub off on you a little bit."
Gatlin released his maiden album The Pilgrim in '74, and hit No. 1 the next year with "Broken Lady," a song that fetched him a Grammy in 1976. In the middle of the decade, the Gatlin boys once again joined forces. Armed with an array of college degrees, life experience, and in the studio little sister LaDonna (who, along with Rudy and Steve had been opening for Tammy Wynette), the hits started flowing. In '77, the group went to No. 1 again with "I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love." It would happen again in '79 with "All The Gold In California."
But a Gatlin show was not merely a chance to witness some of the finest singing and songwriting around, Larry explains that he and his brothers were steeped in the tradition of entertaining. "That really came natural. We're just full of good West Texas b.s., and we don't mind sharing it with the folks. One of my great influences was Jimmy Dean. That man knows how to entertain, and I got to see him for that month I was trying out for the Imperials in Vegas. He was wonderful, he knew how to work an audience."
Elvis's act also impressed Gatlin-who is about as plain and open as a Texas prairie-with one exception. "I never did think Elvis was the greatest singer of his generation. After all, I grew up listening to and working with Roy Orbison who I think was the best singer. Elvis was a good singer, but he was a great entertainer," says Gatlin. "When I saw Elvis walk onstage in Vegas I could not take my eyes off him, he was the most all-consuming person."
Consummate, too, was the legend who never met a man he didn't like, and brother Larry took to the stage in 1993 to portray him. Gatlin starred in a seven-month run in the title role of the Tony-awarded musical The Will Rogers Follies. And, as gospel begat country, golf begat Broadway. "I was playing golf with Frank Gifford, and he asked me to have dinner with him and Kathie Lee," explains Gatlin. "I said, 'I'd love to, but I'm taking my wife Janis to see Will Rogers Follies.' He said, 'Man, you'd be great in that role, Keith Carradine's leaving.' So he takes his cellular phone out of the golf bag and says, 'Get Gatlin an audition.' This was at the time that my brothers and I were doing our last tour anyway, so it all just worked out. Go through life, do your deal, have a little faith."
Faith and an attraction to golf; Gatlin has a passion for the clubs in spades. But it's not just a game..."It really is a metaphor for life," he says. "All your good shots don't go in the hole and all your bad shots don't go out of bounds. It's that simple. I used to love golf and I was miserable, now I just like it and it's a lot better."
Though Gatlin has recently branched his career to screens big and little-1993's The Legend of O.B. Taggart, his feature film debut, and '95s The Dottie West Story, a CBS Movie of the Week-his plans for the future are still more philosophical than empire building.
"Well, I've got a matinee at two o'clock and that's about as far ahead as I'm looking," he says with a laugh. "I'm 47 years old, I'm in good health, my voice is better than it's been in 15 years, I've written a musical called Alive and Well that I want to do someday and take to Broadway, and I have a couple of albums that I've written that I want to do if I get the chance."
But then again, Gatlin believes in living for the here and now, with a little guidance from the Man Upstairs. "The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry, you know? It dawned on me that most of the big plans I've made only came true about 50 percent of the time, so I decided, 'I ain't going to make anymore plans,"' he clarifies. "There're some things I'd really like to do, but the thing that's been given to me to do right now is Myrtle Beach. It doesn't mean I'm going to shut down my mind or my soul or anything else, I'm just going to try to live in the moment and put life into the hands of God and let Him direct this deal. I'm going to back off a little bit, and say, 'Today's matinee is the most important thing I'm ever going to do in my life.' And when the rest of that stuff gets here, if it gets here, I'll know it and I'll do it. And there's always golf."
Lead singer and creative inspiration behind one of the oldest and most popular country groups, Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers, he has thrilled the nation for nearly 40 years with his forever contemporary country sound and rockin' concerts. Gatlin speaks frankly about his substance abuse problem and subsequent recovery. His story is an inspiration to all.
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