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Buddy Holly

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. Hollywas 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 rec ...read more

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. Hollywas 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 ChuckBerry 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 innature. 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 tookhim (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, TX, on September 7, 1936, Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holley (he later dropped the "e") was the youngest of four children. Anatural 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 hisboyhood 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 withcountry music. He was among those young Southern men who heard and saw Elvis perform in the days when the latter was signed to SamPhillips' Sun Records -- indeed, Buddy & Bob played as an opening act for Elvis when he played the area around Lubbock in early 1955, andHolly 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 theirlineup. They'd also cut some sides that would have qualified as rock & roll, though no label was interested at that particular time. EventuallyMontgomery, who leaned toward more of a traditional country sound, left the performing partnership, though they continued to composesongs together. Holly kept pushing his music toward a straight-ahead rock & roll sound, working with Allison, Welborn, and assorted otherlocal musicians, including guitarist Sonny Curtis and bassist Don Guess. It was with the latter two that Holly cut his first official recordingsession 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 thecountry side of the mix or were too raw. Some good music and a pair of near classics, "Midnight Shift" and "Rock Around With Ollie Vee," didcome out of those Decca sessions, but nothing issued at the time went anywhere. At the time, it looked as though Holly had missed his shotat stardom. Fate intervened in the guise of Norman Petty, a musician-turned-producer based in Clovis, NM, who had an ear for the new music and whatmade 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 Hollyand company had already begun working there in the late spring of 1956. After Decca's rejection, Holly and his band, which now includedNiki Sullivan on rhythm guitar, threw themselves into what Petty regarded as the most promising songs they had, until they worked out atight, 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, inturn, got it to Bob Thiele, an executive at Coral Records, who liked it. Ironically, Coral was a subsidiary of Decca, the same company towhich Holly had previously been signed. Thiele saw the record as 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. Deccahad lucked out in 1954 when, at Milt Gabler's urging, they'd signed Bill Haley & His Comets and subsequently saw his "Rock Around theClock" 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 mightbe heading, or whether the label could (or should) follow it there. For another, although he had been dropped by Decca Records the previousyear, the contract that Holly had signed prohibited him from re-recording anything that he had cut for Decca, regardless of whether it hadbeen released or not, for five years; though Coral Records was a subsidiary of Decca, there was every chance that Decca's Nashville officecould 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 putout 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 toprevent any of the powers-that-were at Decca -- and especially Decca's Nashville office -- from having too easy a time figuring out that thesinger was the same artist that they'd dropped the year before. Petty also became the group's manager as well as their producer, signing theCrickets -- identified as Allison, Sullivan, and Mauldin -- to a contract. Holly wasn't listed as a member in the original document, in order tohide his involvement with "That'll Be the Day," but this omission would later become the source of serious legal and financial problems forhim. 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 onhis old contract, leaving him free to sign any recording contract he wanted. In the midst of sorting out the particulars of Holly's legalsituation, Thiele discovered that he had someone on his hands who was potentially a good deal more than a one-hit wonder -- there werepotentially more and different kinds of potential hits to come from him. When all was said and done, Holly found himself with two recordingcontracts, one with Brunswick as a member of the Crickets and the other with Coral Records as Buddy Holly, which was part of Thiele'sstrategy 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 forits 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 onthem, except possibly that the harder, straight-ahead rock & roll songs, and the ones with backing vocals, tended to be credited to theCrickets. The confusion surrounding the Buddy Holly/Crickets dual identity was nothing, however, compared to the morass that constitutedthe 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 usuallyadded his name to the credit line as well, a common practice in the 1950s for managers and producers who wanted a bigger piece of theaction. In fairness, it should be said that Petty did make suggestions, some of them key, in shaping certain of Holly's songs, but he almostcertainly didn't contribute to the extent that the shared credits would lead one to believe. Some of the public's confusion over songwritingwas heightened by complications ensuing from another of the contracts that Holly had signed in 1956. Petty had his own publishingcompany, 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 exclusivecontract with another company -- eventually a settlement and release from the old contract might be sorted out, but in order to reduce hisprofile as a songwriter until that happened, and to convince the other publisher that they weren't losing too much in any settlement, hecopyrighted 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 onshows that were as exciting and well played as any in the business. Holly was the frontman, singing lead and playing lead guitar -- itself anunusual 