Buddy Holly is perhaps the most anomalous legend of ’50s rock & roll — he had his share of hits, and he achieved major rock & roll stardom, but his importance transcends any sales figures or even the particulars of any one song (or group of songs) that he wrote or recorded. Holly was unique, his legendary status and his impact on popular music all the more extraordinary for having been achieved in barely 18 months. Among his rivals, Bill Haley was there first and established rock & roll music; Elvis Presley objectified the sexuality implicit in the music, selling hundreds of millions of records in the process, and defined one aspect of the youth and charisma needed for stardom; and Chuck Berry defined the music’s roots in blues along with some of the finer points of its sexuality and its youthful orientation (and, in the process, intermixed all of these elements). Holly’s influence was just as far-reaching as these others, if far more subtle and more distinctly musical in nature. In a career lasting from the spring of 1957 until the winter of 1958-1959 — less time than Elvis had at the top before the army took him (and less time, in fact, than Elvis spent in the army) — Holly became the single most influential creative force in early rock & roll.
Born in Lubbock, Texas on September 7, 1936, Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holley (he later dropped the “e”) was the youngest of four children. A natural musician from a musical family, he was proficient on guitar, banjo, and mandolin by age 15 and was working as part of a duo with his boyhood friend Bob Montgomery, with whom he had also started writing songs. By the mid-’50s, Buddy & Bob, as they billed themselves, were playing what they called “western and bop”; Holly, in particular, was listening to a lot of blues and R&B and finding it compatible with country music. He was among those young Southern men who heard and saw Elvis perform in the days when the latter was signed to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records; indeed, Buddy & Bob played as an opening act for Elvis when he played the area around Lubbock in early 1955, and Holly saw the future direction of his life and career.
By mid-1955, Buddy & Bob, who already worked with an upright bass (played by Larry Welborn), had added drummer Jerry Allison to their lineup. They’d also cut some sides that would have qualified as rock & roll, though no label was interested at that particular time. Eventually, Montgomery, who leaned toward more of a traditional country sound, left the performing partnership, though they continued to compose songs together. Holly kept pushing his music toward a straight-ahead rock & roll sound, working with Allison, Welborn, and assorted other local musicians, including guitarist Sonny Curtis and bassist Don Guess. It was with the latter two that Holly cut his first official recording session in January of 1956 in Nashville for Decca Records. They found out, however, that there was a lot more to playing and cutting rock & roll than met the eye; the results of this and a follow-up session in July were alternately either a little too tame and a little too far to the country side of the mix, or too raw. Some good music and a pair of near classics, “Midnight Shift” and “Rock Around with Ollie Vee,” did come out of those Decca sessions, but nothing issued at the time went anywhere. It looked as though Holly had missed his shot at stardom.
Fate intervened in the guise of Norman Petty, a musician-turned-producer based in Clovis, New Mexico, who had an ear for the new music and what made it sound good, especially over the radio, to the kids. Petty had a studio where he charged by the song instead of by the hour, and Holly and company had already begun working there in the late spring of 1956. After Decca’s rejection, Holly and his band, which now included Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar, threw themselves into what Petty regarded as the most promising songs they had, until they worked out a tight, tough version of one of the failed originals that Holly had cut in Nashville entitled “That’ll Be the Day.” The title and lyrical phrase, lifted from a line that John Wayne was always quoting in the John Ford movie The Searchers, had staying power, and the group built on it. They got the song nailed and recorded, and with Petty’s help, got it picked up by Murray Deutsch, a publishing associate of Petty’s who, in turn, got it to Bob Thiele, an executive at Coral Records, who liked it. Ironically, Coral was a subsidiary of Decca, the same company to which Holly had previously been signed.
