Buddy Holly - Biography

Texas singer-guitarist Buddy Holly, with his almost angelic charm, talent to burn and decidedly singular gift for flat get it rocking, was one of early rock & roll's most creative proponents. Holly had a deft, light touch and a spun-sugar pop sensibility that were woven together so extraordinarily well that the offbeat combination never prevented  him from going full throttle into the shadowy valley of rock--where he could drive a beat until the wheels fell off.  He was a profoundly influential stylist, recognized by no less a force than another pop prone juggernaut, the Beatles, who chose their insect-oid name as an homage to Holly’s band, the Crickets. Decades later, Holly was still a presence, as evidenced by the band Weezer’s song and video “Buddy Holly.” Despite a tragic sudden death at the age of twenty-two, he still lives on today through the handful of classic rock & roll hits he produced in a brief, undeniably brilliant career.


Born Charles Hardin Holley on September 7, 1936 in Lubbock, Texas, Holly grew up around music, both played at home by his parents and siblings and also the cornucopia of country, swing and pop they would tune in to on the radio; as a child, he messed around with every available instrument, playing (to varying degrees) piano, guitar, and fiddle. As a teenager, he fell in with another junior high school music nut, Bob Montgomery, and the pair quickly formed a duo known as (what else?) Buddy & Bob. Although Buddy & Bob began with a straight traditional hillbilly style, they quickly expanded to a freewheeling sound that Holley called “Western & Bop” (the motto was featured on the duo’s business card), a clear symbol for what was shaking in his far-reaching musical head. Much has been made of the revolutionary nature of Presley and Holly’s mid-fifties breakout, but there were plenty of country acts who had, for years prior, actively traded in the hot, black influenced, up-tempo sound that became known as rockabilly. (Texas fiddle kingpin Bob Wills’ heavily jazz and blues tinged sound felt close enough that; in response to a reporter’s question in 1958, Wills said “Rock & Roll? Hell, we’ve been playing that since 1926.”) Holly sought and received aid and encouragement from California based show band the Maddox Brothers & Rose, who frequently featured two upright bass fiddles on their hard-charging rhythm numbers (more than a few of the Maddox’s records from the late 1940’s clearly anticipated rockabilly). The group arranged for Holly to open several of their shows in West Texas circa 1954. Clearly, the gawky teenager with oversize spectacles was going somewhere.


In January of 1955, Elvis Presley performed at Lubbock’s Cotton Club, supplying Holly with the final, vital ingredient in his own swiftly evolving musical quest. While Holly was undeniably galvanized and influenced by Presley, Holly's own individualistic, self-propelled artistic purity was remarkable, and armed with the new weaponry from Elvis’ arsenal, he began to toughen up and expand his rockabilly vision; by October of that year, he was enough of a local force to secure, with assistance from Marty Robbins’ manager, the opening slot on rock & roll spearheads Bill Haley & the Comets’ show at Lubbock’s Fair Park Coliseum. While rock & roll was emerging as the fastest selling sound in pop music, the industry itself was in turmoil; pop figureheads like Mitch Miller and Frank Sinatra vilified rock & roll in brutal terms, and on Nashville’s Music Row, execs and producers were equally repulsed. But Holly’s performance on the Bill Haley date nonetheless led to a solo recording contract with Decca Records. The label’s Nashville division head Paul Cohen was a both a cosmopolitan New Yorker and shrewd businessman--he smelled the money that Holly could bring in. It was Decca’s contract spelling that excised the “e” from Holley.


In early 1956, Holly traveled to Nashville’s Quonset Hut studio, but the session was an infamous disaster; producer Owen Bradley did not dig Holly’s music and things got so heated that at one point Bradley actually struck the upstart rocker. While Bradley unquestionably over-reacted, it’s easy to understand why: Holly’s approach used a song as a launching pad for an exercise in pure style, a liberated method completely opposed to the codified Nashville model, where a country song was meant to be delivered as a total presentation, with explicit emphasis on the message of the lyric itself. Decca released Holly’s first single “Blue Days, Black Nights” in April and while the sales tended to prove Bradley’s point, the overall experience provided Holly with an invaluable lesson--in how not to make records. He returned to Lubbock and soon formed his own trio, the Crickets, with the rhythm section of Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin (rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan would join within several months).


