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The Day The Music Died: 50 Years Without Buddly Holly

Published: Mon February 02, 2009  News Feed

Buddy Holly is one of the most influential pioneers of rock and roll. From The Beatles to Weezer, many have been inspired by his work. 50 years from his tragic death in a plane crash, we remember his work.

Buddy Holly

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 were copied by his contemporaries and later musicians, notably The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and exerted a profound influence on popular music. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Holly #13 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Charles Hardin Holley was born in Lubbock, Texas  in 1936. The Holleys were a musical family and as a young boy Holley learned to play piano, guitar and violin (his brothers oiled the strings so much that no one could hear him play.) He was always known as Buddy to his family. In 1949 Buddy made a recording of Hank Snow's 'My Two-Timin' Woman' on a wire recorder "borrowed" by a friend who worked in a music shop (not, as is often reported, a home tape recorder)  his first known recording. During the fall of that year he met Bob Montgomery in Hutchinson Junior High School.

They shared a common interest in music and soon teamed up as the duo "Buddy and Bob." Initially influenced by bluegrass music, they sang harmony duets at local clubs and high school talent shows. In Lubbock, Holly attended Hutchinson Junior High School, which has a mural honoring him, and Lubbock High School, which has numerous features to honor the late musician. His musical interests grew throughout high school while singing in the Lubbock High School Choir.

Buddy Holly & bandmates

Holly turned to rock music after seeing Elvis Presley sing live in Lubbock in early 1955. A few months later, he appeared on the same bill with Presley, also in Lubbock. Holly's transition to rock continued when he opened for Bill Haley & His Comets at a local rock show organized by Eddie Crandall, who was also the manager for Marty Robbins. As a result of this performance, Holly was offered a contract with Decca Records to work alone, which he accepted. According to the Amburn book (p. 45), his public name changed from "Holley" to "Holly" on 8 February 1956, when he signed the Decca contract.

On 17 June 1956, Lubbock's newspaper, the Avalanche-Journal, started a series on the evils of rock'n'roll. They showed the dancers at the Bamboo Club when Holly was performing, and blacked out their eyes. The youngsters were dancing the "dirty bop". The newspaper said: "The guitarist hoarsely shouted the unintelligible words 'Hound Dog'." It said of the audience: "They are white teenagers from throughout the city, rich and poor, from good homes and bad." Mrs Holley wrote to the newspaper defend the teenagers, but her letter was not printed.

Buddy Holly...rock'n'roll pioneer

Buddy Holly, one of the pioneers of rock'n'roll

Among the tracks recorded for Decca was an early version of "That'll Be The Day", which took its title from a phrase that John Wayne's character said repeatedly in the 1956 film, The Searchers.

Holly formed his own band and called them The Crickets, and they began recording at Norman Petty's studios in Clovis, New Mexico. Norman had music industry contacts and believing that "That'll Be the Day" would be a hit single, he contacted publishers and labels. Coral Records, a subsidiary of Decca, signed The Crickets. Soon after, they signed Holly as a solo artist. This put Holly in the unusual position of having two record contracts at the same time. Before "That'll Be The Day" had its nationwide release, Holly played lead guitar on the single "Starlight", recorded in April 1957, featuring Jack Huddle. The initial, unsuccessful version of "That'll Be The Day" played more slowly and about half an octave higher than the hit version.

Holly managed to bridge some of the racial divide that marked rock n' roll music. While Elvis made black music more acceptable to whites, Holly won over an all-black audience when the Crickets were booked at New York's Apollo Theater (though, unlike the immediate response depicted in the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story, it actually took several performances for his talents to be appreciated).

After the release of several highly successful songs in 1958, Holly and the Crickets toured Australia in January and later the United Kingdom.

The ambitious Holly became increasingly interested in the New York music/recording/publishing scene, while his younger and more easygoing bandmates wanted to go back home to Lubbock. As a result, in 1959 the group split.