Thiele saw the record as a potential hit, but there were some major hurdles to overcome before it could actually get released. For starters, according to author Philip Norman in his book Rave On, Thiele would get only the most begrudging support from his record company. Decca had lucked out in 1954 when, at Milt Gabler’s urging, they’d signed Bill Haley & His Comets and subsequently saw his “Rock Around the Clock” top the charts, but very few of those in charge at Decca had a real feel or appreciation for rock & roll or any sense of where it might be heading, or whether the label could (or should) follow it there. For another, although he had been dropped by Decca the previous year, the contract that Holly signed prohibited him from re-recording anything that he had cut for Decca, regardless of whether it had been released or not, for five years; though Coral was a subsidiary of Decca, there was every chance that Decca’s Nashville office could hold up the release and might even haul Holly into court. Amid all of these possibilities, good and bad, Welborn, who had played on “That’ll Be the Day,” was replaced on bass by Joe B. Mauldin.
“That’ll Be the Day” was issued in May of 1957 mostly as an indulgence to Thiele, to “humor” him, according to Norman. The record was put out on the Brunswick label, which was oriented more toward jazz and R&B, and credited to the Crickets, a group name picked as a dodge to prevent any of the powers-that-be at Decca — and especially Decca’s Nashville office — from having too easy a time figuring out that the singer was the same artist that they’d dropped the year before. Petty also became the group’s manager as well as their producer, signing the Crickets — identified as Allison, Sullivan, and Mauldin — to a contract. Holly wasn’t listed as a member in the original document, in order to hide his involvement with “That’ll Be the Day,” but this omission would later become the source of serious legal and financial problems for him.
When the smoke cleared, the song shot to the top spot on the national charts that summer. Of course, Decca knew Holly’s identity by then; with Thiele’s persuasion and the reality of a serious hit in their midst, the company agreed to release Holly from the five-year restriction on his old contract, leaving him free to sign any recording contract he wanted. In the midst of sorting out the particulars of Holly’s legal situation, Thiele discovered that he had someone on his hands who was potentially a good deal more than a one-hit wonder — there were potentially more and different kinds of potential hits that could come from him. When all was said and done, Holly found himself with two recording contracts, one with Brunswick as a member of the Crickets and the other with Coral Records as Buddy Holly, which was part of Thiele’s strategy to get the most out of Holly’s talent. By releasing two separate bodies of work, he could keep the group intact while giving room for its obvious leader and “star” to break out on his own.
There was actually little difference in the two sets of recordings for most of his career, in terms of how they were done or who played on them, except possibly that the harder, straight-ahead rock & roll songs, and the ones with backing vocals, tended to be credited to the Crickets. The confusion surrounding the Buddy Holly/Crickets dual identity was nothing, however, compared to the morass that constituted the songwriting credits on their work.
It’s now clear that Petty, acting as their manager and producer, parceled out writing credits at random, gifting Niki Sullivan and Joe B. Mauldin (and himself) the co-authorship of “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” while initially leaving Holly’s name off of “Peggy Sue.” Petty usually added his name to the credit line as well, a common practice in the ’50s for managers and producers who wanted a bigger piece of the action. In fairness, it should be said that Petty did make suggestions, some of them key, in shaping certain of Holly’s songs, but he almost certainly didn’t contribute to the extent that the shared credits would lead one to believe. Some of the public’s confusion over songwriting was heightened by complications ensuing from another of the contracts that Holly had signed in 1956. Petty had his own publishing company, Nor Va Jak Music, and had a contract with Holly to publish all of his new songs; but the prior year, Holly had signed an exclusive contract with another company. Eventually a settlement and release from the old contract might be sorted out, but in order to reduce his profile as a songwriter until that happened, and to convince the other publisher that they weren’t losing too much in any settlement, he copyrighted many of his new songs under the pseudonym “Charles Hardin.”
The dual recording contracts made it possible for Holly to record an extraordinary number of sides in the course of his 18 months of fame. Meanwhile, the group — billed as Buddy Holly & the Crickets — became one of the top attractions of rock & roll’s classic years, putting on shows that were as exciting and well-played as any in the business. Holly was the frontman, singing lead and playing lead guitar — itself an unusual combination — as well as writing or co-writing many of their songs. But the Crickets were also a totally enveloping performing unit, generating a big and exciting sound (which, apart from some live recordings from their 1958 British tour, is lost to history). Allison was a very inventive drummer and contributed to the songwriting a bit more often than his colleagues, and Joe B. Mauldin and Niki Sullivan provided a solid rhythm section.
