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Larry Gatlin's baby sister revisits her gospel-country roots plus Elvis Presley

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 highly sought-after motivational speaker, author, and singer.

Aw shucks, did I just sing that? LaDonna Gatlin, baby sister of Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, returns to her first love—gospel music—as she takes audience requests at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Ga, Jan. 28, 2014
Aw shucks, did I just sing that? LaDonna Gatlin, baby sister of Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, returns to her first love—gospel music—as she takes audience requests at the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Nashville, Ga, Jan. 28, 2014
Image Credit: Photography by Wenda Gaile Bailey: Visit for additional photos
During his brief sojourn with The Imperials Quartet, Larry Gatlin meets Elvis Presley: L to R is Joe Moscheo, Terry Blackwood, Jim Murray, Elvis, Arnold Morales and Larry, backstage after a Jimmy Dean concert, Landmark Hotel, Las Vegas, Feb. 25, 1971
During his brief sojourn with the Imperials Quartet, Larry Gatlin meets Elvis: L to R is Joe Moscheo, Terry Blackwood, Jim Murray, Elvis, Arnold Morales and Gatlin, Landmark Hotel, Las Vegas, Feb. 25, 1971; Image Credit: FECC Elvis-Collectors

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, Ga., the singer delivered enjoyable 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 supremely missed opportunity when none of her brother's 28 Top 20 country hits were attempted, although LaDonna fleetingly sang the title of the Grammy-winning "Broken Lady." Stranger still, LaDonna actually sang on the original 1975 single.

Nevertheless, she really found her niche when she abandoned the artificial accompaniment, finding her way to a welcoming piano just below the stage. LaDonna's fine piano skills were easily on display as she took gospel requests from the 150 or so attendees [inclement winter weather curtailed many from attending].

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. Unfortunately, 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 [i.e. a 2008 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 the day she met Elvis Presley are the tip of the iceberg.

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 Dec. 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 just celebrated 67 years of marriage and are 86 and 85 years old now.

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, and 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 recently moved back to Nashville. For the past 10 years, my folks lived across the street from my husband and me in a premier adult active communities. 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].

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 [Gatlin 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 his band, 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 one Johnny Cash. The song that sealed the deal in Phillips’ eyes – 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 Fred Foster of Monument Records. Foster added Orbison to his roster in May 1959, and a star was born].

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” [No. 5 C&W], a huge hit that won Larry his only Grammy for Best Country Song [a video of the quartet performing the ballad on Hee Haw is included with this article]. I am featured on the Rain / Rainbow [September 1974] and High Time [August 1975] albums, respectively.

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. The Imperials had backed Elvis on stage and on record since July 1969, also performing with Jimmy “Big Bad John” Dean when Elvis wasn’t working. Larry actually auditioned for the Imperials and had a brief month-long tenure in the group in 1971 during a Dean engagement in Vegas. Elvis later recorded two of Larry's compositions – the confessional "Help Me" and "Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall." Longtime Elvis girlfriend 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.

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.

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.

  • DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Jordanaire Ray Walker counted Elvis Presley as a close friend for two decades. In fact, the genial bassist's debut recording session with the King of Rock and Roll yielded a million selling record – "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such as I." He recently relived the experience of sitting front row center during an Elvis recording session. Later when the "Alabama Wild Man" himself, Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar to a few country rock numbers, the session got especially rambunctious. Visit the following article, "Jordanaire Ray Walker Recalls Studio Nights With Elvis Presley and Jerry Reed," for the complete lowdown.

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