Buddy Holly – circa 1958
“You say you’re gonna leave me / You know it’s a lie / ‘Cos that’ll be the day-ay-ay / When I die’ – ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison)
“My life has been what you might call an uneventful one, and it seems there is not much of interest to tell,” writes Buddy Holly in an autobiographical essay for his High School English class when he is a teenager. “I have many hobbies,” he continues. “Some of these are writing, fishing, leatherwork, reading, painting, and playing Western music. I have thought about making a career out of Western music if I am good enough but I will just have to wait and see how that turns out…”
Buddy Holly (7 September 1936 – 3 February 1959) is born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas in the United States of America. He is the third son of Lawrence and Ella Holley. His father is brought up on a farm, but it is while working as a short-order cook that he meets the woman who becomes his wife. The married couple moves from Northeast Texas to Lubbock in the 1920s when cotton farming provides an economic boom period in the State’s west. Lubbock is ‘a community of innumerable churches and zero barrooms. No liquor is served or sold inside the town line.’
The Holleys are a musical family. Older brothers Larry and Travis both play multiple instruments and their sister, Pat, sings along with her mother when the boys play at family get-togethers. It is his mother who suggests young Charles’ nickname of Buddy. His mother insists 5 year old Buddy be included in the act when Larry and Travis want to enter a talent contest in the nearby town of County Line. His brothers grease the strings of Buddy’s toy fiddle so he doesn’t spoil their performance. Ironically, it is Buddy who wins a five dollar prize for singing ‘Down The River Of Memories’, a song his mother taught him.
When Buddy is 11, his mother arranges for him to begin piano lessons. A year later he switches to guitar. By the early 1950s, Buddy has formed a country and western band with his school friends Bob Montgomery (vocals, guitar) and Larry Wellborn (bass). This outfit is christened The Western And Bop Band. They are good enough to score a half-hour Sunday afternoon slot on local radio station, KDAV. The Western And Bop Band also plays ‘high school hops’, dances for teenagers. Their radio program alters into The Buddy & Bob Show and continues through 1954 – 1955.
On 14 October 1955, rock pioneers Bill Haley And The Comets play a show in Lubbock, Texas. Their support act on the night is 19 year old Buddy Holley with his sidemen Bob Montgomery and Larry Wellborn. Nashville talent scout Eddie Crandall is in the audience and arranges for Holley to make some demo recordings for Decca Records in Nashville, Tennessee. The next night, 15 October 1955, Elvis Presley, another early rock star, plays The Cotton Club in Lubbock. His opening act is Buddy & Bob.
Buddy cuts eleven demo songs for Decca, leading him to sign a recording contract with the label. In the process, his surname is misspelled on the contract as Holly rather than Holley. With a shrug, he decides to make his stage name Buddy Holly. On 26 January 1965, Buddy Holly’s first recording session for Decca is conducted in Nashville. This yields his first single, ‘Love Me’ backed with ‘Blue Days, Black Nights’, released on 2 July 1956. This is ‘a straight country outing.’ It is followed by ‘Modern Day Don Juan’. In 1956, Larry Wellborn is replaced on bass by Don Guess and, together with Holly and Bob Montgomery, this outfit becomes The Three Tunes. The membership soon shifts as The Three Tunes becomes Holly’s backing band with a line-up of Buddy Holly (vocals, guitar), Sonny Curtis (guitar), Don Guess (bass) and Jerry Allison (drums).
Elvis Presley returns to Lubbock, Texas, for a gig at the local youth centre. Holly and Allison accompany him. Afterwards, Holly talks Presley into visiting Lubbock High to meet some of his friends and teachers. Galvanised by this encounter, Holly and Allison determine to pursue a more rock ‘n’ roll style of music. “Without Elvis, none of us could have made it,” Buddy later gushes in tribute to the inspirational King of Rock ‘N’ Roll.
Buddy Holly And The Three Tunes return to Nashville for another recording session. Despite their rock orientation, the most notable song they commit to tape is another country song. ‘That’ll Be The Day’, recorded on 22 July 1956, is co-written by Buddy Holly and drummer Jerry Allison. It is inspired by a line uttered by actor John Wayne in the cowboy movie ‘The Searchers’ (1956). Decca refuses to release ‘That’ll Be The Day’. They are so displeased with Buddy Holly that, early in 1957, they terminate his contract.
