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Updated March 2013
Rock 'n roll's been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.
– John Milner1 film American Graffiti, released in 1973. The entire story takes place on a single night in the town of Modesto, California, USA – Graduation night, 1962.
Buddy Holly was one of the most influential founders of Rock 'n' Roll, despite his time in the spotlight tragically lasting for only 18 months. Standing at 5'-11" (1.8 metres) and weighing only 145 pounds (65 kg or 10 stone, 5 pounds), the gangly performer with the thick horn rimmed glasses seemed an unlikely candidate for stardom. Both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, two hugely successful and influential bands, were heavily influenced by Buddy's style. He played lead guitar in a band known as The Crickets. His guitar playing was a blend of Country/Western music and Rhythm & Blues. He had a very distinctive sound, playing chord solos when the norm was to play single string notes on the lead guitar. He was also famous for being one of the first musicians to wear his glasses on stage and for his 'hiccup'2 style of singing.
While there is tendency to place Buddy on a pedestal, and worship him as the God of Rock and Roll, in reality he was only a hard working, talented, young man who died far too soon. This is a brief look at the life and struggles that are often forgotten.
Buddy Holly was born in Lubbock, Texas, USA, on 7 September, 1936, and named Charles Hardin Holley after his grandfathers. The nickname, Buddy, was given to him when his mother decided that 'Charles Hardin' - 'was too long a name for such a little boy'3.
Buddy was by far the youngest of his family. His oldest brother Larry was 10 years his senior, followed by Travis who was 8 years older, his sister Patricia had preceded him by 6 years. His mother, Ella Pauline (Drake), was an established vocalist who had sung duets with her sister for many years. She shared her love of music with her children by providing instruments and encouraging them to play and sing. Their father, Larry Odell (LO) Holley, did not share their talent for music, but enjoyed listening while his family performed.
The older children played violin, accordion and piano. Buddy tried to learn both violin and piano, as well as the steel guitar. Far different from the Spanish style guitar that would bring him to fame, the steel guitar is played laying flat on your lap and all the string are pressed down together by a bar of metal or glass producing chords when the strings are strummed4. The siblings often performed in public winning several prizes, even though the bow of Buddy's violin was often coated with grease so that it would not make too much noise while he sang. Eventually Buddy lost interest in music. It was not until his older brother, Larry, returning from a tour of duty in the US Marine Corps, gave him a cheap guitar from a pawn shop, that Buddy's enthusiasm returned. After learning a few basic chords he began correcting the others about how each piece should be performed.
By the time he entered JT Hutchinson Junior High School in the fall of 1949, Buddy had become proficient on several stringed instruments including banjo and mandolin. He and his friends would form several country-style bands over the next few years. He had a Sunday show on a local radio station. The new technology allowed him to perform remotely from other locations. They would play at any suitable occasion, parties, civic functions, talent shows and grand openings, one of his associates even quipped they would play for the opening of a pack of cigarettes.
When an upcoming musician named Elvis Presley performed in Lubbock in 1955, Buddy performed as the opening act for him at some of his shows and discovered a new form of music called 'Rock and Roll'. It was a combination of the Country and Western style he knew so well blended with Rhythm and Blues, which had been considered primarily an African American form of expression. Buddy had also been following this type of music privately. He would also add a touch of Jazz, allowing the members of his band to add or vary the notes on impulse.
In October 1955 Buddy and his long-time partner Bob Montgomery were performing as an opening act at the Fair Park Colosseum in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. A talent Agent named Eddie Crandall was impressed and recruited Buddy to record for his studio5, Bob was not included in the contract.
Buddy recorded about a dozen songs at Decca. Only two single records were released at the time: 'Blue Days Black Nights' and 'Love Me'; the second was 'Modern Don Juan' and 'You Are My One Desire'. The recording company did not understand how to promote the new music, and many radio stations were reluctant to promote 'black' sounding music in the segregated country. In the end Decca decided not to renew Buddy's contract6.
25 February, 1957, was the day that Buddy recorded the track that would launch him to stardom. It was in a recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico, USA, that was owned and operated by Norman Petty. Joined by drummer Jerry Allison, Larry Welborn, Niki Sullivan, Gary and Ramona Tollett, they recorded a new version of the song 'That'll be the Day'. An earlier, less inspired version of the song was in the discarded tracks recorded at Decca; they wisely decided not to pursue their claim on the song.
Buddy invited long time friend drummer Jerry (JI) Allison, Joe B Mauldin on bass and Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar to form a performing group that would be called The Crickets. Niki would leave the group after their first national tour, in the autumn of 1957. Buddy and the other two would continue together on the road to fame.
It was during this period that Buddy began to let his fellow band members contribute their unique skills to the performance. Buddy began experimenting not only with the music itself, but also the methods of recording it. While recording 'Peggy Sue' he decided to remove the drum set from the recording studio so he could better control the mix of sound on the final release. With modern directional microphones and mixing boards, multiple track recording is the norm today; in 1957 it was cutting edge technology. To help the others to maintain the tempo, he allowed JI Allison into the room to keep the beat by slapping his knees. The resulting sound was so different that it was used as the primary percussion in the hit song 'Everyday'.
