Buddy Holly

Highly Appreciated

Buddy Holly  (September 7, 1936 – February 3, 1959) was an American musician and singer-songwriter and a pioneer of rock and roll.  Although his success lasted only a year and a half before his death in an airplane crash, Holly is described by critic Bruce Eder as “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll”.  His works and innovations inspired and influenced contemporary and later musicians, notably the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello, and exerted a profound influence on popular music.  In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Holly number 13 on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time.  (More from Wikipedia)



Among all of these giants and more, is there room for Buddy Holly in the top levels of the pantheon of rock and roll pioneers?  You’d better believe it.  


First of all, Buddy Holly is a first-rate songwriter (many of his songwriting credits are in the name of Charles Hardin, taken from his real name, Charles Hardin Holley).  Rather than adapting traditional songs and musical styles, what he was writing was brand new.  Holly also brought a level of sophistication to his recordings that was also new to rock and roll; the music of most of the early rockers was pretty raw – not that I’m complaining, mind you; as readers of these posts probably realize by now, I like my music that way.  Additionally, even before he became a star, Buddy Holly primarily made his recordings at an independent recording studio and was not bound by record company policies and union rules that stultified numerous musicians in those days. 


Buddy Holly and the Crickets also helped win over black audiences to rockabilly and rock and roll when they were signed – literally sight unseen – for a series of shows from August 16 to 22, 1957 at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.  They were the first white act ever to play at the Apollo; though it took several appearances, the audience eventually warmed up to them. 


Writing for Allmusic, rock critic Bruce Eder states his case well:  “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. . . .  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 took him (and less time, in fact, than Elvis spent in the army) – Holly became the single most influential creative force in early rock & roll. . . . 


Holly and the band weren’t afraid to experiment even on their singles, so that ‘Peggy Sue’ made use of the kind of changes in volume and timbre on the guitar that were usually reserved for instrumental records; similarly, ‘Words of Love’ was one of the earliest successful examples of double-tracked vocals in rock & roll, which the Beatles, in particular, would embrace in the ensuing decade.” 


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A native of Lubbock, TexasBuddy Holly initially began performing with his childhood friend Bob Montgomery under the name Buddy and Bob, calling their musical style “western and bop”; they were the opening act for Elvis Presley when he performed in the Lubbock area in 1955.  In February 1956, Holly was signed by Decca Records but found the recording environment confining, where he was allowed virtually no input.  Buddy Holly was dropped by the label in January 1957 but was still bound by his contract that forbade him to re-record any songs during his stint with Decca for five years, regardless of whether or not they had been released. 


Buddy Holly and his band – by now known as the Crickets (they noticed crickets chirping in the studio one time while they were recording, or so the film The Buddy Holly Story maintains) – then began working at Norman Petty’s studio in New Mexico, concentrating in particular on what they considered their strongest song, “That’ll Be the Day” that they had never been able to satisfactorily record in the Decca studios.  The recording was brought to the attention of Bob Thiele, an executive at Coral Records; though Thiele liked it, others at Coral were unenthusiastic.  


Nevertheless, in March 1957the Crickets signed with Brunswick Records.  In order to avoid problems with Decca Records – even though Brunswick was a Decca subsidiary – Buddy Holly was not listed as a member of the Crickets on the original recording contract.  Not surprisingly, this would create serious legal and financial problems for Buddy Holly in the future. 


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According to Norman Petty, That’ll Be the Day by the Crickets was released in May 1957 to “humor” Bob Thiele.  The song became a #1 hit that summer; and before long, the jig was up as Decca Records executives realized that Buddy Holly was their bandleader.  However, as Cyndi Lauper observed in her 1984 hit song, “Money Changes Everything”, so Decca Records released Buddy Holly from his original contract restriction.  As a condition though, Buddy Holly was signed individually to Coral Records (yet another Decca subsidiary); thus, Buddy Holly was in the unusual position of being bound by two recording contracts at the same time – his earlier contract as a member of the Crickets and this new one as an individual artist. 