The fact that the group relied on originals for their singles made them unique and put them years ahead of their time. In 1957-1958, songwriting wasn’t considered a skill essential to a career in rock & roll; the music business was still patterned along the lines that it had followed since the ’20s, with songwriting a specialized profession organized on the publishing side of the industry, separate from performing and recording. Once in a while, a performer might write a song or, much more rarely, as in the case of a Duke Ellington, count composition among his key talents, but generally this was an activity left to the experts. Any rock & roller with the inclination to write songs would also have to get past the image of Elvis, who stood to become a millionaire at age 22 and never wrote songs (the few “Presley” songwriting credits were the result of business arrangements rather than any creative activity on his part).
Buddy Holly & the Crickets changed that in a serious way by hitting number one with a song that they’d written and then reaching the Top Ten with originals like “Oh, Boy” and “Peggy Sue,” and regularly charging up the charts on the basis of their own songwriting. This attribute wasn’t appreciated by the public at the time, and wouldn’t be noticed widely until the ’70s, but thousands of aspiring musicians, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, took note of the fact, and some of them decided to try and emulate Holly.
Less obvious at the time, Holly and company also broke up the established record industry method of recording, which was to bring the artist into the label’s own studio, working on a timetable dictated by corporate policy and union rules. If an artist were extremely successful — à la Sinatra or Elvis, or later on, the Beatles — they got a blank check in the studio and any union rules were smoothed over, but that was a rare privilege, available only to the most elite of musicians. Buddy Holly & the Crickets, by contrast, did their work, beginning with “That’ll Be the Day,” in Clovis, New Mexico, at Petty’s studio. They took their time, they experimented until they got the sound they wanted, no union told them when to stop or start their work, and they delivered great records; what’s more, they were records that didn’t sound like anyone else’s, anywhere.
The results were particularly telling on the history of rock music. The group worked out a sound that gave shape to the next wave of rock & roll and, especially, to early British rock & roll and the subsequent British Invasion beat, with the lead and rhythm guitars closely interlocked to create a fuller, harder sound. On songs such as “Not Fade Away,” “Everyday,” “Listen to Me,” “Oh Boy!,” “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “Rave On,” “Heartbeat,” and “It’s So Easy,” Holly advanced rock & roll’s range and sophistication without abandoning its fundamental joy and excitement. Holly and the band weren’t afraid to experiment even on their singles, so “Peggy Sue” made use of the kind of changes in volume and timbre on the guitar that were usually reserved for instrumental records; similarly, “Words of Love” was one of the earliest successful examples of double-tracked vocals in rock & roll, which the Beatles, in particular, would embrace in the ensuing decade.
Buddy Holly & the Crickets were very popular in America, but in England they were even bigger, their impact serious rivaling that of Elvis and, in some ways, even exceeding it. This was due, in part, to the fact that they actually toured England — they spent a month there in 1958, playing a series of shows that were still being written about 30 years later — which was something that Elvis never did. But it also had to do with their sound and Holly’s stage persona. The group’s heavy use of rhythm guitar slotted right in with the sound of skiffle music, a mix of blues, folk, country, and jazz elements that constituted most of British youth’s introduction to playing music and their way into rock & roll. Additionally, although he cut an exciting figure on-stage, Holly looked a lot less likely a rock & roll star than Elvis — tall, lanky, and bespectacled, he looked like an ordinary guy who simply played and sang well, and part of his appeal as a rock & roll star was rooted in how unlikely he looked in that role. He provided inspiration — and a way into the music — for tens of thousands of British teenagers who also couldn’t imagine themselves rivals to Elvis or Gene Vincent in the dark and dangerous department.
