Singer, songwriter, guitarist
“Even though Buddy Holly never had a Number One single in America, his legacy is immeasurable,” stated Chet Flippo in Rolling Stone. The composer and recording artist of such early rock megahits as “That’ll Be the Day,” “Maybe Baby,” and “Peggy Sue,” Holly, despite a short career tragically ended by his death in a plane crash at the age of twenty-two, is considered one of the founding fathers of rock music. Classified by some as a purveyor of the “Tex-Mex” branch of rock and roll, and by others as falling into the rockabilly category, Holly pioneered many common practices in the recording industry. He was among the first to overdub musical tracks with his own voice and guitar playing, and the first to use classical stringed instruments on rock records—”It Doesn’t Matter Any More,” written by fellow recording artist Paul Anka, and his own composition, “Raining in My Heart.”
In addition to his own hits, Holly’s influence is felt in the work of other musicians, including the Beatles (who even named themselves after insects to liken themselves to Holly’s backup group, the Crickets) and Bob Dylan. Himself influenced by early rock giant Elvis Presley, Holly nevertheless evolved a distinctive personal style; as Gene Busnar noted in his 1979 book, It’s Rock ‘N’ Roll: “His skinny kid with glasses image was in sharp contrast to Elvis’s sex appeal…. Holly proved that you did not have to be black, tough, or goodlooking to be an authentic rock ’n’ roll star. Sometimes, talent was enough.”
Buddy was born Charles Hardin Holley—dropping the “e” was originally a mistake on the part of a record company talent scout—on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas. He learned to play the violin and the piano as a child, but soon displayed a preference for the guitar. Contrary to the depiction presented in the popular film version of Holly’s life, “The Buddy Holly Story,” Holly’s parents always supported him in his musical ventures. By the age of thirteen Holly and his friend Bob Montgomery were playing local clubs, specializing in a music they called “western bop,” but performing mainstream country tunes as well. They made what Busnar termed “a conventional country album,” which met with little attention, but when Holly and Montgomery served as the opening act for pioneer rock group Bill Haley and the Comets at a local rock show a scout for Decca Records signed Holly, without Montgomery, to a contract. Decca cut a few singles featuring Holly, but they were not considered likely to meet with commercial success, and Decca advised the young musician to go back to Lubbock to refine his material.
Holly did so, forming a band called the Crickets with friends Jerry Allison, who played drums, Joe B. Mauldin,
Full name, Charles Hardin (some sources say Harden) Holley; Born September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Tex. ; killed in an airplane crash, February 3, 1959, near Mason City, Iowa; son of Lawrence O. and Ella Holley; married Maria Elena Santiago (a receptionist), August 15, 1958.
Performed as half of musicial group Buddy and Bob (later Buddy, Larry, and Bob), beginning c. 1949, in Lubbock, Tex.; featured musicial performer on radio program “The Sunday Party,” on KDAV, Lubbock, 1953-56; member of musical group the Crickets (later also billed as Buddy Holly and the Crickets), 1956-59; also recorded and performed as solo artist, 1958-59.
Awards: Charter member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
who served as bass player, and Niki Sullivan, who provided the rhythm guitar. Holly played guitar and sang lead vocals. The band traveled to Clovis, New Mexico, to record in the studios of Norman Petty, who produced much of their subsequent music. A Petty-produced, livelier version of “That’ll Be the Day,” a song Holly had already recorded for Decca, brought the Crickets and their leader by circuitous ways back to Decca’s attention; a deal was made in which songs released as Buddy Holly and the Crickets would be released on Decca’s subsidiary Brunswick label, while records with Holly’s solo billing would be on the Coral label.
Holly’s unique vocal style, coupled with Allison’s drum beat, ensured success. His singing voice has been likened to that of a person with the hiccups; he is remembered for his use of glottal stops and stretched syllables. As Arnold Shaw pointed out in The Rockin’ 50s, Holly broke with usual practice by singing ballads with “a feeling of nervous excitement.” Referring to Holly’s first solo hit, “Peggy Sue,” an expression of unrequited love taking its title from the name of Allison’s girlfriend (and later, wife), Shaw explained: “An older school of singers found this disregard of lyrics rather disconcerting. But Holly’s admirers were unconcerned that his performance bore no relation to the woeful words of pleading. What counted was the agitation, tension, and energy of Holly’s delivery…. His performance was the song…. What was amateurville in the eyes of the ‘good music’ advocates was a new esthetic to teen-agers.”
