Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


HOLLY, Buddy

(b Charles Hardin Holley, 7 September 1936, Lubbock TX; d 3 February 1959) Singer, songwriter; a richly talented and distinctive pioneer of rock'n'roll who took a keen interest in production techniques, so that his hits of 30 years ago still sound fresh. Influenced by the music of Hank Williams and by seeing Elvis Presley at an early gig in Lubbock, Holly formed a C&W duo with school friend Bob Montgomery; they played on Texas radio, made demo-quality records later issued on LP Holly In The Hills. Holly signed to Decca, travelled to Nashville three times '56 to record with producer Owen Bradley, later sessions with the Three Tunes: Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison (see Crickets), bassist Don Guess; sides included an early version of 'That'll Be The Day' but none made charts (later released as That'll Be The Day and The Great Buddy Holly on various MCA labels; also The Nashville Sessions in UK).

Back in Texas he formed the Crickets and crossed the border to work at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Petty and Holly developed their recording techniques together (while Lee Hazlewood and Al Casey were doing the same thing in Phoenix, Arizona): Petty learned to record rock'n'roll drums, while Holly was the first from a C&W background to apply a heavy backbeat of black R&B, the first to experiment with double-tracking and over-dubbing (e.g. his own vocal on 'Words Of Love'). Petty was also his manager, taking credit as co-composer on some songs. Tapes were offered to Roulette, who had hits early '57 with Petty tracks by Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen, but turned down Holly; then to Bob Thiele, producer at Coral/Brunswick (ironically then a division of Decca), who signed them up. A new version of 'That'll Be The Day' released on Brunswick as by the Crickets was no. 1 both UK and USA, followed by 'Oh Boy' (no. 3 UK/10 USA, backed with 'Not Fade Away'); on Coral under Holly's name 'Peggy Sue'/'Every Day' was no. 6 UK/3 USA, all in '57. All the records were on Coral in UK, where Brunswick still functioned as an independent. On 'Peggy Sue' Allison played only tom-toms and Holly recorded his guitar so closely the plectrum could be heard on the strings. His uniqueness lay in his hiccoughing vocal style and portrayal of teenage angst as well as his writing and production; like Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and others, he was more popular in the UK (where groups named themselves Beatles and Hollies after Buddy and his Crickets). They toured Australia and England early '58, had hits with 'Think It Over', 'Rave On'; Holly recorded 'Early In The Morning' (song by Bobby Darin) without the Crickets but with chorus and tenor sax (played by Sam 'The Man' Taylor); 'It's So Easy' (astonishingly, in retrospect) failed to chart in USA, 'Heartbeat' made only no. 82 (both with Tommy Allsup on guitar). By October Holly and the Crickets had split and all had split from Petty. Holly undertook heavy touring because he needed the money; having chartered a plane in Iowa to get to the next gig he was killed in a crash along with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens (Allsup and bassist Waylon Jennings narrowly missed being on the same plane).

Holly was only 22; with Elvis Presley in the army, no one was better placed to assume the mantle; it is arguable that he had more talent and might have survived the pressures with his personality intact; he would certainly not have allowed the sort of interference with his career that Presley invited from Tom Parker. His last big hit was 'It Doesn't Matter Any More' (no. 13 '59), a Paul Anka song recorded with orchestra; his biggest success, as a legend and the first rock'n'roll martyr, came after his death. Petty released demo tracks with dubbed backings; throughout the '60s 'new' Holly records continued to crop up; as late as '83 a collection of alternate takes etc was issued as For The First Time Anywhere. Compilations included a six-LP Complete Buddy Holly on MCA/USA (later on six CDs); The Real Buddy Holly '86 was a lavish audio/video package, including interviews with Crickets, Everlys, Keith Richards, etc. His '58 UK tour was seen by teenaged Paul McCartney, who later bought the Holly song catalogue and has sponsored Buddy Holly Week in London each September since '76. Acts emulating Holly were successful, such as Bobby Vee and Adam Faith; Don McLean's 'American Pie' '71 took Holly's death as its cue ('the day the music died'); the artists covering the songs are a potted history of rock'n'roll itself. Film Buddy Holly Story '78 with Gary Busey was better than the Hollywood biopics of 20 years earlier, but that's not saying much; Francis Ford Coppola film Peggy Sue Got Married '86 featured Holly's song.

Addenda: 'Peggy Sue' was first called 'Cindy Lou'; on the original label Allison and Petty took all the composer credit. Allison wanted the title changed because he was sweet on Peggy Sue Gerron (b 15 June 1940, Olton TX; d 1 October 2018, Lubbock), a high-school friend of theirs. She and Allison were later married but soon divorced. She published Whatever Happened To Peggy Sue? in 2008.