Holly, Buddy (1936-1959)

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Holly, Buddy (1936-1959)

As a songwriter, performer, and musician, Buddy Holly remains one of the most influential rock 'n' roll entertainers of all time. Artists such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen have all acknowledged Holly's influence on their music. His career was painfully short, lasting from September 1957—when "That'll Be the Day" became a chart-topping hit—to February 3, 1959—when Holly died in a tragic plane crash in Iowa. But, as Holly biographer Philip Norman has pointed out, in that short period of time, "he created a blueprint for enlightened rock stardom that every modern newcomer with any pretense at self-respect still aspires to follow."

Holly's musical legend is replete with many firsts. He was the first rock performer to insist on artistic control over his material. He was the first to write his own songs, and the first to arrange them and supervise his own studio sessions. He was the first to master the technical aspects of the recording business, achieving effects with echo, double-tracking, and overdubbing. He was the first rocker to eschew the "pretty boy" looks of most performers of the 1950s, adopting a more bookwormish look complete with black horn-rim glasses. In addition, he was the first rock performer capable of attracting a faithful male audience as much as a female one. Holly was only twenty-two years old when he died, but he left behind a legacy of songs that have steadily grown in stature and influence, making him one of the genuine legends of popular music.

Born on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas, Holly's musical influences included country and western music and rhythm and blues. At age five, Holly made his first appearance on stage, joining his brothers Larry and Travis in a talent contest that won them five dollars. During his childhood, Holly took lessons to play the guitar, violin, and piano, and taught himself boogie-woogie rhythms on the piano. At age twelve, he entertained friends with Hank Williams' songs, and in 1949 formed the Buddy and Bob bluegrass duo, with friend Bob Montgomery. During this period, Holly learned to play the banjo and the mandolin, and in 1949 he made his first recording—a song titled "My Two Timin' Woman"—on a home tape recorder. By 1952, Buddy and Bob had become a sensation in Lubbock, and they recorded two songs in Holly's home that year and another in 1953. Also in 1953, they performed on KDAV radio, added Larry Welborn on bass, and were given their own program, The Buddy and Bob Show. KDAV disc jockey "Hipockets" Duncan became the trio's manager, landing them shows in the West Texas area. The trio added fiddler Sonny Curtis and steel guitarist Don Guess to the group in 1954, and together they made recordings in the Lubbock and Wichita Falls studios. That year the group added drummer Jerry Allison and opened Texas concerts for Bill Haley and his Comets and Elvis Presley. Holly was intrigued by Presley's rock 'n' roll style, but continued to play country music.

Holly's group landed its first recording contract in December 1955 with Decca records. The band, now minus Montgomery, recorded four songs in a Nashville studio on January 26, 1956. From that session, Decca released "Blue Days, Black Nights," backed with "Love Me," under the name of Buddy Holly and the Three Tunes. However, by September 1956, Holly left Decca because of the label's insistence that he continue playing country music, and due to the loss of his band members because of differences with Decca's session men. In late 1956, Holly, Allison, and Welborn traveled to Clovis, New Mexico, where they recorded two songs at a local studio. After returning to Lubbock, Holly formed the Crickets with Allison and Wiki Sullivan, who played rhythm guitar. On February 25, 1957, they returned to Clovis and recorded the classic "That'll Be the Day," trading their country stylings for a definitive rock 'n' roll sound. Numerous record companies rejected the song until it was released by Brunswick Records in May 1957. With Clovis studio owner Norman Petty now their manager and Joe B. Mauldin having joined the group as bassist, "That'll Be the Day" received heavy promotion and reached number one by September 1957.

On the heels of the release of "That'll Be the Day," Buddy Holly and the Crickets spent three months touring the United States, playing such venues as the Apollo Theater in New York and Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. Holly's band recorded an impressive body of work in 1957, including such classics as "Words of Love," "Maybe Baby," "Not Fade Away," "Everybody," "Oh Boy," and the legendary "Peggy Sue." Holly was very experimental in the studio, and used a variety of new production techniques, including overdubbing vocals and double-tracking guitar parts. "Peggy Sue" reached number three on the charts in the United States and "Oh Boy" number ten during 1957. The group closed out this watershed year by appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, an appearance they repeated in January 1958.

That same month, the Crickets recorded "Rave On" in New York and toured Australia for six days, then recorded "Well … All Right" on February 1958. Then, in early March of that year, Holly's group toured England, where their songs were topping the charts. Upon their return to America, the Crickets joined a tour assembled by disc jockey Alan Freed that included Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. Also in 1958, Holly married Maria Elena Santiago, recorded "Heartbeat," "Wishing," and "Love's Made a Fool of You," and held recording sessions that included extra musicians, including Waylon Jennings, Phil Everly, and King Curtis.

By the time Holly's group toured the Northeast and Canada in October 1958, tension was growing between Holly and manager Petty, and there was friction among band members because of their lead singer's expressed desire to become a solo artist. During the tour, Holly left his manager, with the Crickets leaving Holly to stay with Petty. On October 21, 1958, Holly, working with producer Dick Jacobs and studio musicians, recorded "True Love Ways," "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," "Raining in My Heart," and "Moondreams." In January 1959, Holly assembled a new band, also to be called the Crickets, to take on the "Winter Dance Party" tour of the Midwest. Included in the tour were Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts. The tour began on January 23, 1959, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the evening show on February 1 was canceled due to bad weather. The tour then played Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2. Following this fateful show, Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper chartered a small place to take them to the next date in Moorhead, Minnesota. The idea was to avoid taking the tour bus, which had previously broken down and had a defective heater. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed in a cornfield about five miles north of Clear Lake, killing Holly, Valens, the Big Bopper, and their pilot. Don McLean later memorialized the date as "the day the music died" in his song "American Pie."

Holly's popularity skyrocketed after his death, with his influence still impacting the contemporary music scene. Even as late as the 1980s, unreleased Holly material was still being issued. During the 1970s, Paul McCartney purchased the Holly song catalogue, and he began sponsoring annual Buddy Holly Week celebrations. Holly fan clubs, magazines, books, and Web sites flourish, and movies and musicals have been based on his life. A statue of him stands in Lubbock, and two memorials to Holly have been placed in Clear Lake, Iowa. One memorial is a large, grey stone located at the Surf Ballroom, where Holly performed his last show. The other is a guitar and three records fashioned out of stainless steel placed at the crash site.

—Dennis Russell

Further Reading:

Amburn, Ellis. Buddy Holly: A Biography. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Goldrosen, John, and John Beecher. Remembering Buddy: The De-finitive Biography. New York, Penguin, 1987.

Norman, Philip. Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Tobler, John. The Buddy Holly Story. New York, Beaufort Books, 1979.