“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” (Eder).
“A long, lanky body, a childish smile, horn-rimmed glasses” (shof), his “vocal hiccup” (rockhall) “and a plain, folksy quality became a part of his unique image-and this was in an era of pretty-boy teen idols” (shof). “Though Holly lacked the arresting sexuality of Elvis Presley, he nonetheless cut an engaging, charismatic figure” (rockhall). “Bill Haley was there first and established rock & roll music…and Chuck Berry defined the music’s roots in blues…and its youthful orientation…Holly’s influence was just as far-reaching as these others, if far more subtle and more distinctly musical in nature” (Eder).
Holly’s career lasted less time than “Elvis had at the top before the army took him (and less time, in fact, than Elvis spent in the army)” (Eder), “but the wealth of material he recorded in that time made a major and lasting impact on popular music” (rockhall). “Holly became the single most influential creative force in early rock & roll” (Eder).
“Holly was an innovator who wrote his own material and was among the first to exploit such advanced studio techniques as double-tracking. He pioneered and popularized the now-standard rock-band lineup of two guitars, bass and drums. In his final months, he even began experimenting with orchestration” (rockhall).
“It has been written that Buddy Holly had more originality and drive at age nineteen than most rock groups ever summon up in their entire careers” (shof). “His creative self-reliance and energetic, inspired craftsmanship prefigured the coming wave of rock and rollers in the Sixties. Holly was a professed influence on the Beatles and Hollies (both of whom derived their names from his)” (rockhall). “Paul McCartney has acknowledged Holly’s innovative style and immense versatility as a great influence in his own creative output” (shof).
Early Years/Buddy & Bob:
Holly “was the youngest of four children. A natural musician from a musical family” (Eder), he “learned to play guitar, piano and fiddle at an early age” (rockhall). He was also “proficient on…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’” (Eder) and in 1953 they “audition[ed] for radio station KDAV in Lubbock [and are] given a half-hour show on Sunday afternoons, during which they perform country and bluegrass standards” (rockhall).
“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” (Eder), “an event that hastened his conversion from country and western to rock and roll” (rockhall). “Holly saw the future direction of his life and career” (Eder). “‘We owe it all to Elvis,’ he later said” (rockhall).
In 1955, “the trio of Buddy Holly, Bob Montgomery and [upright bass player] Larry Welborn opens for Bill Haley and the Comets in Lubbock. Holly impresses a Nashville talent scout, leading to his eventual signing with Decca Records” (rockhall) in early 1956. “Overseen by veteran country producer Owen Bradley” (rockhall), Holly started “recording demos and singles for the label in Nashville under the name Buddy Holly and the Three Tunes” (rockhall). “His first official recording session” (rockhall) “yields four tracks, including Holly’s debut single (Blue Days, Black Nights) and a classic cover (Midnight Shift)” (rockhall). However, “nothing issued at the time went anywhere” (Eder).
“Holly kept pushing his music toward a straight-ahead rock & roll sound” (Eder). “Eventually Montgomery, who leaned toward more of a traditional country sound, left the performing partnership, though they continued to compose songs together” (Eder). They’d added future Crickets “drummer Jerry Allison to their lineup” (Eder).
“That’ll Be the Day” & the Coral and Brunswick contracts:
“After Decca’s rejection, Holly and his band, which now included Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar” (Eder), started recording at producer Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Petty “had an ear for the new music and what made it sound good, especially over the radio, to the kids” (Eder). Holly & Co. “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’” (Eder), an “effortless, upbeat rocker” (rockhall). “The title and lyrical phrase [was] lifted from a line that John Wayne was always quoting in the John Ford movie The Searchers” (Eder). On February 25th, 1957, the Crickets recorded “That’ll Be the Day” and the result “won them a contract with the Coral and Brunswick labels” (rockhall).
Although Decca had dropped Holly, he was still “prohibited him from re-recording anything that he had cut for Decca, regardless of whether it had been released or not, for five years” (Eder). Since “Coral Records was a subsidiary of Decca” (Eder), “releases alternated on Coral and Brunswick, with those on the former label credited to Buddy Holly and the latter to the Crickets” (rockhall). “That’ll Be the Day” was “released on the Brunswick label” (rockhall) “and credited to the Crickets, a group name picked as a dodge to prevent any of the powers-that-were 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” (Eder).
