411 Music Hall Of Fame Class of 2011: Buddy Holly
BUDDY HOLLY’S MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
All too often, the rock & roll mythos of “larger than life” personalities is fully embraced by many singers. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, Marilyn Manson… hell, even that dude from Gwar. For those and many other artists, the temptation to become that swaggering, outspoken ‘rock god’ is impossible to resist. That school of thought, however, isn’t universal in rock & roll music, and the “everyman” has also become a lauded figure. There’s something to be said about seeing someone just like you and me plugging away at rock music, and one could make a strong argument that it all started with one Charles Hardin Holley in the 1950s. You and I know him as Buddy Holly, the bespectacled, lanky young man who rocked all corners of the known universe in the mid-1950s.
Born to Lawrence & Ella Holley on September 7, 1936 in Lubbock, Texas, Charles – dubbed “Buddy” by his family – was the youngest of four children, and took up music at an early age. A 5-year-old Charles won a talent contest singing “Have You Ever Gone Sailing (Down The River Of Memories),” an old standard, and by 12 years old, he was learning to play guitar, banjo, and lap steel guitar. Originally he, along with his family, had a great passion for gospel and country music, and Buddy possessed a strong soprano voice (heard to great effect on an old demo of his, “My Two-Timing Woman” done on a wire recorder). When Buddy heard rhythm and blues on the radio, such as Bo Diddley, well, you know the rest. That sound would prove to be incredibly influential on his future recordings.
It wasn’t instantaneous, however. Buddy would remain playing bluegrass music with running buddies Bob Montgomery and Sonny Curtis, but like so many others in the 1950s, the rise of Elvis Presley would provide tremendous inspiration. When Buddy and company were introduced to Elvis in 1955 they were spellbound with his performance and approach, and it wasn’t long until Buddy’s brothers got him a Fender Stratocaster. He began to carve out a signature style for himself, preferring to use downward strokes to create loud, chiming major chords (this style of playing would see a new context in punk rock over 2 decades later). As he progressed, his vocals became a trademark as well; he is famous for his certain “hiccup” technique that he punctuated his lyrics with, a technique that really should be heard to be fully appreciated.
Soon, Buddy got his big break, as he was signed to Decca Records in early 1956. Some of you interested in rock folklore may recall Decca Records as the company that thought the Beatles had no future in show business. It wasn’t their first faux pas with a future star, either, as the label didn’t have much idea how to market Holly. It even started off on an ominous note, as “Holly” grew out of a misspelling of “Holley,” though to his credit Buddy simply adopted the moniker and ran with it. Furthermore, one of his first contributions, “That’ll Be The Day” (born out of he and his friends laughing about a John Wayne movie), was greeted with scorn by producer Owen Bradley, although at the time, the song was a very different version than the later, more well-known rendition. First singles, such as “Blue Days Black Nights” and “Love Me” were good examples of simple rockabilly music and that certain Buddy Holly enthusiasm, but they didn’t take off as hoped.
His input was restricted by the label, which didn’t cotton much to his guitar playing and had more old-fashioned methods on how to make him a star. Buddy, however, was no fool, and soon wanted out of his Decca contract. Moving back to his hometown, he started up a new band that came to be known as The Crickets: himself on lead guitar and vocals, Joe B. Mauldin on bass, Niki Sullivan on guitar and Jerry Allison behind the kit. The “two guitars, bass & drums” lineup would wind up setting the standard for a wealth of bands to follow, but for the short term, it allowed him to keep performing without using his name, for fear of problems with Decca. Who, as it turns out, weren’t interested in renewing his contract anyway, although this agreement meant he couldn’t record the same songs for another label for five years. Nonetheless, he got in contact with independent producer Norman Petty, who had just helped fellow rock & roller Buddy Knox score a hit with “Party Doll.” Recognizing Buddy’s talent, Norman agreed, albeit at a cost: he wanted his name on the songwriting credits, which was said to be a common practice at the time.
