- © William F. Griggs
Charles Hardin Holley (September 7, 1936 – February 3, 1959), known as Buddy Holly, 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.
Charles Hardin Holley was born on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas at 3:30 pm. The fourth child of Lawrence Odell "L.O" Holley and Ella Pauline Drake. His oldest siblings were Larry (born in 1925) Travis (born in 1927) and Patricia Lou (born in 1929). From his early childhood, he was nicknamed "Buddy" by his family and friends. During the Great Depression, the Holleys moved often within Lubbock, due that L.O would change jobs several times. The family were members of the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
The Holleys had interest in music, with all the family members except L.O able to play an instrument or sing. The older Holley brothers performed on local talent shows. On an occasion, Buddy joined them on the violin. Since he could not play it, his brother Larry greased the strings so it would not sound. The brothers won the contest. During the Second World War, Larry and Travis were called to service. Upon his return, Larry returned with a guitar he had bought from a shipmate while serving on the Pacific. At age eleven, Buddy took piano lessons, but left it after nine months. He decided to switch to guitar after he saw a classmate playing and singing on the school bus. His parents initially bought him a steel guitar, but he insisted that he wanted a guitar like his brother's. His parents bought the guitar from a pawn shop, while his brother Travis taught him to play.
During his early childhood he was influenced by the music of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, Bob Wills and the Carter Family. At Roscoe Wilson Elementary he met and became friends with Bob Montgomery. Montgomery and Holley would play together, practicing with songs by the Louvin Brothers and Johnny and Jack. Both would hear the Grand Ole Opry on WSM , the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH and the Big D Jamboree. At the same time, Holley would play with other musicians he met in high school including Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison. In 1952, he participated in a talent contest on a local television show, with Jack Neal. The duo was billed as "Buddy and Jack". After Neal left, he was replaced by Montgomery, and they were billed as "Buddy and Bob". The two soon started performing on the Sunday Party show on KDAV in 1953, and around town.
By 1955, after he graduated from high school, Holley decided to pursue full-time a career in music. He was further encouraged after seeing Elvis Presley performing live in Lubbock, whose act was booked by Pappy Dave Stone of KDAV. In February he opened for Presley at the The Fair Park Coliseum, in April at the Cotton Club and again in June at the Coliseum. By that time, he had incorporated Larry Welborne on the stand-up bass and Allison as his drummer, as his style shifted from Country & Western to rock and roll In October, Stone booked Bill Haley & His Comets and placed Holley as the opening act to be seen by Nashville scout Eddie Crandall. Impressed, Crandall convinced Grand Ole Opry manager Jim Denny to seek a recording contract for Holley. Stone sent a demo tape, which Denny forwarded to Paul Cohen, who signed them to Decca Records in February 1956. In the contract, Decca misspelled his last name as "Holly", and from then on, the singer was known as "Buddy Holly".
On January 26, 1956 Holly attended his first formal recording session, produced by Owen Bradley. Holly attended two more sessions in Nashville, but was increasingly frustrated by his lack of creative control, with the producer selecting the session musicians and arrangements. In April 1956 Decca released "Blue Days, Black Nights" with "Love Me" on the flipside. Denny included Holly on a tour as the opening act for Faron Young. During the tour, they were promoted as "Buddy Holly and the Two Tones", while later Decca called them "Buddy Holly and the Three Tunes". The label later released Holly's second single "Modern Don Juan" backed with "You Are My One Desire". Both singles failed to make an impression. On January 22, 1957, Decca informed Holly his contract would not be renewed, insisting, however, that he could not record the same songs for anyone else for five years.
Unhappy with the results and inspired by the success of Buddy Knox's "Party Doll" and Jimmy Bowen's "I'm Sticking to You", Holly decided to visit Norman Petty, who produced and promoted both records. Together with Allison, bassist Joe B. Mauldin and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan, he went to Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico. The group recorded a demo of "That'll Be the Day", a song they previously tried in Nashville. Now playing on the lead guitar, Holly archived the desired sound. Petty became his manager and sent the record to Brunswick Records, in New York City. Since Holly was still under contract with Decca and could not use his name, it was decided a band name was to be used. Allison proposed the name "Crickets", which he found in a dictionary. Brunswick signed the band on March 19, 1957. Impressed by the demo, the executives of the label decided to release it directly to record, without recording a new version. The song was released with "I'm Looking For Someone to Love" on the flipside, and the single was credited to The Crickets. Petty and Holly would later learn that Brunswick was a subsidiary of Decca, which legally cleared future recordings under the name of Holly. The recordings by The Crickets would be released on Brunswick, while the solo recordings by Holly would appear on the subsidiary Coral Records. Therefore, the singer held a recording contract with both labels at the same time.