Buddy Holly Dies - 3rd February 1959

Buddy Holly Newspaper story

Holly began a solo tour with other notable performers, including Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. After a performance in Green Bay, Wisconsin at the Riverside Ballroom, on 1 February the tour moved on to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on 2 February 1959. Afterwards, Buddy Holly chartered a Beechcraft Bonanza to take him and his new back-up band (Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings) to Fargo, North Dakota, enroute to play the next leg of the Winter Dance Party tour at the Armory in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Carl Bunch missed the flight as he had been hospitalized with frostbite three days earlier. The Big Bopper asked Jennings for his spot on the four-seat plane, as he was recovering from the flu. Ritchie Valens was still signing autographs at the concert site when Allsup walked in and told him it was time to go. Valens begged for a seat on the plane. Allsup pulled a 50 cent coin out of his pocket and the two men flipped for the seat. Allsup lost.

The plane took off in light snow and gusty winds at around 12:05 A.M., but crashed a few minutes later. The wreckage was discovered several hours later by the plane's owner, Jerry Dwyer, some 8 miles (13 km) from the airport on the property of Albert Juhl. The crash killed Holly, Valens, Richardson, and the 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson. Holly's body, along with those of Valens and Richardson, was thrown from the wreckage. Holly and Valens lay 17 feet (5.2 m) south of the wreckage and Richardson was thrown around 40 feet (12 m) to the north of the wreckage.

Don McLean referred to it as "The Day the Music Died", on his song "American Pie".

Holly's pregnant wife Maria became a widow after barely six months of marriage and miscarried soon after.

Holly's funeral was held on 7 February 1959 at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lubbock under the direction of Sanders Funeral Home. His body was interred in the City of Lubbock Cemetery in the eastern part of the city. Holly's headstone carries the correct spelling of his surname (Holley) and a carving of his Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Maria Holly did not attend the funeral and has never visited the gravesite. She told the Avalanche-Journal: "In a way, I blame myself. I was not feeling well when he left. I was two weeks pregnant, and I wanted Buddy to stay with me, but he had scheduled that tour. It was the only time I wasn't with him. And I blame myself because I know that, if only I had gone along, Buddy never would have gotten into that airplane."

Early in 2008, Maria visited the apartment building where she and Holly lived. There, she observed musicians in nearby Washington Square Park, where Holly often played his guitar. "I gave one musician $9 because 9 was Buddy's favorite number," Maria told the Avalanche-Journal. She said that she had never come to grips with his premature death.

Buddy Holly

Style

Holly's music was sophisticated for its day, including the use of instruments considered novel for rock and roll, such as the celesta (heard on "Everyday"). Holly was an influential lead and rhythm guitarist, notably on songs such as "Peggy Sue" and "Not Fade Away". While Holly could pump out boy-loves-girl songs with the best of his contemporaries, other songs featured more sophisticated lyrics and more complex harmonies and melodies than had previously appeared in the genre.

Many of his songs feature a unique vocal "hiccup" technique, a glottal stop, to emphasize certain words in any given song, especially the rockers. Other singers (such as Elvis) have used a similar technique, though less obviously and consistently. Examples of this can be found at the start of the raucous "Rave On": "Weh-eh-ell, the little things you say and do, make me want to be with you-ou..."; in "That'll Be the Day": "Well, you give me all your lovin' and your -turtle dovin'..."; and in "Peggy Sue": "I love you Peggy Sue - with a love so rare and tr-ue ..." Pete Doherty, for instance, is a modern musician who on some songs seems to be influenced by this vocal style.

Influence

Contrary to popular belief, teenagers John Lennon and Paul McCartney did not attend a Holly concert, although they watched his TV appearance on "Sunday Night at the London Palladium"; Tony Bramwell, a school friend of McCartney and George Harrison, did.

Keith Richards attended one of the gigs, where he heard "Not Fade Away" for the first time. The song was later covered by The Rolling Stones (becoming their first Top 10 single!) 

Bramwell met Holly, and freely shared his records with all three Beatles-to-be. Lennon and McCartney later cited Holly as a primary influence. (Their band's name, The Beatles, was chosen partly in homage to Holly's Crickets.) The Beatles did a cover version of "Words of Love" that was a close reproduction of Holly's version. McCartney owns the publishing rights to Holly's song catalogue.

A young Bob Dylan attended the 31 January 1959 show, two nights before Holly's death. Dylan referred to this in his 1998 Grammy acceptance speech for his 1997 Time out of Mind winning Album of the Year:

"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"

Various rock and roll histories have asserted that the singing group The Hollies were named in homage to Buddy Holly. According to the band's website, although the group admired Holly (and years later produced an album covering some of his songs), their name was inspired primarily by the sprigs of holly in evidence around Christmas of 1962.

