Bruce Springsteen once said, “I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on; that keeps me honest.” Amen to that! If Elvis embodied rock ‘n’ roll, with the look of superstar hero, Buddy Holly was the complete antithesis. Buddy gave everyone hope that they too could become a star. He wore glasses for God’s sake! From way down Texas way, Buddy had a style all of his own, with music that was catchy and poppy, but all the while it oozed rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities, mostly without Buddy seeming to have to try. He had the gift of making things sound simple, and they were, but he delivered his songs in a way that was unique among the teen idols of the 50s.
Charles Hardin Holley was born on September 7, 1936, into a musical family in 1936, and in 1941 Buddy – as his family always called him – won a talent competition. Like many kids his age, he liked to listen to country music on the radio and in 1949 he recorded “My Two Timin’ Woman,” a song by Hank Snow.
Elvis changed his life
Before the year was out Buddy had teamed up with a school friend as Bud and Bob. The duo sang harmony vocals and were steeped in bluegrass music. It was Elvis Presley that changed eighteen-year-old Buddy’s life, though, when he appeared on the bill at the Fair Park Coliseum in Lubbock, Buddy’s hometown. No more bluegrass for Buddy. It was rock ‘n’ roll from then on. As Buddy said in 1953, “I’ve thought about making a career out of western music if I’m good enough, but I will have to wait and see how that turns out.”
Later in the year, Buddy opened up for Elvis on another show at the Fair Park Coliseum, he did likewise for Bill Haley. It all began to get him noticed and in January 1956 Decca Records offered 19-year-old Holley a contract. The only problem with it was they spelled his name Holly. Decca were anxious to get Buddy in the studio. With the Sun label in Memphis doing so well, they were playing catch up. When Buddy, with his newly purchased Fender Stratocaster, walked into Owen Bradley’s studio in Nashville, he was full of anticipation. It soon turned to disillusionment.
Bradley was keen to use his own session players, not trusting or believing that Buddy and the others could deliver what Decca needed. He also told Buddy he couldn’t sing and play his guitar at the same time – something he always did. Of the songs that Buddy had submitted to Decca, they only wanted to record two of them and gave him a couple of others penned by different songwriters. When they had finished, it all sounded a little lame. The following month Buddy signed his Decca contract, deciding to stick with Holly.
“Holly stands a strong chance”
A month or so later Decca released “Blue Days, Black Nights” along with a song called “Love Me” that Buddy had written with a girl from Lubbock by the name of Sue Parrish. To support the single, Buddy was added to Faron Young’s Grand Ole Opry Show that played throughout Oklahoma and Texas for a week. Although it was a start, the single flopped. According to Billboard, “If the public will take more than one Presley or Perkins, as it may well, Holly stands a strong chance.”
After the tour Buddy, who felt that his unflattering glasses were harming his image, got contact lenses fitted; they hurt so much they were soon discarded. In July they were back at Owen Bradley’s studio, this time with an agreement that Buddy could use his own band. Shortly before they went to Nashville, Buddy and Jerry Allison wrote a song called “That’ll Be The Day,” which they recorded at their session; sadly it worked to no one’s satisfaction. By November, Buddy and the boys were back at Bradley’s but nothing good came of the session. Decca released “Modern Don Juan” on Christmas Eve 1956, a strange choice of release date to try and get a hit. Come January 1957, and Decca wrote a letter to Buddy dropping him.
As one door closes, another opens
But in true Hollywood fashion, as one door closes, another opens; this was the door to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis New Mexico, a two-hour drive from Lubbock. Petty had seen Holly sometime during 1956 at his studio and was impressed. When Buddy was still smarting from having been dropped, he headed out to Clovis to see Petty and to try and record something that might have more potential than anything they had recorded so far. Curtis had now quit, as had Guess, so it was just Jerry Allison, bass player Larry Welborn, and guitarist Niki Sullivan. Among the songs they cut during the evening and night was ‘That’ll Be the Day.”
“The Beetles? Aw, that’s the kind of bug you’d want to step on.” – Jerry Allison, naming their group in 1956.
Recorded on February 25, 1957, “That’ll Be The Day” came out on the Brunswick label three months later on May 27, but it was not Buddy’s name on the label. It was credited to The Crickets, the name given to Buddy and his group to protect him from possible legal action from Decca for recording a number he had already recorded for them. By mid-August, it had entered the Billboard chart at a promising No.65, the week’s highest new entry, by the last week of September it got to No.1; it did the same thing in Britain.
Climbing the charts
Soon after recording, Buddy found that Petty’s music business connections were not all he had said they were. But Petty’s investment was small enough that he also gave them free studio time. (They even became something of a house band on some of Petty’s other projects.) It was during this time that Joe B. Maudlin joined to replace Welborn on bass. He came on board as they were about to start recording what would turn out to be the Crickets’ debut album.
Buddy and the Crickets joined The Biggest Show of Stars 1957 tour along with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Paul Anka, Frankie Lymon, The Drifters, and others. While it was great exposure, the money was not. The four of them shared $1,000 a week out of which they had to eat and live. Also on the bill were the Everly Brothers. It was with them that Buddy struck up the best relationship.
“If anyone asks you what kind of music you play, tell him ‘pop’. Don’t tell him rock ‘n’ roll or they won’t let you stay in the hotel.” – Buddy Holly
Near the end of September came the second single, but this one had Buddy’s name on it, rather than just the Crickets. Obviously with all the exposure he received from having a number one single, Decca couldn’t fail to notice. To avoid any more contractual difficulties, they assigned his contract to Coral, one of their subsidiaries. A few weeks later the album, Chirping Crickets, was released. It’s 28 minutes and 27 seconds of rock ‘n’ roll perfection, with “That’ll Be The Day,” “Oh Boy,” “Maybe Baby,” and “Not Fade Away” (the song the Rolling Stones later covered) along with eight other tracks.