"That'll Be the Day" was released on May 27, 1957 with "Rock Around With Ollie Vee" on the B-side. Petty booked Holly and The Crickets for a tour with Irving Feld. Feld had noticed the band after the single appeared on the rhythm and blues chart. He booked them for appearances in Washington D.C, Baltimore and New York City. The band was booked at New York's Apollo Theater for August 16–22. During the opening performances the group did not impress the audience, but they were accepted after they included in the shows "Bo Diddley". By the end of their stint at the Apollo, "That'll Be the Day" kept climbing the charts. Propelled by the success of the record, Petty started to prepare two album releases: a solo for Holly and another one of The Crickets. Holly appeared on American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark on ABC on August 26. Before leaving New York, the band befriended the Everly Brothers, who inspired them to change their outfits for suits.
"That'll Be the Day" topped the US "Best Sellers in Stores" chart on September 23, and was No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart for three weeks in November. On September 20, Coral released "Peggy Sue" backed with "Everyday" with Holly credited as the performer. By October, "Peggy Sue" had reached number three on Billboard's pop chart and number two on the rhythm & blues chart, while it peaked at number six on the UK Singles chart. As the success of the song grew, it brought more attention to Holly, with the band at the time being billed as "Buddy Holly and The Crickets".
By the last week of September, the band members flew to Lubbock to visit their families. A recording session was arranged by Petty to take place in Oklahoma City, where he was performing with his own band. While the band drove to the location, the producer set up a makeshift studio. The rest of the songs needed for an album and singles material were recorded, while Petty later dubbed the material in Clovis, New Mexico. The "Chirping" Crickets was released on November 27, 1957. It reached number five on the UK Albums Chart. In October Brunswick released the second single by The Crickets, "Oh, Boy!" with "Not Fade Away" on the B-side. The single reached number ten on the pop chart and thirteen on the rhythm and blues chart. Holly and The Crickets performed "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue" on The Ed Sullivan Show on December 1, 1957. Following the appearance, Sullivan left the group due to the intensive touring. On December 29, Holly and The Crickets performed "Peggy Sue" on The Arthur Murray Party.
On January 8, 1958, Holly and The Crickets joined America's Greatest Teenage Recording Stars tour. On January 25, Holly recorded "Rave On!", the next day Holly made his second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing "Oh, Boy!". He departed to perform in Honolulu, Hawaii on January 27, and later started a week-long tour of Australia. By February, the band toured England, and played fifty shows in twenty five days. The same month his debut solo album, Buddy Holly was released. Upon their return to the United States, Holly and The Crickets joined Alan Freed's Big Beat Show tour for forty-one dates. Decca then released in April That'll Be the Day, featured the songs recorded with Bradley during his early Nashville sessions.
A new recording session was arranged in May in Clovis. Holly hired Tommy Allsup to play the lead guitar. The session produced the recordings of "It's So Easy" and "Heartbeat". Impressed by Allsup, Holly invited him to join The Crickets. In June, Holly travelled alone to New York for a solo recording session. Without the Crickets, Holly chose to be backed by a jazz and rhythm & blues band. He chose to record "Now We're One" and Bobby Darin's "Early in the Morning".
During his visit to the offices of Peer-South, he met Maria Elena Santiago, the secretary of executive Murray Deutch. Holly asked Santiago out on their first meeting, and eventually proposed her to marry him on their first date. The wedding took place on August 15. Petty disapproved the marriage, and advised to keep it secret to avoid a negative impact on Holly's female fans. Petty's reaction created friction with Holly, who at the time also started to question his manager's bookkeeping. The Crickets also conflicted with Petty, frustrated by the fact that he controlled all of the procedures from the band.
The Hollys frequented many of New York's music venues, including The Village Gate, Blue Note, Village Vanguard, and Johnny Johnson's. Santiago laster declared that Holly was keen to learn fingerstyle flamenco guitar, and would often visit her aunt's home to play the piano there. Holly planned collaborations between soul singers and rock & roll, and desired to make an album with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson. He also had ambitions to work in film, and registered for acting classes with Lee Strasburg's Actors Studio.