Buddy and The Crickets recorded new sessions with Petty, and, in a nice touch of irony, were signed to a subsidiary of Decca – Brunswick Records. Buddy was then signed as a solo artist to another subsidiary of Decca, Coral Records. Norman Petty was unique in that he charged by the song rather than by the hour, and as we’ll soon find, this was great news for Buddy. A re-recording of “That’ll Be The Day” had to be released under the Crickets’ name, and this became the big hit they were hoping for, slowly climbing to the top spots in not only the pop charts, but the R&B charts as well. Follow-up singles – the rollicking “Peggy Sue” and the giddy “Oh Boy!” were massive hits as well, cementing Buddy as a superstar, if appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand didn’t do so already. To Decca’s credit, they never did bother with any legal action upon Buddy’s identity being revealed.
The band was unique in that Buddy was both the lead guitarist and the vocalist. Compare this to other rock stars of the 1950s, such as the Big Bopper and even Elvis himself, whose guitars seemed closer to a prop than anything else. On top of that, many of the songs the band performed were actually written by Buddy and the Crickets themselves (something else that Elvis couldn’t boast). Before Buddy and company, songwriting was generally left to professional writers and considered separate from recording and performing. No one really knew how to accept such a skill in performers back then, but in later years, bands who followed took note of this fact, and the image of an archetypical rock band gradually shifted into something a little more self-contained.
And besides all that, there was Buddy himself. Whereas rockers even then took to heart the mindset of playing up a stage persona, Buddy did nothing of the sort. When the Crickets came out on stage, Buddy Holly was simply Buddy Holly, a tall guy with glasses who just sang his little heart out, resounding proof that with a little talent, you didn’t need all that glitz and glamour – rock stars could look like your average guy on the street. (No wonder Weezer, who embody this approach as much as any band of their time, namedropped Buddy in one of their most famous songs.) In one particularly famous incident, the band was somehow booked to appear at the Apollo Theater, used mainly for black performers performing to black audiences. The sight of a white band on stage caused unease with the surprised audience, but the band would stay for a three night engagement and eventually win over the crowd, who appreciated their energetic performances.
And then there are the studio recordings. As earlier mentioned, Norman Petty let Buddy and his band have as much time as they needed to get a song just right. Taking advantage of this, they began experimenting, trying out new ways to make the same impact. They began to double-track vocals, notably used to great effect on “Words Of Love.” Buddy would incorporate new instruments for poppier songs, such as inviting Petty’s wife, Vi, to play the celesta on “Everyday.” This song was also notable for drummer Jerry Allison forgoing his drumming duties in favor of simply smacking his hands on his lap. On later recordings, Buddy would go so far as to bring in a small orchestra to play, such as on “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” This was, needless to say, unheard of for rock & roll musicians. Maybe Buddy was a bit ahead of his time – as his work progressed, people had trouble keeping up, and chart performances grew steadily weaker.
In August, 1958, Buddy married receptionist Maria Elena Santiago (Buddy had proposed to her after a single date). This being rock & roll music and all, the marriage began to strain the relationships between Buddy, the Crickets and Petty (the latter is rumored to have suggested that Maria pose as the band’s secretary so they wouldn’t alienate Buddy’s female admirers). Splitting from the other parties and moving to New York, Buddy went solo for real, and in doing so found that he wasn’t receiving the income he should have been, due to Petty’s messy business practices. As a result, Buddy assembled a band (something of a new version of the Crickets, which included one Waylon Jennings on bass) and went on tour again with the Winter Dance Party package tour, along with the aforementioned J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (famed for his novelty classic “Chantilly Lace”), Dion & The Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, and the 17 year old Richie Valens (still riding high on the strength of his hit “La Bamba”). However, the tour did not go well for the performers, whose bus was plagued with problems, not the least of which was the heating, leaving them often stuck in sub-zero temperatures. Buddy’s drummer, Carl Bunch, even developed frostbite on his feet and needed to be taken to a hospital.