At least one star British guitarist of the late ’50s, Hank Marvin of the Shadows, owed his look (and the fact that he wore his glasses proudly on-stage) to Holly, and his look was propagated into the ’70s by Elvis Costello. Additionally, although he played several different kinds of guitar, Holly was specifically responsible for popularizing — some would say elevating to mystical, even magical status — the Fender Stratocaster, especially in England. For a lot of would-be rock & rollers on the Sceptered Isle, Holly’s 1958 tour was the first chance they’d had to see or hear the instrument in action, and it quickly became the guitar of choice for anyone aspiring to stardom as an axeman in England. (Indeed, Marvin, inspired by Holly, later had what is reputed to be the first Stratocaster ever brought into England.)
The Crickets were reduced to a trio with the departure of Sullivan in late 1957, following the group’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, but that was almost the least of the changes that would ensue over the following year. The group consolidated its success with the release of two LPs, The Chirping Crickets and Buddy Holly, and did two very successful international tours as well as more performing in the United States. Holly had already developed aspirations and interests that diverged somewhat from those of Allison and Mauldin. The thought apparently had never occurred to either of them of giving up Texas as their home, and they continued to base their lives there, while Holly was increasingly drawn to New York, not just as a place to do business, but also to live. His romance with and marriage to Maria Elena Santiago, a receptionist in Murray Deutsch’s office, only made the decision to move to New York easier.
By this time, Holly’s music had grown in sophistication and complexity to the point where he had relinquished the lead guitar duties in the studio to session player Tommy Alsup, and he had done a number of recordings in New York utilizing session musicians such as King Curtis. It was during this period that his and the group’s sales had slackened somewhat. Singles such as “Heartbeat” didn’t sell nearly as well as the 45s of 1957 that had rolled out of stores. He might even have advanced further than a big chunk of the group’s audience was prepared to accept in late 1958. “Well…All Right,” for example, was years ahead of its time as a song and a recording.
Holly’s split with the group — and Petty — in the fall of 1958 left him free to pursue some of those newer sounds, but it also left him short of cash resources. In the course of ending the association, it became clear to Holly and everyone else that Petty had manipulated the numbers and likely taken an enormous slice of the group’s income for himself, though there was almost no way of proving this because he never seemed to finish his “accounting” of the money due to anyone, and his books were ultimately found to be in such disarray that when he came up with various low five-figure settlements to those involved, they were glad to get what they got.
With a new wife — who was pregnant — and no settlement coming in from Petty, Holly decided to earn some quick money by signing to play the Winter Dance Party package tour of the Midwest. It was on that tour that Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson were killed in a plane crash on February 3, 1959.
The crash was considered a piece of grim but not terribly significant news at the time. Most news organizations, run by men who’d come of age in the ’30s or ’40s, didn’t take rock & roll very seriously, except to the degree that it could be exploited to sell newspapers or build viewing audiences. Holly’s clean-cut image and scandal-free life, coupled with the news of his recent marriage, did give the story more poignancy than it otherwise might have had and probably found him treated more respectfully than would have been the case with other music stars of the period.
For teenagers of the era, it was the first public tragedy of its kind. No white rock & roller of any significance had ever died before, forget three of them, and the news was devastating. Radio station disc jockeys were also shaken — for a lot of people involved in rock & roll music on any level, Holly’s death may well have been the first time that they woke up the next day wishing and hoping that the previous day’s news had all been a dream.
The suddenness and the whole accidental nature of the event, coupled with the ages of Holly and Valens — 22 and 17, respectively — made it even harder to take. Hank Williams had died at 29, but with his drinking and drug use he had always seemed on the fast track to the grave by almost anyone who knew him and even to a lot of fans; Johnny Ace had died in 1954 backstage at a show, but that was also by his own hand, in a game of Russian roulette. The emotional resonances of this event was totally different in every way possible from those tragedies.