Undaunted, back in Lubbock, Buddy Holly reassesses his position. Retaining only Jerry Allison on drums, he puts together a new group, The Crickets, with Niki Sullivan (guitar) and Joe Mauldin (bass). Holly is impressed by ‘Party Doll’, a 1957 hit by Buddy Knox, a fellow Texan country singer turned rock ‘n’ roll artist. The song is produced by Norman Petty at his recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico. On 25 February 1957 Buddy Holly And The Crickets drive ninety miles west of Lubbock, Texas, to record some demo tapes with Norman Petty at his New Mexico studio. Among the songs they cut is a new, more rock ‘n’ roll version of ‘That’ll Be The Day’. Holly is so taken with Petty’s knowledge of the recording studio and the music business that he asks Petty to become their manager. Petty contacts some labels, shopping around for his new clients. Brunswick Records (ironically, an arm’s length subsidiary of Decca, the label that dropped Buddy Holly) releases ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) b/w ‘Looking For Someone To Love’ on 27 May 1957. The single, credited to The Crickets, becomes a hit. “Well, that’ll be the day / When you say goodbye, yes / That’ll be the day / When you make me cry,” Holly sings on the A-side with the cocky assurance of a man who just knows the girl is totally stuck on him. It remains his finest song. The B-side, co-written by Holly and Petty, features the bizarre image of “Drunk man / Street car / Foot slipped / There you are.”
As one of the first generation of rock stars, Buddy Holly helps create the basic sound of rock ‘n’ roll. If there is a secondary characteristic to his music, it is rockabilly, the hillbilly-influenced version of rock. If Holly’s roots in The Western And Bop Band are recalled, this countryish strain in his music comes as no surprise.
More startling is Buddy Holly’s vocal style. Most notably, there is a pronounced hiccup to his vocals. His voice is also prone to shifts from very high to very low, like ‘a choirboy who doesn’t realise his voice is changing.’ Buddy Holly, the lyricist, also supplies Buddy Holly, the vocalist, with some in-built quirks. His songs often have what seems like onomatopoeic place-holders, nonsense syllables inserted until he can think of better words – except the replacements never arrive. So there is a surfeit of babbling baby-talk.
Yet such characteristics are endearing rather than annoying. Buddy Holly’s greatest gift may be his songwriting. Like his peer, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly is almost entirely self-sufficient, writing the bulk of the songs he records. He and Berry set the standard by which later rock stars are judged. In later years, there are few rock stars taken seriously as creative artists who do not write their own material.
As a rock ‘n’ roll band, The Crickets also set the standards. The basic musical line-up of a rock band – two guitars, bass and drums – is pioneered by The Crickets. They are the first rock act to be known simply by a band name; all their early peers are either billed as solo artists (e.g. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry) or a singer and his group (e.g. Bill Haley And The Comets). Subsequently, the band name becomes the norm (e.g. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones). Another innovation is Buddy Holly’s use of the Fender Stratocaster guitar, which goes on to become the most commonplace model of guitar in rock bands.
Finally, Buddy Holly’s image is trend-setting. With his horn-rimmed glasses, he looks more like an accountant than a symbol of teenage rebellion. Yet Holly’s simple determination to be himself gives hope to a herd of wannabes who don’t look like movie stars. Rock ‘n’ roll is a means for such souls to make themselves famous simply through the strength of their own convictions, becoming stars just because that’s what they say they are.