Deciding on a quick fix to the problem, Buddy decided to charter a small plane from Mason City, Iowa, to their next stop, and after some conversations and agreements, including at least one coin toss, the three seats on the plane were taken by Buddy and his supporting acts, Valens and Richardson. This game plan would allow more time for the performers to get their bearings between shows and make the schedule a lot easier to handle. With this practice a success, the three performers would go on to become household names into the 1960s, helping to expand the vocabulary of rock & roll, and let Buddy’s already rapidly growing legacy flourish into a long career.
That, uh… that is what happened, right?
“This story in from Clear Lake, Iowa: Three of the nation’s top rock & roll singing stars, Richie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly died today with their pilot in the crash of a charter plane. Following an appearance before 1,000 fans in Clear Lake last night, they chartered a plane near the Mason City Airport and took off at 1:50am for Fargo, North Dakota. Their four-seat, single-engine plane never made it off the ground; it crashed minutes later. It skidded across the snow some 500 feet, and Holly, 21 (Buddy had actually turned 22 in September the year before) , and Valens, a 17-year-old recording sensation, were thrown from the wreckage. The wreckage meanwhile was not discovered until long after dawn; the other members of the group including singer Frankie Sardo, the Crickets, and Dion & The Belmonts had made that trip by bus.”
You know, you hear so much nowadays about rock stars drinking and drugging themselves into early graves, to the point that it’s almost expected when such news comes to light. But Buddy Holly? He was never known for any sort of destructive lifestyle – while exuberant on stage, he was shy and rather conservative when not performing, and rarely drank – and he was, in fact, well on his way to settling down with a family. This was in the 1950s, no less. What were teenagers supposed to do? What was anyone involved with the rock & roll movement supposed to do? There was really no precedent for something like this; musicians had certainly died before their time, but never so suddenly and in such a catastrophic way. Not for nothing did singer Don McLean famously refer to the event as The Day The Music Died – along with Elvis joining the army that year, rock music met somewhat of a lull at the turn of the decade, never really lifting until the rise of the Beach Boys and the Beatles in the 1960s. Still, one could argue very convincingly that with Buddy’s accident, the first wave of rock & roll music was over.
Buddy, of course, was gone but never forgotten. Singers that came after him, such as Bob Dylan & Roy Orbison, continued his legacy of proving you didn’t have to look like a superstar to become one. The Hollies were rumored to be named in tribute to Buddy. Even The Beatles (which featured Buddy superfan John Lennon) were named as a sly tribute to the Crickets; the band would also cover some of his music and, with their now-famed studio acumen, could be called Buddy’s successors. For years after the accident, Buddy’s remaining material would be released to the public little by little, often with multiple overdubs from various sources (before “original master tapes” became en vogue). He would inspire a feature-length biographical film, The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey. And of course, his old hometown of Lubbock, Texas has a small museum, The Buddy Holly Center, in his honor.
Why Buddy Holly Was Selected:
Buddy doesn’t deserve this simply because he was a musician that died before his time. Buddy doesn’t even deserve this simply because he was an icon, a symbol of a more innocent and bygone time, although he certainly was. Buddy deserves this spot for changing what it meant to be a rock musician and expanding what rock & roll music was capable of, adding unprecedented elements to what until then was a simple rockabilly sound. Buddy didn’t think of rock & roll by any stereotypes – he may have been partial to good old boy-girl love stories, but he saw potential in its form and did whatever he could to embellish its elements, setting the stage for the genre’s redefinition in the 1960s. Hell, you could easily point to Buddy as a foundation, or at least a big influence, for several other Hall Of Famers – there certainly never would have been a Bob Dylan, a Beatles or a Rolling Stones, at least as we know them today, without Buddy Holly laying some groundwork before them. (And to think – he did all of this within a year and a half.)
But more than that, Buddy deserves this spot because he had a heart for music. Rarely did his songs constitute or celebrate lust; Buddy was more interested in real love, and the complexities of his music echoed that complex emotion in their own way. Put simply, there were few figures in early rock music, much less rock music of any era, like Buddy Holly, and he deserves every single accolade he gets.
We miss you, Buddy.