“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” (Eder). However, by releasing material separately by Holly & The Crickets, the group could be kept “intact while giving room for its obvious leader and ‘star’ to break out on his own” (Eder).
“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” (Eder).
The Impact of Holly & The Crickets:
“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…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…Allison was a very inventive drummer and contributed to the songwriting bit more often than his colleagues, and Joe B. Mauldin and Niki Sullivan provided a solid rhythm section” (Eder).
“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” (Eder).
“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 behalf of their own songwriting…Thousands of aspiring musicians, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, took note” (Eder).
“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” (Eder).
“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” (Eder). On “August 15, 1958, Buddy Holly marries Maria Elena Santiago” (rockhall), “to whom he proposed on their first date” (rockhall). After marrying in Lubbock, Texas, the pair moved to Greenwich Village.
“Between 1957 and ’58, Buddy produced seven Top 40 Hits” (shof), but “the group’s sales had slackened somewhat. The singles such as Heartbeat didn't sell nearly as well as 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 to accept in late 1958. Well...All Right, for example, was years ahead of its time as a song and a recording” (Eder). “In October 1958, Holly split both with the Crickets and with Petty” (rockhall).
The Day the Music Died (1959):
“Holly’s split with the group…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 to prove almost no way of establishing this” (Eder). “With a new wife – who was pregnant – and no settlement coming in from Petty” (Eder) “reluctantly agreed to perform on the Winter Dance Party, an ill-advised bus tour of the Midwest in the winter of 1959” (rockhall). The tour is launched on January 23, 1959, “at George Devine’s Million Dollar Ballroom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Buddy Holly, who has parted ways with the Crickets, is the headliner. The other acts [were] Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Frankie Sardo” (rockhall).
On “February 3, 1959, after performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa” (rockhall), “Holly chartered a private plane to the next stop on the tour, Moorhead, Minnesota. Two other performers, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, joined him” (rockhall). “Their plane left the Mason City, Iowa, airport at one in the morning and crashed in a cornfield a few minutes later” (rockhall) “eight miles northwest of the airfield, killing Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. The Big Bopper) and pilot Roger Peterson” (rockhall). “Holly was only 22 years old at the time of the crash – an event immortalized in Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ as ‘the day the music died’” (rockhall).
“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, forget three of them, and the news was devastating. Radio station disc jockeys were also shaken” (Eder).
“Holly’s final single, It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, “written by Paul Anka and recorded by Buddy Holly at his last studio session” (rockhall), “rose to number one on the British charts in the wake of his death” (Eder). By the end of the year, “The Buddy Holly Story, a best-of album that has been in print since 1959, is certified gold (500,000 copies sold)” (rockhall).
“Holly’s record label continued to release posthumous albums of his work for years after his death” (Eder)’ “they even repackaged the 1956 Decca sides…[and] 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” (Eder).
“Players from Lennon, McCartney, and Keith Richards on down all found themselves influenced by Holly’s music, songs, and playing” (Eder). “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 before a new generation of listeners” (Eder). “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…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” (Eder).
“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.’…McLean made it clear that he meant February 3, 1959, and Holly. 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” (Eder).
“In 1975, [Paul] McCartney’s MPL Communications bought Holly’s publishing catalog from a near-bankrupt Petty…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…earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for them that Petty never would have. And with McCartney…as publisher, they were paid every cent they had coming” (Eder). In 1976, “on what would have been Buddy Holly’s 40th birthday, the singer’s life and music are the subject of a week-long tribute organized by Paul McCartney. ‘Buddy Holly Week’ becomes an annual affair” (rockhall).
In 1978, “The Buddy Holly Story, a popular film biography starring Gary Busey in the title role, is released” (rockhall). In the U.K., the collection 20 Golden Greats was released in conjunction with the film and topped the charts. 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” (Eder). That same year, “a commemorative concert [was] held at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, exactly 20 years after the final show played by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Del Shannon and the Drifters [were] among the performers” (rockhall).
On “January 23, 1986, Buddy Holly is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the first induction dinner, held in New York City. Holly’s widow, Maria Elena, accepts on his behalf” (rockhall).