Not every performer who makes it to the stage will become a household name. However, there are those talents who have the good fortune to be a part of the rise of great stars and work with them as they move up. Tommy Tomlinson, an Arkansas guitar player and performer, was one such man who had a front-row seat to the beginning of an important chapter in the history of American music.
Born Gerald Delmar Tomlinson, he was born into a farming family in October 1930 just outside the small South Arkansas community of Hampton. Times were difficult for the family, and they moved to Minden, Louisiana, not far from Shreveport, in 1940. The family could not afford any musical instruments, so Tomlinson made his own, fashioning a series of guitars out of whatever he could find and slowly learning how to play. His older brother, Bill, was given his own guitar as a gift but left it at home when he entered the navy during World War II. Tomlinson quickly claimed it.
His talents blossomed rapidly. In late 1945, at the age of 15, he formed his own band and began picking up paying gigs in the area. His success was enough that he stayed in demand and eventually started touring. During his travels early in his career, he also played with Hank Williams, Sr., as he toured the clubs and small venues in the region.
Tomlinson entered the Marines in February 1951 at the height of the Korean War. His fellow Marines gave him the nickname “Tommy.” He was shot in both legs but nevertheless survived and finished his tour of duty. He was honorably discharged in 1954.
Shortly after his return to the US, Tomlinson picked up work as a guitarist on Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride, a popular regional music program featuring the latest country acts and early rock and roll acts, often inviting rising stars such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Tomlinson’s work as a guitarist gave him the opportunity to play backup to these acts and sometimes play on his own.
In the early years of rock and roll, artists came with different backgrounds and influences and different levels of music education. The performers and songwriters often crossed genres between rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and country, including Tomlinson. The combination of country and rock was dubbed “rockabilly” and gained a sizable group of spirited fans between the late 1950s and through the 1970s. Tomlinson found himself right in the middle of the phenomenon.
By 1955, Tomlinson had teamed up with a popular Louisiana Hayride act, Johnny Horton, and bassist Tillman Franks. They hit the top of the charts in June 1959 with their rendition of “The Battle of New Orleans,” written by famed Arkansas folk singer Jimmy Driftwood of Mountain View. The song stayed at the number one spot for three weeks and won a Grammy. The trio was invited to perform on the popular Ed Sullivan Show.
The next year, they performed the title track for the John Wayne film North to Alaska. Tomlinson was in high demand among his fellow musicians. When not touring with Horton, he was playing and recording with other artists. In November 1960, he played guitar on four albums for Mercury Records in Nashville before turning around and heading to Texas to join Horton and Franks.
On the night of November 4, 1960, the band was playing a late show in Austin and needed to be back in Shreveport the next day. After their last set, they packed up their instruments and rode out into the night on a narrow, two-lane, blacktop highway. At about 1:30 AM, with an exhausted Horton driving, they had a head-on collision outside the small town of Milano, northeast of Austin. Horton died in the crash, and the others were critically injured. Tomlinson’s injuries were so severe that four months and several operations later, his leg had to be amputated.
In spite of the accident, Tomlinson was touring again within a year. He continued to play and tour in the years afterward with such acts as Claude King, David Soul, and David Houston and the Persuaders. He continued to write, eventually writing “Heaven’s Just a Prayer Away” for Dolly Parton and Norma Jean.
In Tomlinson’s later years, he formed his own group, Country Connection. While Tomlinson’s love of music never diminished, his health problems mounted. The band was playing in Shreveport on April 7, 1982. After the performance, Tomlinson fell ill and died of heart failure the next day at age 51. His talents were remembered in the music community. Years later, he was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Nashville.