In 1957 recording artists are usually limited to four singles a year and maybe an album. That’s not enough for the ambitious Buddy Holly, and Norman Petty plans to get the most out of his new client. So, while The Crickets are signed to Brunswick, Buddy Holly is signed separately to the related Coral label. Though technically Holly’s output on Coral is the work of a solo artist, The Crickets play on most of these records too, so they are virtually indistinguishable. The first singles credited to Buddy Holly on Coral are ‘Words Of Love’ (which features ringing guitars), ‘Rock Around With Ollie Vee’, and ‘Peggy Sue’ (US no. 3, UK no. 6). In Holly’s first draft, the last-named song is titled ‘Cindy Lou’, but drummer Jerry Allison suggests changing it to the name of his own girlfriend, ‘Peggy Sue.’ (Jerry Allison later marries the real-life Peggy Sue, though they subsequently divorce.) Holly sings, “If you knew Peggy Sue / Then you’d know why I feel blue / Without Peggy / My Peggy Sue-a-hoo / Well, I love you, girl / Yes, I love you, Peggy Sue.” The song is notable for Holly’s later child-like repetition of “pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue” and a guitar solo that seems to be grafted on from a different record, so great is the contrast in its shower of sparks from the hypnotic mass of the song. The flipside of ‘Peggy Sue’ is ‘Everyday’, a track co-written by Norman Petty. Over pattering hands-slapping-thighs rhythms, Holly sings, “Everyday / It’s-a getting’ closer / Goin’ faster than a rollercoaster / Love like yours will surely come my way.” The song includes an echoing “A-hey-hey” and what must be one of the few xylophone solos in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Decca Records tries to rectify its error in overlooking the original version of Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be The Day’ by issuing the recording to which they still own the rights. This country-inflected take is released on 15 August 1957. This means Holly’s product is now available on three different labels: Brunswick, Coral and Decca.
The Crickets’ second single, ‘Oh Boy’ (US no. 10, UK no. 3) b/w ‘Not Fade Away’, is released by Brunswick on 29 October 1957. ‘Oh Boy’ is a non-original written by producer Norman Petty with two fellows named Sonny West and Bill Tilghman: “All of my love / All o’ my kissin’ / You don’t know what you been a-missin’ / Oh boy / When you’re with me / Oh boy / The world can see that you / were meant / for me.” “Well, I like ‘Oh Boy’ better than ‘That’ll Be The Day’, really,” claims Buddy Holly. Petty and Holly co-write ‘Not Fade Away’: “I’m a-gonna tell you how it’s gonna be / You’re gonna give your love to me / I’m gonna love you night and day / You know my love not fade away.” This somewhat disjointed title is accompanied by a background vocal repeating “Bop bop.”
‘The Chirping Crickets’ (1957) (UK no. 5), the first album for the band, is released by Brunswick in November. The disc includes ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Looking For Someone To Love’, ‘Oh Boy’ and ‘Not Fade Away’. It also holds The Crickets’ next single, ‘Maybe Baby’ (US no. 17, UK no. 4) b/w ‘Tell Me How’, which is issued on 23 January 1958. ‘Maybe Baby’ is written by Buddy Holly and producer Norman Petty. A good pop tune, its simple lyrics go like this: “Maybe baby / I’ll have you / Maybe baby / You’ll be true / Maybe baby / I’ll have you for me.” Drummer Jerry Allison shares credit with Holly and Petty for ‘Tell Me How’, a typical example of their style. Some of the tracks on the album are cut on an Oklahoma Air Force Base. The disc melds ‘country rockabilly and R & B [rhythm and blues] into rock ‘n’ roll for the ages’ and is probably Buddy Holly’s best album.
On 24 January 1958 Coral releases Buddy Holly’s ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’ b/w ‘Listen To Me’. Although these are, officially, Buddy Holly songs, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’ is written by Crickets Joe Mauldin and Niki Sullivan with producer Norman Petty. It’s a lively number with a silly “A-hah-a-hah” refrain. ‘Listen To Me’ is rather more intimate and is written by Petty and Holly.
On 26 January 1958 Buddy Holly And The Crickets appear on the television variety program ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’
Buddy Holly’s next song, attributed to West/Tilghman/Petty, is ‘Rave On’ (US no. 37, UK no. 5). The singer’s trademark hiccupping vocal manages to turn the first word, “well”, into a six-syllable form: “We-eh-he-a-hella-hell, little things you say and do / Make me want to be with you-a-hoo / Rave on, it’s a crazy feeling and-a / I know, it’s got me reelin’ / When you say ‘I love you’ / Rave on.”