A few careers were actually launched in the wake of the tragedy. Bobby Vee leaped to stardom when he and his band took over Holly’s spot on the tour. In America, however, something of a pall fell over rock & roll music — its sound was muted by Holly’s death and Elvis’ military service, and this darkness didn’t fully lift for years. In England, the reaction was much more concentrated and pronounced — Holly’s final single, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” rose to number one on the British charts in the wake of his death, and it seemed as though the new generation of English rock & rollers and their audiences wouldn’t let Holly’s music or spirit die. Two years after the event, producer Joe Meek and singer Mike Berry combined to make “Tribute to Buddy Holly,” a memorial single that sounded like the man himself reborn and still brings smiles and chills to listeners who know it; it is said that Meek never entirely got over Holly’s death, and he killed himself on the anniversary of Holly’s death. On the less extreme front, players from Lennon, McCartney, and Keith Richards on down all found themselves influenced by Holly’s music, songs, and playing. Groups like the Searchers — taking their name from the same Wayne movie whence the phrase “that’ll be the day” had been lifted — sounded a lot like the Crickets and had a handful of his songs in their repertory when they cut their earliest sides, and it wasn’t just the hits that they knew, but album cuts as well. Other bands, like a Manchester-spawned outfit fronted by Allan Clarke, Graham Nash, and Tony Hicks began a four-decade career by taking the name the Hollies.
Holly’s record label continued to release posthumous albums of his work for years after his death, beginning with The Buddy Holly Story in early 1959, and they even repackaged the 1956 Decca sides several times over under various titles (the mid-’70s British LP The Nashville Sessions is the best of the vinyl editions). The company also engaged Petty to take various Holly demos and early country-flavored sides done by Buddy & Bob and dub new instruments and backing voices, principally using a band called the Fireballs. Those releases, including the albums Reminiscing and Showcase, did moderately well in America, but in England they actually charted. New recordings of his music, including the Rolling Stones’ bone-shaking rendition of “Not Fade Away” — taking it back to its Bo Diddley-inspired roots — and the Beatles’ gorgeous rendition of “Words of Love” helped keep Holly’s name alive with a new generation of listeners. In America, it was more of an uphill struggle to spread the word — rock & roll, like most American popular culture, was always regarded as more easily disposable, and as a new generation of teenagers and new musical phenomena came along, the public did gradually forget. By the end of the ’60s, except among older fans (then in their twenties) and hardcore oldies listeners, Holly was a largely forgotten figure in his own country.
The tide began to turn at the very tail-end of the ’60s with the beginning of the oldies boom. Holly’s music figured in it, of course, and as people listened they also heard about the man behind it — even Rolling Stone magazine, then the arbiter of taste for the counterculture, went out of its way to remind people of who Holly was. His image constituted a haunting figure, frozen forever in poses from 1957 and 1958, bespectacled, wearing a jacket and smiling; he looked like (and was) a figure from another age. The nature of his death, in a plane crash, also set him apart from some of the then-recent deaths of contemporary rock stars such as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison — they’d all pushed life right to the edge until it broke, while Holly stood there eternally innocent both personally and in terms of the times in which he’d lived.
Then, in 1971, a little-known singer/songwriter named Don McLean, who counted himself a Holly fan, rose to international stardom behind a song called “American Pie,” whose narrative structure was hooked around “the day the music died.” After disposing of the erroneous notion that he was referring to President Kennedy, McLean made it clear that he meant February 3, 1959, when Holly died. Coverage of “American Pie”’s popularity and lyrics as it soared to the top of the charts inevitably led to mentions of Holly, who was suddenly getting more exposure in the national press than he’d ever enjoyed in his lifetime.
His music has never disappeared — even the Grateful Dead performed “Not Fade Away” in concert — and now there was a song that seemed to give millions of people a series of personal and musical reference points into which to place the man. Until “American Pie,” most Americans equated November 22, 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s murder, with the loss of national innocence and the opening of an era of shared grief. McLean pushed the reference point back to February 3, 1959 on a purely personal basis, and an astonishingly large number of listeners accepted it.