The confusion spread to the general public as well, since some of his 45’s were released under the name Buddy Holly, and others as the Crickets (often with Holly’s name nowhere in sight, even as a songwriter).  In spite of this, Buddy Holly and/or the Crickets had numerous hit songs, among them “Not Fade Away”, “Everyday”, “Listen to Me”, “Oh Boy!”, “Peggy Sue”, “Maybe Baby”, “Rave On”, “Heartbeat”, and “It’s So Easy”. 


Holly released just three albums during his lifetime, all under different names:  The Chirping Crickets by the Crickets on Brunswick Records in 1957Buddy Holly by Buddy Holly (pictured above) on Coral Records in 1958; and That’ll Be the Day by Buddy Holly & the Three Tunes on Decca Records, also in 1958.  The latter album was an attempt by Decca to cash in on Holly’s fame by releasing the songs from Buddy Holly’s 1956 studio recordings from his original contract with Decca


There were indications that Buddy Holly was beginning to eclipse even Elvis Presley in popularity, particularly in England but also in America.  For one thing, Buddy Holly and the Crickets toured the United Kingdom for a month in 1958 (they were only the second white rock band to do so), which Elvis never did, at least in those days.  Elvis Presley went into the Army in early 1958 – though his record company had plenty of future hits in the can, he was clearly no longer on the scene.  


Meanwhile, Buddy Holly was at the height of his powers as a musician, though record sales began to slip as a result:  Holly’s final 45 during his lifetime, Heartbeat b/w “Well . . . All Right” peaked at #82 on the Billboard singles charts.  Of the “B” side, Bruce Eder notes:  “[Buddy Holly] 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.”  Well All Right is one of the tracks on the excellent Blind Faith album that was released in 1969


Buddy Holly split from both the Crickets and Norman Petty in the fall of 1958 and was thus free to pursue his new musical visions.  Unfortunately, he got only a meager settlement when Norman Petty’s books were found to be in hopeless disarray – probably Petty took a big slice of the pie for himself, though there was no way to prove it. 


With a new, pregnant wife, and short on money, Buddy Holly signed on for the “Winter Dance Party” package tour of the Midwest.  It was during this tour that Holly was killed in the airplane crash in February 1959, along with Ritchie ValensThe Big Bopper. and the pilot Roger Peterson.  Buddy Holly was just 22 years old. 


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In the 1978 film, The Buddy Holly StoryGary Busey stars as Buddy Holly in an Oscar-nominated performance; Busey even performs the songs himself rather than having them dubbed in, as is the usual custom.  Gary Busey was previously in a rock band called Carp; I have a copy of their debut self-titled album, Carp that was released on Epic Records in 1969


One of the most memorable scenes in the movie depicts a performance by Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the Apollo Theatre in 1957.  As the applause dies away when the audience realizes that the band is white, Buddy says into the mike, “Well, we didn’t expect you either”, before launching into their set. 


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Buddy Holly’s impact on American music is immense; Wikipedia succinctly sums it up:  “Holly set the template for the standard rock and roll band:  two guitars, bass, and drums.  He was one of the first in the genre to write, produce, and perform his own songs.” 


Bobby Vee (not to be confused with Bobby Vinton) launched a successful musical career by taking Buddy Holly’s place in the Winter Dance TourHolly’s influence is clear in Bobby Vee songs like “Rubber Ball” and “Run to Him”.  


Bob Dylan (who was 17 at the time) attended Buddy Holly’s show on January 31, 1959 – only three days before the airplane crash.  Dylan spoke of the concert during his 1998 Grammy acceptance speech for Album of the Year for Time out of Mind:  “And I just want to say that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory, and I was three feet away from him . . . and he LOOKED at me.  And I just have some sort of feeling that he was – I don’t know how or why – but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.” 


As an aside, fellow Bob Dylan fans who might have quit buying his albums back in the 1960’s and 1970’s would do well to start with Time out of Mind Dylan’s next album, Love and Theft is even better – to see how great his newer music still is. 