Buddy Holly And The Crickets participate in a several U.S. package tours with other artists, make a short visit to Australia, and then tour the U.K. in March 1958.
‘Buddy Holly’ (1958) is released by Coral in March. Oddly, the cover portrait show Buddy without his familiar specs. This album includes ‘Words Of Love’, ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘Everyday’, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’, ‘Listen To Me’ and ‘Rave On.’
‘That’ll Be The Day’ (1958) (UK no. 5) is released in April. This is Decca’s attempt to cash in on Buddy Holly’s popularity by giving an official release to the country-flavoured material he recorded during his frustrating tenure on that label in early 1957. It becomes quite a rare collector’s item.
The Crickets’ next single, ‘Think It Over’ (US no. 27, UK no. 11), has a jaunty piano rumbling under the melody. This song is composed by Buddy Holly, Norman Petty and Jerry Allison. Buddy Holly’s ‘Early In The Morning’ (US no. 32, UK no. 17) (written by Leo Hickman, Louis Jordan and Dallas Bartley) is a countryish romp. Holly and Petty share the credit for The Crickets’ ‘It’s So Easy.’ “It’s so easy to fall in love / It’s so easy to fall in love / People tell me love’s for fools / So here I go breakin’ all the rules,” sings Holly with puppy-like enthusiasm. His voice drops significantly for the “fall in love” line and the backing vocals concur that it’s “doggone easy.”
Buddy Holly’s record producer advises him to start experimenting because rock ‘n’ roll has just months of life left. In these early days, rock ‘n’ roll is still thought to be a fad that will pass. When Buddy Holly is asked what he will do if trends in music start moving away from rock ‘n’ roll, his response is fairly sanguine: “I’d prefer singing a little bit. Something a little more quiet anyhow.” It’s an idea that the singer continues to contemplate.
On a visit to New York City, Buddy Holly calls in at the offices of the music publishing group, Peermusic. He’s quite taken with their receptionist, Maria Elena Santiago. He proposes to her on their first date at P.J. Clarke’s. Less than two months after meeting her, he weds the Puerto Rican girl on 15 August 1958. They move into an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village. Buddy Holly begins to scrutinise his recording contracts and ‘at the urging of a knowledgeable, suspicious Elena, he confronts Norman Petty about the presence of Petty’s name in the writing credits of several songs.’ This leads to a split with not only Norman Petty, but also The Crickets, whom Petty convinces to stay in Texas. The band’s last session with Holly is said to take place in New York on 21 October 1958 – though they tentatively try to contact Buddy in February 1959 about working with him again.
Buddy Holly experiments with recording with a string section instead of a rock ‘n’ roll band. He records with the Dick Jacobs Orchestra. Holly also forms a new backing group of rock ‘n’ roll musicians: Tommy Allsup (guitar), Waylon Jennings (bass) and Charlie Bunch (drums). (Waylon Jennings later goes on to a solo career as a country and western artist.) In September 1958 Holly’s new crew are augmented on some sessions by the African-American saxophone player, King Curtis.
‘Heartbeat’ (US no. 82, UK no. 30), released about the end of 1958, sounds like The Crickets are still providing back-up: “Heartbeat / Why do you miss when my baby kisses me? / Heartbeat / Why does a love’s kiss stay in my memory?” The songwriting credit here is for Holly’s old friend Bob Montgomery and producer Norman Petty, so it may well have been written much earlier than its release date. ‘Heartbeat’ also features some more oddball made-up language: “Riddle dee pat / I know that true love thrills me.”
By contrast, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ (US no. 13, UK no. 1) b/w ‘Raining In My Heart’ gives a glimpse of the possible post-rock ‘n’ roll future Buddy Holly is considering. Both songs are heavily orchestrated with swooping strings. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ is written for Holly by Paul Anka, who goes on to have a career as a singer in his own right. ‘Raining In My Heart’ is the work of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, a married couple who furnished The Everly Brothers with hits like ‘Bye Bye Love’. The single is issued on the Coral label on 5 January 1959.
Buddy Holly records some songs alone with his guitar in his New York apartment on 22 January 1959.