Fortunately for Holly, he had heard about Norman Petty’s recording studio just over the state line in Clovis, New Mexico, which was fast becoming a preferred destination for Southwestern rock acts like Buddy Knox & the Rhythm Orchids (who had cut “Party Doll” there). There, they re-made one of the songs from the Quonset Hut fiasco, “That’ll Be the Day.” After speeding up the drag-ass tempo Bradley insisted on, Petty felt sure they had a hit record, and he was right (he also screwed Holly, compelling him to sign the standard- post “Party Doll” deal that granted Petty ownership of the records and the publishing rights). Decca subsidiary Brunswick released the song in late May 1957 and by September, Billboard certified it as the top selling single in the nation, coincidental to follow-up “Peggy Sue” reaching number three on the charts. It was the zenith of the rock & roll “fad,” and Buddy Holly & the Crickets quickly ascended to the top of the heap, embarking on a dizzying course of gigs and television appearances that cemented their reputation as peers to Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Gene Vincent.


Buddy Holly & the Crickets had arrived; in August, they played a week’s engagement at Harlem’s Apollo Theater--a real eyebrow lifter for the homefolks in Lubbock. Holly’s clearly progressive attitude reached beyond music, particularly towards matter of race; Holly grew up gassing not just on hillbilly but also rhythm & blues, and he was colorblind when it came to music. He was humiliated when his parents subsequently refused to allow Little Richard to have dinner at their home. Like Elvis, Holly had transcended the calcified racist attitudes his own upbringing sought to instill in him, a highly significant social aspect of the bi-racial rock & roll eruption. In September, the band started out on Alan Freed’s Biggest Show of Stars package tour, playing 80 cities in three months, alongside just about every major rocker extant. Along the way “Oh Boy” reached the Top Ten, and in November, Holly’s debut album The Chirpin’ Crickets (1957 Brunswick) was released. It is now widely recognized as one of the all-time greatest rock & roll platters. At the tour’s climax in New York, Holly made his network television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” Twenty-one years old, with world at his feet, Holly had managed to gain it all, essentially, through the power of his voice and an electric guitar.


In January 1958, they were back on the Sullivan show, plugging “Oh, Boy” and took off for an Australian tour within days. Brunswick released their third single “Maybe, Baby” in February (it reached number 17 on the pop chart), preceding a month long UK tour. Holly was at the peak of his power, and had also fallen in love, marrying the Puerto Rican born Maria Elena Santiago in Lubbock on August 24. By late '58, Holly and his bride were living in New York and at his final studio session in October, the singer was clearly, to paraphrase Chuck Berry, “trying for further.” The date produced some remarkable songs, “True Love Ways” and “Rainin’ In My Heart,” which bore all the classic Holly earmarks; the latter was heightened by his decision to employ a drastically unorthodox orchestral string section (typical Holly--he‘d already used a celesta on “Everyday”). 


With his new Manhattan hipster persona, the Crickets now fallen by the wayside (following an October American Bandstand appearance, Holly had wished them well--and given them the band name), and another tour, The Winter Dance Party package coming up, Holly needed a bassist and looked to an old pal, Waylon Jennings. The two had become friends at Lubbock radio station KLLL circa 1955, and Holly had long since recognized the scrappy disk jockey’s potential; later, Holly personally financed and produced Jennings’ first recording session, even flying in R&B tenor sax genius King Curtis for the date. In January 1959, Holly’s final single, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” came out and he hit the road. On February 3, the private plane carrying Holly, Chicano rock sensation Richie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson suddenly went down outside Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all aboard.  It was a stunning, tragic end to one of the most artistically promising careers in rock & roll history, but in the years since, Holly’s impact and influence seems only to grow. The subject of numerous tribute records, biographies, endless reissues and big-time 1978 Hollywood biopic The Buddy Holly Story, Holly also garnered a posthumous induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His incandescent sound remains one of the most important--and innovative--landmarks in all of rock & roll.


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