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 avery inventive drummer and contributed to the songwriting bit more often than his colleagues, and Joe B. Mauldin and Niki Sullivan provideda 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 hadfollowed since the '20s, with songwriting a specialized profession organized on the publishing side of the industry, separate from performingand recording. Once in a while, a performer might write a song or, much more rarely, as in the case of a Duke Ellington, count compositionamong his key talents, but generally this was an activity left to the experts. Any rock & roller with the inclination to write songs would alsohave to get past the image of Elvis, who stood to become a millionaire at age 22 and never wrote songs (the few "Presley" songwritingcredits 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 TopTen with originals like "Oh, Boy" and "Peggy Sue," and regularly charging up the charts on behalf of their own songwriting. This attributewasn't appreciated by the public at the time, and wouldn't be noticed widely until the 1970s, but thousands of aspiring musicians, includingJohn 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 theartist 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 wasa rare privilege, available only to the most elite of musicians. Buddy Holly & the Crickets, by contrast, did their work, beginning with "That'llBe the Day," in Clovis, NM, at Petty's studio. They took their time, they experimented until they got the sound they wanted, and no uniontold them when to stop or start their work, and they delivered great records; what's more, they were records that didn't sound like anyoneelse'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 closelyinterlocked 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 itsfundamental joy and excitement. Holly and the band weren't afraid to experiment even on their singles, so that "Peggy Sue" made use of thekind of changes in volume and timbre on the guitar that were usually reserved for instrumental records; similarly, "Words of Love" was one ofthe earliest successful examples of double-tracked vocals in rock & roll, which the Beatles, in particular, would embrace in the ensuingdecade. Buddy Holly & the Crickets were very popular in America, but in England they were even bigger, their impact serious rivaling that of Elvisand, in some ways, even exceeding it. This was due, in part, to the fact that they actually toured England -- they spent a month there in1958, playing a series of shows that were still being written about 30 years later -- which was something that Elvis never did. But it alsohad 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, andbespectacled, 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 howunlikely he looked in that role. He provided inspiration -- and a way into the music -- for tens of thousands of British teenagers who alsocouldn'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 proudlyon stage) to Holly, and his look can be seen being propagated into the 1970s by Elvis Costello. Additionally, although he played severaldifferent 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 firstchance 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 anaxeman 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 releaseof two LPs, The Chirping Crickets and Buddy Holly, and did two very successful international tours as well as more performing in the UnitedStates. Holly had already developed aspirations and interests that diverged somewhat from those of Allison and Mauldin. The thoughtapparently had never occurred to either of them of giving up Texas as their home, and they continued to base their lives there, while Hollywas increasingly drawn to New York, not just as a place to do business, but also to live. His romance with and marriage to Maria ElenaSantiago, 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 thestudio 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. The singles such as "Heartbeat" didn't sell nearly as wellas the 45s of 1957 had rolled out of stores. He might even have advanced farther than a big chunk of the group's audience was prepared toaccept 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 ofcash resources. In the course of ending the association, it became clear to Holly and everyone else that Petty had manipulated the numbersand likely taken an enormous slice of the group's income for himself, though there was to prove almost no way of establishing this becausehe never seemed to finish his "accounting" of the moneys due to anyone, and his books were ultimately found to be in such disarray thatwhen 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 playthe Winter Dance Party package tour of the Midwest. It was on that tour that Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson werekilled 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 ofage in the 1930s or 1940s, didn't take rock & roll very seriously, except to the degree that it could be exploited to sell newspapers or buildviewing audiences. Holly's clean-cut image and scandal-free life, coupled with the news of his recent marriage, did give the story morepoignancy than it otherwise might have had and probably got him treated more respectfully than would have been the case with other musicstars of the period. For teenagers of the period, it was the first public tragedy of its kind. No white rock & roller of any significance had ever died before, forgetthree of them, and the news was devastating. Radio station disc jockeys were also shaken -- for a lot of people involved in rock & roll musicon 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 newshad 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 -- madeit 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 graveto 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 ownhand, 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 spoton the tour. In America, however, something of a pall fell over rock & roll music -- its sound was muted by Holly's death and Elvis' militaryservice, and this darkness didn't fully lift for years. In England, the reaction was much more concentrated and pronounced -- Holly's finalsingle, "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 