To ‘raise seed money for his fledgling publishing company’, Buddy Holly finds it necessary to go on tour again. Disputes over songwriting royalties are also said to contribute to the lack of funds. Complicating the situation is news that his wife, Maria Elena, is pregnant. She volunteers to accompany her spouse, but she recalls him telling her, “No, honey, I don’t want you to go. Take care of my baby and I’ll be back in two weeks. So don’t worry, I’ll call you every night.” Buddy Holly joins Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) on a package tour of the Midwest. On 2 February 1959, they play a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Whether it is ‘to escape the discomfort of the tour buses’ or ‘to buy some time to get his laundry done before the next gig’, Buddy Holly joins the other two headliners in chartering a light aircraft to fly them to their next stop. At 1:50 a.m. on 3 February 1959, the Beechcraft Bonanza carrying Buddy Holly and his companions crashes and disintegrates in a snowy field, nine miles from Mason City Airport in Iowa. There are no survivors. Buddy Holly was 22. His whole career, from the release of the rock ‘n’ roll version of ‘That’ll Be The Day’ on 27 May 1957 to his death on 3 February 1959, is a mere seventy-eight weeks. Buddy Holly is rock ‘n’ roll’s first major casualty.
When his widow, Maria Elena, hears of her husband’s tragic demise, the shock causes her to miscarry and lose their child.
The Crickets continue to record as a band in their own right with singer / guitarist Sonny Curtis (formerly of The Three Tunes) and drummer Jerry Allison remaining the core of a changeable aggregation. Their hits include ‘Don’t Ever Change’ (UK no. 5) in 1962 and ‘My Little Girl’ (UK no. 17) in 1963.
Buddy Holly’s own recordings are raided for a number of posthumous hits. These are mainly primitive demo tapes fleshed out with overdubs at the direction of Norman Petty. These songs include: ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ in 1959; ‘True Love Ways’ (UK no. 25) in 1960; ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ in 1961; ‘Reminiscing’ (US no. 63, UK no. 17) (featuring King Curtis on saxophone) in 1962; covers of Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ (US no. 113, UK no. 3) and Bo Diddley’s self-mythologising ‘Bo Diddley’ (US no. 116, UK no. 4) as well as the Holly / Montgomery tune ‘Wishing’ in 1963; ‘What To Do’ in 1965; and ‘Love Is Strange’ in 1969.
As a schoolboy, Buddy Holly considered his life ‘uneventful’ and thought of making a career in music. By accomplishing the latter, his all-too-brief life became something that hardly fits the description of ‘uneventful.’ His accomplishments as a singer, songwriter and guitarist ensure his memory and legacy live on. ‘In the eighteen months between mid-1957 and winter 1959, Buddy Holly, a shy, bespectacled young man with a hiccup in his voice, enjoyed a series of hits that unified the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll with the melodic sensibility that was coming back into fashion.’ ‘To achieve what Buddy Holly did in a full, unfettered lifetime career would be a stupendous achievement by any definition; to amass such an incomparable artistic legacy in a mere eighteen months leaves one at a loss for superlatives.’
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Buddy Holly’ by Jonathan Cott (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 85, 88, 89, 91
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 62, 63, 64
- ‘All Time Greatest Hits’ – Sleeve notes by Richie Yorke (MCA Records, Inc., 1992) p. 2, 3
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 110
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 105, 241
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 16, 20, 30, 31, 36, 44
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 30, 32, 38
- wikipedia.org as at 4 March 2013
- ‘DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006) p. 993
- pigriver.com – Reproduction of a Buddy Holly interview dated 23 October 1957
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 70
- blog.artsclub.com (10 June 2010)
- spinner.com (2 February 2009) – Maria Elena Santiago interview
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.37
- lyricsfreak.com as at 15 September 2014
Song lyrics copyright unavailable with the following exceptions: ‘Peggy Sue’ (EMI Music Publishing); ‘Oh Boy’ and ‘Rave On’ (both Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing); ‘Maybe Baby’ (Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC); ‘It’s So Easy’ (Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.); and ‘Heartbeat’ (Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., EMI Music Publishing)
Last revised 17 September 2014