Frank Allen of the 1960s band The Searchers said: "To be a star, you obviously need a desirable amount of talent, but the most important factor is individuality – and Buddy was distinctive and unmistakeable, both visually and aurally. While we were skiffling away, trying to find a fourth chord, Buddy was giving us the opening bars of 'That'll Be the Day' with unbelievable expertise and on an instrument that was the equivalent of a bullet-finned '59 Cadillac. He looked gangly and geekish with those glasses but that guitar made him unbelievably cool, and he knew how to play it. It was the revenge of the nerd. His records are almost without exception terrific. He got everything right."

U.S. Alt-Rock band Weezer had a successful single called "Buddy Holly", in the 90's.

Buddy Holly live

The first famous Stratocaster player

Buddy Holly, The  Musical Pioneer

It's impossible to imagine how far he could've gone, had he lived longer. Buddy Holly died aged only 22. But in his few short years, he did a lot...

  • Buddy Holly was a pioneer, not just a rock'n'roll star. By concentrating on writing his own songs, when most artists just played covers, he paved the way for a new generation of songwriters in the 60's, such as The Beatles. As a brilliant songwriter of really simple, to the point, beautifully constructed two- or three-minute pop songs he set  a benchmark for songwriters such as Lennon & McCartney
  • He was also very concerned with publishing/ copyright issues, besides being the producer of his own songs, something unheard of until then, and wich even today is by no means the usual.
  • His band was the first to have the two guitars (lead/rhythm), bass and drums line-up, so common now.
  • He was the first artist to use studio trickery such as double-tracking and his songs feature a creative use of the studio's echo chamber, besides being the first to have strings on a rock'n'roll record;
  • Famously, Buddy Holly was the first rock star to use the Fender Stratocaster...and the first rock'n'roll star to wear glasses!

Buddy Holly Gear

Buddy Holly in the studio

In the studio

His first guitar is reported to have been a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. But the guitar we'll always associate him with is the Fender Stratocaster. When Buddy signed to Decca, he asked his brother Larry for $1,000 in order to step up his stage attire, and his musical equipment. Larry recalls in John Goldrosen’s biography "$600 went for the guitar alone." It was an expensive guitar in those days, and very futuristic-looking. As to why Buddy chose this over the equally-popular Fender Telecaster is anyone’s guess. It could have had to do with its additional pickup or simply that in 1955, the Stratocaster was about the newest thing in popular guitar design. Either way, something about the guitar turned Buddy on to it, as this was model electric guitar Buddy used exclusively for his records and live dates. 

The first documented guitar amplifier that Buddy owned, though he had to have others before, was a Fender Pro Amp. It had a 15" speaker in it, and is probably the amplifier Larry Holley mentions that Buddy bought at the same time as his first Fender Stratocaster in 1955. This amp is seen in quite a few early performance photos from around Lubbock and is probably seen best in the early Crickets pictures taken at June Clark’s house. It was used in Clovis on most all of the recording sessions, and was still in Clovis at the time of Norman Petty’s death.

Once Buddy started the larger package shows, he bought a Fender Bassman. 4 10" [4-10 inch speakers]. At 50 watts, it was a powerful amp for that time. It was designed initially for electric bass, but it didn’t take long for guitarists to fancy it. This amp could handle the size of the venues the Crickets were playing by this time, not to mention being capable of overpowering the enthusiastic crowds that greeted them at their live performances.

In the studio, he used a Shure 55 (nowadays, Shure makes the 55SH Series 2) and some sort of early tape-echo effect (such as the Echoplex or Binson) for echo-y vocals. Modern tape-echo simulators include the Akai Headrush 2 and Danelectro Reel Echo.

Watch Buddy Holly!

"Peggy Sue",  Arthur Murray Dance Party 12/29/57 (great sound, you can see his Fender Bassman amp, too!)

"Send Me Some Loving"

"Oh, Boy" and  "Peggy Sue", Ed Sullivan Show 1958

References:

Buddy Holly Gear at Dolphin:

Buddy Holly Artist Page

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