In 1975, McCartney’s MPL Communications bought Holly’s publishing catalog from a near-bankrupt Petty. To some, the sale was Petty’s final act of theft — having robbed Holly and his widow blind in settling the account of what was owed him as a performer, he was profiting one last time from his perfidy. The truth is that it was a godsend to Maria Elena Holly and the Holly family in Lubbock; amid the events of the years and decades that followed, MPL was able to sell and exploit those songs in ways that Petty never could have, and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for them that Petty never would have. And with McCartney — a Holly fan from the age of 15, and probably the most successful fan Holly ever had — as publisher, they were paid every cent they had coming.
Amid the growing interest in Holly’s music, the record industry was very slow to respond, at least in America. At the end of the ’60s, there were exactly two Holly LPs available domestically, The Great Buddy Holly, consisting of the 1956 Decca sides, which hardly represented his best or most important work, and the even more dispensable Giant album, consisting of overdubbed demos and outtakes. British audiences had access to more and better parts of his catalog first, and a collection, 20 Golden Greats, actually topped the charts there in 1978, in conjunction with the release of the movie The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey in the title role. It was a romanticized and very simplified account of the man’s life and career, and slighted the contributions of the other members of the Crickets — and never even mentioned Petty — but it got some of the essentials right and made Busey into a star and Holly into a household name.
In 1979, Holly became the first rock & roll star to be the subject of a career-spanning box set, ambitiously (and inaccurately) called The Complete Buddy Holly. Initially released in England and Germany, it later appeared in America, but it only seemed to whet hardcore fans’ appetites for more — two or three Holly bootlegs were circulating in the early ’80s, including one that offered a handful of songs from the group’s 1958 British tour. In a rare bold move, mostly courtesy of producer Steve Hoffman, MCA Records issued For the First Time Anywhere in 1983, a selection of raw, undubbed masters of original Holly recordings that had previously only been available with extra instruments added on — it was followed by From the Original Master Tapes, the first attempt to put together a Holly compilation with upgraded sound quality. Those titles and The Great Buddy Holly were the earliest of Holly’s official CD releases, though they were soon followed by Buddy Holly and The Chirping Crickets. In 1986, the BBC aired The Real Buddy Holly Story, a documentary produced by McCartney as a counteractive to the Busey movie, which covered all of the areas ignored by the inaccuracies of the movie and responded to them.
Holly’s catalog was interpreted for the stage in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, a pioneering jukebox musical which worked his familiar hits into a narrative. Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story debuted in the West End in 1989. It ran in one or another theater in the West End until 2008, during which time it also appeared on Broadway, as well as in Australia and Germany, not to mention touring companies in the U.K. and U.S.
Holly continued to be a presence in pop culture through the ’90s, notably being name-checked in “Buddy Holly,” a 1994 hit from the alternative rock band Weezer; the song became one of the standards of its era, and was played regularly well into the 21st century, helping keeping Holly’s name alive. Holly’s image also surfaced in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction, which featured Steve Buscemi playing a waiter impersonating Holly.
In the U.K., compilations of Holly’s old recordings charted three times in the ’90s: Words of Love went to number one in 1993, The Very Best of Buddy Holly reached 24 in 1996, and the TV-advertised comp The Very Best of Buddy Holly & the Crickets peaked at 13 in 1999. Universal dug deeper into the Holly vaults in the 2000s, releasing Down the Line: Rarities in 2009, followed by the comprehensive six-disc box set Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More that same year.
Holly was the subject of dual tribute albums in 2011: Verve Forecast’s Listen to Me: Buddy Holly, which featured Stevie Nicks, Brian Wilson, and Ringo Starr among 13 other artists, and Fantasy/Concord’s Rave on Buddy Holly, which contained tracks from Paul McCartney, Patti Smith, the Black Keys, and Nick Lowe, among others. (Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens released his own Holly tribute album in 2009.) Universal released True Love Ways, an album where original Holly recordings were overdubbed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in time for the Christmas season of 2018; it debuted at 10 in the U.K. charts. ~ Bruce Eder