In 1978Bruce Springsteen told Dave Marsh in an interview published in Rolling Stone:  “I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on; that keeps me honest.” 


Not Fade Away” ranks as the seventh most-performed song by the Grateful Dead in concert; they played the song an astounding 530 times.  Additionally, the Buddy Holly classic is on eight of their officially released live albums. 


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As important as he is in his home country, the influence of Buddy Holly among British musicians is incalculable.  Quoting Bruce Eder again:  “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, and bespectacled, 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 how unlikely he looked in that role.  He provided inspiration – and a way into the music – for tens of thousands of British teenagers who also couldn’t imagine themselves rivals to Elvis or Gene Vincent in the dark and dangerous department. . . .  Additionally, although he played several different kinds of guitar, Holly was specifically responsible for popularizing – some would say elevating to mystical, even magical status – the Fender Stratocaster, especially in England.”  


Buddy Holly’s death had a profound effect in the United Kingdom; Buddy’s final single, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” rose to #1 on the charts following his death.  In 1961, the ground-breaking record producer Joe Meek, working with singer Mike Berry created “Tribute To Buddy Holly” that seemed like the man himself singing from beyond the grave.  Joe Meek apparently never got over the loss, and he committed suicide in 1967 on the anniversary of the airplane crash.  


Even beyond musical influence, the Buddy Holly persona is also evident among British musicians.  In the late 1950’s, at least one British guitarist, Hank Marvin of the Shadows – the premier English instrumental rock band of the 1960’s that also backed Cliff Richard for several years – took the Buddy Holly look on stage, down to the glasses.  Marvin is also reputed to be the first man to bring a Fender Stratocaster guitar to England.  

The extravagant glasses that Elton John has worn throughout his decades-long career all started when young Reg Dwight began wearing glasses in his teens “not because he needed them, but in homage to Buddy Holly”, as Philip Norman wrote in his biography of the English legend.  Lead singer Freddie Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers is another British star who wore Buddy Holly glasses on stage; in the 1970’s, pub-music star Elvis Costello was doing the same.  Allmusic describes Freddie and the Dreamers as “the clowns of the British Invasion” due to their outlandish hits like “Do the Freddie”, but there is a lot more to them than that (though I will have to get into that another time). 


More than a few British rock groups adopted band names in tribute to Buddy Holly.  The Beatles in part took their insect-oriented name from that of his band the Crickets.  One Manchester band of the British Invasion period simply called themselves the Hollies.  Yet another British Invasion band, the Searchers took their name from the John Wayne movie of that name, The Searchers, where the Duke often said, “That’ll be the day”; the catch phrase had been adopted by Buddy Holly as the name of one of his first hits, That’ll Be the Day


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The above disk is of Buddy Holly’s song “That’ll Be the Day” and is the first recording that was made by the Quarrymen, the skiffle band that later became the Beatles.  Intended only as a demonstration disc, just one copy was ever pressed (in 1958); this record is one of the most valuable on earth, worth an estimated £100,000 according to NME.com.  The song was officially released in 1995 on the BeatlesAnthology 1 retrospective album package. 


Both Paul McCartney and John Lennon have called Buddy Holly a primary influence on their work; Ian Whitcomb once said that “Buddy Holly and the Crickets had the most influence on the Beatles”.  The Beatles did a lovely cover of “Words of Love” that was released in late 1964 on their album Beatles for Sale.  During the recording sessions for the Let it Be album in January 1969the Beatles recorded a slow version of “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues” (a song popularized by Buddy Holly, though not written by him); the song was later released on Anthology 3.  Also, John Lennon recorded a cover of “Peggy Sue” on his 1975 solo album Rock ’n’ Roll.  


Keith Richards once said of Buddy Holly that he had “an influence on everybody”.  Richards heard Buddy perform Not Fade Away in concert; as only their third single, the Rolling Stones hit #3 on the UK charts with “Not Fade Away” (performed in the Bo Diddley style that was the genesis of the song in the first place) – and that song is my very favorite Rolling Stones cover song. 


(June 2013/1)


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Last edited: March 22, 2021