Despite its title, it was not the Crickets that were “chirping” but Bill and John Pickering and Bob Lapham – the Picks. But the group, with Allison’s drumming and the close rhythmic interplay, made it the perfect LP. Later the Beatles copied the Crickets (or the Picks!) vocal styling; it was central to their sound.
Along came Peggy Sue
Originally called “Cindy Lou,” Buddy’s niece’s name, his song got changed to “Peggy Sue,” who was Allison’s girlfriend. Billed as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, it entered the charts on November 11 and climbed to No.3, kept from going any higher by Danny and the Junior’s “At The Hop” and Pat Boone’s “April Love.” It deserved more, as it’s one of the most perfect records of the rock ‘n’ roll era, especially as it has “Everyday” on the b-side. Likewise in Britain, it could only get as high as No.6
Simultaneously Decca released Buddy’s first attempt at “That’ll Be The Day,” which made him very angry, although there was little time to think of such things in their rollercoaster world. There was a follow up to the Crickets No.1 to consider. With no obvious song on the album that sounded like “That’ll Be the Day,” they needed to agree on what it would be; record company lore stated that follow-ups to a big hit needed to sound as close to the original as possible. They opted for “Oh Boy.” Hopes were high, but it only reached No.10 on the Billboard chart. There was no question now that it wasn’t a good idea to have two records with Buddy’s voice on them vying for the charts at the same time.
The rock’n’roll lifestyle was not for him
With “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy” on the chart together, the three months tour of The Biggest Stars of 1957 finally finished. But there was no rest. Buddy and the Crickets were booked into the Ed Sullivan Show on December 1 to play both “That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue”; watching it today you’re struck by how not rock ‘n’ roll they look – they are all wearing bow ties! When they flew home to Lubbock, there were no crowds at the airport, no press, nothing. There was also virtually no comment when Niki Sullivan announced he was quitting the Crickets; the rock’n’roll lifestyle was not for him.
The principal thing that marked Sullivan’s leaving is that henceforth they were a band no longer, they were now billed everywhere as Buddy Holly and The Crickets. There were still another two Crickets’ singles to be released. “Maybe Baby” came out in March and got to No.17 on the Billboard chart. “Think It Over” was released in July and it made a lowlier No.27. Splitting these two releases was Buddy’s next ‘solo’ single on Coral – the majestic “Rave On.”
“Rave On,” was written not by Buddy but by Sonny West, Bill Tighman, and Norman Petty. This 1 minute 47-second song is ranked at No.154 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, despite only reaching No.37 on the Billboard chart, which was the worst performer of Buddy’s first seven singles. In the UK it did considerably better, reaching No.5 in the summer of 1958. Sonny West, who also co-wrote “Oh Boy,” originally recorded it. For many, this is the best vocal that Buddy ever performed.
“He made it OK to wear glasses”
The group’s agreement with Petty saw that all their earnings went straight to their producer/manager, which was then paid into the band’s joint account. Like many a young performer, Buddy and the others seemed content to receive little more than pocket money and the buzz of having hits. One thing Buddy did spend money on was a new pair of glasses. Instead of the half-frames he had been wearing since school, Buddy, at the urging of his friends, the Everly Brothers, got himself the frames that the world now refers to as “Buddy Holly glasses.” As John Lennon later said, “He made it OK to wear glasses. I was Buddy Holly.”
Before “Rave On” and the other Crickets singles were on the charts, Buddy and the Crickets flew to Australia for a tour. They followed this with a trip to Britain in March, where they were well received, even though they were booked on a variety bill with Britain’s very poor imitation of the Andrews Sisters, The Tanner Sisters, among others. What surprised most of the audience was the fact that Buddy Holly and the Crickets sounded just like their records.
Back home, Buddy and Petty began to fall out. Buddy was growing wise to Petty’s demands for a greater share of songwriting credits and his handling of the money. “Rave On”‘s performance did nothing to boost Buddy’s sense of well-being. In June, while “Rave On” was on the chart, Buddy met Puerto Rican-born, Maria Elena Santiago in the New York offices of a music publisher. After taking her to lunch and then dinner, four days later, Buddy proposed to her. On August 15, 1958, they were married and the couple were soon living in New York.
Two things followed Buddy’s wedding; he broke off his relationship with Petty, angry that the money he thought he should be getting was not forthcoming. Buddy also split from Allison and Maudlin after one final tour in the fall of 1958. Buddy had by this time gained a new guitarist, Tommy Allsup; he had already performed on Buddy’s new single, “Heartbeat,” which would only get to No.82 in December 1958, and he also appeared on the tour.
Living in New York, away from his friends, family and the life he knew in Lubbock was both exciting and difficult. Maria Elena and Buddy were deeply in love, but they were also broke following Petty’s refusal to release any money. With the need to have an income Buddy agreed to a three-week tour through the mid west at the end of January 1959.
He recruited a new drummer, Carl Bunch and bass player, Waylon Jennings. The Winter Dance Party, as it was dubbed, kicked off on January 27. Less than a week later, Buddy Holly was dead in a plane crash. In the month after Buddy’s death “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” with “Raining In My Heart” on the B-side, was his last hit on the Billboard chart – it was a fitting tribute.