As part of the early rock movement, a cultural innovation many perceived as stemming completely from rhythm and blues, a field dominated by black artists, Holly and the Crickets were sometimes mistakenly thought to be a black group. Once they were accidentally booked with black singers and musicians to play to a primarily black audience at the Apollo Theater; apparently the audience was shocked to see white musicians on their stage, but Holly and his group performed gamely. As former Cricket Sullivan recounted for Chet Flippo in Rolling Stone: “The first two days that we played the Apollo, we were booed. The third day, Buddy said, ‘Let’s do Bo Diddley,’ [a popular rhythm and blues number] and from that moment on we were a hit.” Holly’s other breakthroughs include helping introduce rock and roll to English audiences. When he and the Crickets toured Great Britain in March of 1958, Holly was enthusiastically received and became even more popular than he was in the United States.
In the summer of 1958 Holly was at the offices of Peer-Southern, his New York City music publishers, when he met Maria Elena Santiago, who was a receptionist there. Two weeks later, he married her. After a honeymoon in Acapulco, the couple returned to Lubbock; at this time Holly broke with Petty, feeling that he and the Crickets could be their own producers. The Crickets disagreed, however, resulting in Holly’s splitting with them as well. He and Maria Elena set up housekeeping in New York City.
With new backup musicians, one of whom was future country music star Waylon Jennings, in early 1959 Holly toured with a rock show that also featured stars J. P. Richardson (”The Big Bopper”) and Ritchie Valens. They rode in buses from performance to performance; the buses kept breaking down, and finally, after a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly decided to charter a small four-seater plane to reach the next town in time to rest and do laundry. Jennings gave up his seat to Richardson, who was ill; Holly’s other back-up man was persuaded by Valens to do the same for him. Early on the morning of February 3, the plane took off from the nearby Mason City, Iowa, airport and crashed eight miles out, killing the pilot and his famous passengers.
Composer of songs, including (with Norman Petty; under name Charles Hardin) “Not Fade Away”; (with Petty) “It’s So Easy”; (with Petty) “True Love Ways”; (with Petty and Jerry Allison) “Peggy Sue”; and (with Petty and Allison) “That’ll Be the Day.”
Single releases; as Buddy Holly and the Crickets
“That’ll Be the Day,” Brunswick, July 1957.
“Oh Boy!” Brunswick, November 1957.
“Not Fade Away,” Brunswick, 1957.
“Every Day,” Brunswick, 1957.
“Maybe Baby,” Brunswick, February 1958.
“It’s So Easy,” Brunswick, September 1958.
Solo single releases
“Peggy Sue,” Coral, November 1957.
“Rave On,” Coral, May 1958.
“Heartbeat,” Coral, January 1959.
“It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” Coral, February 1959.
“Raining in My Heart,” Coral, February 1959.
Buddy Holly Story, Coral, 1959.
Buddy Holly Story II, Coral, 1960.
Best of Buddy Holly, Coral, 1966.
Greatest Hits, Coral, 1967.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Collection, MCA, 1972.
Busnar, Gene, It’s Rock ’n Roll, Messner, 1979.
Gold rosen, John, Buddy Holly: His Life and Music, Popular Press, 1975.
Goldrosen, John, and John Beecher, Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography, Penguin, 1987.
Laing, Dave, Buddy Holly, Macmillan, 1971.
Shaw, Arnold, The Rockin’ 50s, Hawthorn, 1974.
Ward, Edward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, Summit Books, 1986 .
New Republic, January 27, 1979.
Rolling Stone, April 20, 1978; September 21, 1978.
One of rock 'n' roll's founding fathers, Buddy Holly (1936-1959) recorded a highly influential body of work before his untimely death. Holly's unique mix of pop melodicism, aggressive rhythmic drive, and imaginative arrangement ideas directly inspired the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and numerous other bands in the coming decades.