newgeneration of English rock & rollers and their audiences wouldn't let Holly's music or spirit die. Two years after the event, producer Joe Meekand singer Mike Berry combined to make "Tribute to Buddy Holly," a memorial single that sounded like the man himself reborn and stillbrings smiles and chills to listeners who know it; it is said that Meek never entirely got over Holly's death, and he did kill himself on theanniversary. On the less extreme front, players from Lennon, McCartney, and Keith Richards on down all found themselves influenced byHolly's music, songs, and playing. Groups like the Searchers -- taking their name from the same Wayne movie whence the phrase "that'll bethe 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 inearly 1959, and they even repackaged the 1956 Decca sides several times over under various titles (the mid-'70s British LP The NashvilleSessions is the best of the vinyl editions). The company also engaged Petty to take various Holly demos and early country-flavored sidesdone by Buddy & Bob and dub new instruments and backing voices, principally using a band called the Fireballs. Those releases, includingthe 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 Beatlesgorgeous rendition of "Words of Love" helped keep Holly's name alive before a new generation of listeners. In America, it was more of anuphill struggle to spread the word -- rock & roll, like most American popular culture, was always regarded as more easily disposable, and asa new generation of teenagers and new musical phenomena came along, the public did gradually forget. By the end of the 1960s, exceptamong older fans (now 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 1960s, with the beginning of the oldies boom. Holly's music figured in it, of course, and aspeople listened they also heard about the man behind it -- even Rolling Stone magazine, then the arbiter of taste for the counterculture, wentout 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 an air crash, alsoset him apart from some of the then- recent deaths of contemporary rock stars such as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and JimMorrison -- they'd all pushed life right to the edge, till it broke, where Holly stood there seemingly eternally innocent, both personally and interms 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 asong called "American Pie," whose narrative structure was hooked around "the day the music died." After disposing of the erroneous notionthat he was referring to President Kennedy, McLean made it clear that he meant February 3, 1959, and Holly. Coverage of "American Pie"'spopularity and lyrics as it soared to the top of the charts inevitably led to mentions of Holly, who was suddenly getting more exposure in thenational press than he'd ever enjoyed in his lifetime. His music had never disappeared -- even the Grateful Dead performed "Not Fade Away" in concert -- and now there was a song that seemedto give millions of people a series of personal and musical reference points into which to place the man. Until "American Pie," mostAmericans equated November 22, 1963, the day of President Kennedy's murder, with the loss of national innocence and an opening of anera of shared grief. McLean pushed the reference point back to February 3, 1959, on a purely personal basis, and an astonishingly largenumber 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'sfinal 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 onelast 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 theyears and decades that followed, MPL was able to sell and exploit those songs in ways that Petty in Clovis, NM, never could have, and earnhundreds of thousands of dollars for them that Petty never would have. And with McCartney -- a Holly fan from the age of 15, and probablythe 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 1960s, therewere exactly two Holly LPs available domestically, The Great Buddy Holly, consisting of the 1956 Decca sides, which hardly representedhis best or most important work, and the even more dispensable Giant album, consisting of overdubbed demos and outtakes. Britishaudiences got access to more and better parts of his catalog first, and a collection, 20 Golden Greats, actually topped the charts over therein 1978, in conjunction with the release of the movie The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey in the title role. It was a romanticized andvery simplified account of the man's life and career, and slighted the contributions of the other members of the Crickets -- and never evenmentioned 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 TheComplete 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 thegroup's 1958 British tour. In a rare bold move, mostly courtesy of producer Steve Hoffman, MCA Records in 1983 issued For the First TimeAnywhere, a selection of raw, undubbed masters of original Holly recordings that had previously only been available with extra instrumentsadded on -- it was followed by From the Original Master Tapes, the first attempt to put together a Holly compilation with upgraded soundquality. Those titles and The Great Buddy Holly were the earliest of Holly's official CD releases, though they were soon followed by BuddyHolly and The Chirping Crickets. In 1986, the BBC aired The Real Buddy Holly Story, a documentary produced by McCartney as acounteractive to the Busey movie, which covered all of the areas ignored by the inaccuracies of the movie and responded to them. Therehave followed stage musicals and plays, upgraded and audiophile reissues of his work, and tribute albums, all continuing to flow out at asteady pace more than 50 years after Holly's death. « hide

Similar Bands: Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ritchie Valens, Bill Haley and His Comets, Link Wray

LPs
Reminiscing
1963

3.5
3 Votes
That'll be the Day
1958

3.7
17 Votes
Buddy Holly
1958

4
56 Votes
The Chirping Crickets
1957

4.1
75 Votes
Compilations
The Definitive Collection
2006

2.5
1 Votes
The Best of Buddy Holly
1994

4
11 Votes
The Buddy Holly Collection
1993

3.8
6 Votes
From the Original Master Tapes
1985

4.1
7 Votes
The Buddy Holly Story
1959

3.7
6 Votes

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