Between 16-22 August, 1957, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were booked to perform at the Apollo Theatre in 'Harlem', a section of New York City that had an almost entirely African-American population. It is believed that the promoter thought he was booking a black band from the style of music. At first the local audience was offended that a group of white boys were encroaching on their entertainment, but after about three performances they began to enthusiastically support the group.
The British Tour
On 1 March, 1958, Buddy and the Crickets began a 25-day tour of Europe, including the British Isles. Many of the popular British bands who followed were inspired by this tour. Although the popularity of American 'Rock and Roll' had inspired the teens of Britain, Buddy's tour helped them make it their own. They carefully watched how Buddy stroked his guitar and JI's drumming, including the 'paradiddle'7 that made their 'sound' so distinctive. It was not long after Buddy's tour that American music would experience the 'British Invasion' led by such groups as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Chad and Jeremy and a host of others. Most had been, at least partly, inspired by the tour of Buddy Holly.
On the Road Again
After returning to American soil the group continued to tour. Buddy concentrated, not only on his music, but also promoting their shows and popularity. In June 1958 he met with the executives at Peer Southern Music in New York City. He became enchanted by their receptionist, Maria Elena Santiago. He asked if he could treat her to lunch, later that evening they also had dinner together. Buddy proposed to her, and they were married on 15 August, 1958.
The 'Winter Dance Party'
The strain of touring and Buddy's drive to achieve more, including his decision to move to New York City, led to the break-up of his band. The Crickets were disbanded in the fall of 1958. Buddy had also dissolved his association with his manager, Norman Petty. With mounting financial difficulties and legal concerns from his former partners he organized a 3-week tour of the northern Midwest.
Buddy recruited Tommy Allsup on guitar, Wylon Jennings for bass and drummer Carl Bunch to complete his own group. The rest of the line-up included 'The Big Bopper' (28 year old JP Richardson), 17 year old Ritchie Valens and the group Dion and the Belmonts. Frankie Sardo, a singer who had only performed locally, and several musicians completed the group. They chartered a fleet of buses to carry them from town to town.
The tour started on 23 January, 1959, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For the next several days the group zig-zagged back and forth in freezing weather stopping at venues alternately in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. The buses were old and had inadequate heating systems, Buddy's drummer was forced to abandon the tour due to frost-bite. On 2 February they performed at a small ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa (near Mason City), it was their 10th performance in almost as many days. The next stop was scheduled to be in Moorhead, Minnesota, about 400 miles away. Everyone was becoming discouraged by the conditions on the buses. Buddy decided to charter a plane to fly the remaining members of his own group on the next leg of the journey. He also hoped to have a chance to wash their dirty laundry after over a week on the road.
The plane was a four seat Beechcraft Bonanza8 that had been built in 1947, the plane was identified by the FAA registration number painted in its wings and tail 'N3794N' contrary to popular belief there is no indication that it had ever been given a name. There was only enough room for the pilot and three passengers. The group all clamoured for a place on the plane. In the end Tommy gave his seat to the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens won Wylon Jennings' seat in a coin toss.
The flight would only last for five minutes and covered a distance of less than eight miles. The pilot was only qualified for visual flying, the stormy night required the plane's instruments to be used for navigation. He apparently became disoriented in the darkness and literally flew the plane into the ground. All aboard were instantly killed.
The wreck was not discovered until dawn, when the owner of the charter service took off in another plane, fearing the worst. Tommy Allsup had given his identification to Buddy so he could claim a letter that was waiting for him in Moorhead, this would create confusion in identifying the bodies.
Buddy was taken back to Lubbock for burial. His widow Maria was unable to attend the service as she had suffered a miscarriage upon hearing the news.
The surviving members continued the tour9, and were joined by Bobby Vee and The Shadows for the Moorhead show. Other popular acts joined: Jimmy Clanton, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Ronnie Smith took over the lead vocal position in Buddy's band. The final performance was held at Springfield Illinois on 15 February.
One of the most profound tributes to Buddy Holly is Don McLean's song 'American Pie' a long and often obscure chronology of rock and roll from the time of Buddy's death until the song was written in 1971, although refusing to confirm almost all the references in the song, the one thing that is clear is that it was intended to be a tribute to Buddy Holly, including references to 'the day the music died'.
Two films have been released about Buddy's life;
- The Buddy Holly Story (1978), starring Gary Busey,
- The Real Buddy Holly Story (1987), narrated by Paul McCartney.
Some of Buddy's best-known hits include;
- 'That'll Be The Day'10
- 'Peggy Sue'
- 'Oh Boy!'
- 'It Doesn't Matter Anymore'
- 'True Love Ways'
- Probably Buddy's most famous hit, 'Peggy Sue', was originally called 'Cindy Lou', and was only changed at the request of Buddy's drummer, who wanted the song to be named after his girlfriend.
- The Beatles and The Hollies both derived their names from Buddy & The Crickets.
- The Rolling Stones' first hit was a cover of Buddy's 'Not Fade Away12'.
- On 1 July, 1976, Paul McCartney (a lifelong Buddy fan) purchased the rights to Buddy Holly's entire song catalogue.
Although Buddy Holly perished in a snow-covered cornfield in the early morning hours of 3 February, 1959, his music continues to inspire and entertain thousands, even today.