At age 22, a fatal plane crash made Buddy Holly into an instant rock 'n' roll legend. His string of hit records—including "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Oh Boy!," and "Rave On"—had made him a celebrity in America and beyond. What proved to be remarkable about Holly was that his stature increased with time, rather than fading as was typical with pop music idols. His distinctive mix of rock 'n' roll, country, and R & B served to inspire a generation of younger artists and remained vital for decades to come. In terms of both his creative output and his stage persona, Holly helped to broaden the range of possibilities within the rock 'n' roll idiom.
Holly was born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas on September 7, 1936. The youngest of three children, he was nicknamed "Buddy" by his mother, Ella Drake Holley. His father, Larry Holley, worked at various times as a cook, carpenter, tailor, and clothing salesman. Holly showed an early interest in music, winning a local talent contest at age five. By age 11, he had taken piano lessons and was beginning to learn guitar. During his high school years, he performed regularly on a Lubbock radio station, first with Jack Neal, then with Bob Montgomery as a partner. Eventually, a group evolved that included Holly and Montgomery on guitar and Don Guess on acoustic bass. The combo—known as Buddy and Bob and, later, the Rhythm Playboys—played country music, although Holly was beginning to take an interest in R & B and blues as well. In January of 1955 Holly saw Elvis Presley perform in Lubbock, inspiring him to play rock 'n' roll. By the time he graduated high school that same year, he was already a popular performer on the local dance and club scene.
Recording Session with Producer Owen Bradley
Playing the country/rock hybrid dubbed "rockabilly," Holly and his group opened shows for Presley, Bill Haley, and other notable acts on tour in late 1955. After meeting talent scout Eddie Crandall, he signed a recording contract with Decca Records as a solo artist and, with Sonny Curtis replacing Montgomery on guitar, went to Nashville on January 26, 1956, to record four songs. Producing these sessions was Owen Bradley, later famous as the man behind the hits of Patsy Cline. After further touring on the country-music circuit, he recorded several more tunes, including "That'll Be the Day," a song co-written by Holly and newly recruited drummer Jerry Allison. None of the songs recorded for Decca attracted much attention, and he was released from his contract.
Undaunted, Holly took his band—now including rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan and re-named the Crickets— to the Clovis, New Mexico, studio of producer Norman Petty, known for his work with rockabilly artist Buddy Knox. In February 1957 the Crickets recorded new versions of "That'll Be the Day," "Maybe Baby," and several other tunes. Petty was impressed by the young musician's talent and attitude. "I was amazed at the intensity and honesty and sincerity of [Buddy's] whole approach to music," Petty later told author Philip Norman in an interview for Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly, "… . to see someone so honest and so completely himself was super-refreshing. He wasn't the world's most handsome guy, he didn't have the world's most beautiful voice, but he was himself."
The songs recorded at Petty's studio were turned down by Roulette, Columbia, RCA, and Atlantic Records before Holly placed them with Coral/Brunswick. Ironically, the label was a subsidiary of Decca, the same company that had dropped Holly the previous year. Because Decca owned the rights to the earlier recording of "That'll Be the Day," Brunswick credited the song to the Crickets upon its release in May 1957. The song was a slow-building hit, finally hitting the top of the U.S. singles charts on September 23. Holly and the Crickets spent the intervening months touring the country in package shows with other acts. They became one of the first white acts to perform at Harlem's famous Apollo Theater. Appearances on such television programs as American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show further increased their visibility. The band's first album, The Chirping Crickets, was released by Brunswick in November 1957. "That'll Be the Day" became a major hit in Britain as well, encouraging the Crickets to tour there in March 1958.
Began His Climb up the Charts
Further singles followed, some credited to Holly, others to the Crickets. "Peggy Sue," perhaps Holly's most recognizable song, reached number three on the U.S. singles chart in January of 1958. The song's rumbling beat and stark, clear-toned guitar playing were unique for the time, as were Holly's idiosyncratic, hiccup-accented vocals. "Oh Boy," "Maybe Baby," and "Rave On" continued his success into the spring and summer of that year. These and other Holly records represented major innovations in the still-fledgling rock 'n' roll genre. His use of multi-track recording techniques and reliance on largely self-written material were widely imitated. Rather than conforming to the rock 'n' roll sex symbol image popularized by Presley, the gangling, bespectacled Holly set a different standard for pop music stardom. The instrumental line-up of the Crickets— two guitars, bass, and drums—became the prototype of countless rock bands who followed a few years later.
Compared to such flamboyant rock 'n' roll peers as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, Holly led a conservative lifestyle. Playful and exuberant on stage, he was shy and introverted when not performing and was prone to taking long solitary drives in the Texas desert. His exterior meekness disguised an inner self-confidence and drive which grew as his success increased. The summer and fall of 1958 brought considerable changes in his life. On August 15, he married Maria Elena Santiago, a publishing company receptionist Holly had met in New York two months earlier. That October he parted company with producer/manager Petty and split with the Crickets as well. His career was heading in new directions: that fall he produced the first recording by a then-unknown Waylon Jennings and began experimenting with string section backup on his own recordings. In November 1958 he recorded four songs with the Dick Jacobs Orchestra—including the Paul Anka-composed "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" and Holly's own "True Love Ways"—that found him moving away from frenetic rock 'n' roll and toward more polished pop balladry.
Tragedy in Iowa
In January 1959, Holly made what would prove to be his last recordings at his apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village. That same month, he embarked on a "Winter Dance Party" tour with a newly formed backup group which included guitarist and former Cricket Tommy Allsup, drummer Carl Bunch, and bassist Waylon Jennings. The tour, which also included such acts as J.P "Big Bopper" Richardson, Richie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts, stopped in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2. Tired of traveling in his poorly heated tour bus, Holly chartered a small Beechcraft Bonanza plane to travel to the next concert stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. The plane, carrying Richardson and Valens along with Holly, took off at one a.m. in severe winter weather. It crashed a few minutes later not far from the airfield, killing all on board.
News of Holly's death at age 22 sparked a genuine sense of loss in America, Great Britain, and elsewhere. The tragedy helped to make "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" a posthumous hit, the first of many to follow. In May of 1959 Coral Records released The Buddy Holly Story, a retrospective album that stayed on the charts for three years and became the label's biggest-selling release. Old Holly tunes revived or discovered included "Midnight Shift," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "True Love Ways," and "Learning the Game." Former producer Petty acquired the rights to a number of Holly's recordings and released them with over dubbed additional musicians. Holly's recordings remained in print and sold well, particularly in Great Britain where the "best of" collection 20 Golden Greats topped the charts in 1978.
The following decades demonstrated Holly's continued influence on popular music. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones performed and recorded his songs at the start of their careers. Such rock artists as Bob Dylan, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen acknowledged their creative debt to Holly in interviews. Singer/songwriter Don McLean's 1971 hit "American Pie" mourned his death as "the day the music died." Linda Ronstadt, the Knack, and Blondie were among the pop/rock artists who revived his tunes in the 1970s. In 1975 Paul McCartney purchased Holly's entire song catalogue and, a year later, commemorated the late singer's 40th birthday by launching "Buddy Holly Week" in Great Britain. Recognition continued into the 1980s, when Holly became one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's original inductees. Such tribute albums as 1989's Everyday Is a Holly Day and 1996's Notfadeaway: Remembering Buddy Holly featured new interpretations of his material. Holly's life was brought to the screen in the 1978 film The Buddy Holly Story, which earned lead actor Gary Busey an Academy Award nomination.
Over 40 years after Holly's death, his recordings continued to rank among the most significant in modern popular music. What course his work might have taken had he lived remains one of the great unanswered questions in rock 'n' roll history. Beyond such speculation, Holly's music continues to be played and enjoyed, and his presence missed.
All Music Guide, edited by Michael Elewine, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Miller Freeman Books, 1997.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 1, Gale, 1989.
Goldrosen, John, The Buddy Holly Story, Quick Fox, 1979.
Laing, Dave, Buddy Holly, Collier Books, 1972.
Norman, Philip, Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly, Simon& Schuster, 1996. □