Santiago accompanied Holly on tours. Hiding her relation to him, she was presented as The Crickets' secretary. She took care of the laundry, equipment setup and collected the concert revenues. The money was kept by Santiago for the band instead of their habitual transfer to Petty in New Mexico. Santiago and her aunt Provi Garcia, executive of the Latin American music department at Peer-Southern, made Holly aware that Petty was paying the band's royalties from Coral-Brunswick into his own company's account. Holly planned to retrieve his royalties from Petty, and to later fire him as manager and producer. At the recommendation of the Everly Brothers, he hired lawyer Harold Orenstein to negotiate his royalties.
Meanwhile Holly returned to Clovis for a new recording session in September that yielded "Reminiscing" and "Come Back Baby". During the same session Holly ventured into producing by recording Lubbock DJ Waylon Jennings. Holly produced for Jennings the single “Jole Blon” and “When Sin Stops (Love Begins)”. At the time, Holly became increasingly interested in the New York music, recording and publishing scene. The Hollys settled in Apartment 4H of the Brevoort Apartments located at 11 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. There he recorded a series of acoustic songs, including "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" and "What to Do". In October, backed by an eighteen-piece orchestra composed by former members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and including saxophonist Benny Goodman, Holly recorded tracks for Coral. The three-and-a-half hour session produced "It Doesn't Matter Anymore", "Raining in My Heart", "Moondreams" and "True Love Ways".
Holly put an end to his association with Petty in December. As his band members decided to stay with the manager, Holly also split from The Crickets. With the money from the royalties still held by Petty, Holly was forced to form a new band and to go back on the road.
Before the tour, Holly vacationed with his wife in Lubbock, and visited Jennings' radio station in December 1958. For the start of the "The Winter Dance Party" tour, he assembled a band consisting of Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar), and Carl Bunch (drums). Holly and Jennings left for New York City, arriving on January 15, 1959. Jennings stayed at Holly's apartment by Washington Square Park, on the days prior to a meeting scheduled on the headquarters of the General Artists Corporation, that organized the tour. They later took a train to Chicago to join the rest of the band.
The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The amount of travel created logistical problems. The distance between venues had not been considered when scheduling each performance. Adding to the disarray, the tour buses were not equipped for the weather and twice broke down. After a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly chartered a plane for himself, Jennings and Allsup to avoid the long bus trip to Moorhead, Minnesota. Jennings gave up his seat to J. P. Richardson, who was suffering from the flu and complaining about how uncomfortable the bus was for a man of his size.
Roger Peterson, took off in inclement weather, even though he was not certified to fly by instruments-only. Following takeoff in the early morning hours of February 3, Holly, along with Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson, and the pilot, were all killed when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff. Rock performer, archivist and music historian, Harry Hepcat, wrote in his article about Buddy Holly, "Although the plane came down only five miles northwest of the airport, no one saw or heard the crash. The bodies lay in the blowing snow through the night...February indeed made us shiver, but it was more than the cold of February that third day of the month in 1959. It was the shiver of a greater, sometimes senseless, reality invading our sheltered, partying, teenaged life of the 50s."
Holly's funeral was held on February 7, 1959, at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lubbock. The service was officiated by Ben D. Johnson, who had presided at the Hollys' wedding just months earlier. The pallbearers were Jerry Allison, Joe B. Mauldin, Niki Sullivan, Bob Montgomery, Sonny Curtis and Phil Everly. Waylon Jennings was unable to attend due to his commitment to the still-touring Winter Dance Party. Holly's body was interred in the City of Lubbock Cemetery in the eastern part of the city. His headstone carries the correct spelling of his surname (Holley) and a carving of his Fender Stratocaster guitar.
Holly's wife, María Elena Holly, was pregnant at the time of the crash. She miscarried the day after learning of his death, reportedly due to “psychological trauma”. Because of this incident, authorities found it necessary, in the months following, to implement a policy against announcing victims' names until after families had first been informed. María Elena Holly did not attend the funeral, and has never visited the gravesite. She later 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.
The first song to commemorate the musicians was "Three Stars" by Tommy Dee. This song was recorded just one day after the disaster occurred. Twelve years later, in 1971, Don McLean released his single, "American Pie”, to commemorate Buddy Holly's death and further accentuate the loss of the United States' innocence. Don McLean's song began the reference to the tragedy as "The Day the Music Died".
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.
Holly managed to bridge the racial divide that marked music in America. Along with Elvis and others, Holly made rock and roll, with its roots in rockabilly country music and blues-inspired rhythm and blues music, more popular among a broad white audience. From listening to their recordings, one had difficulty determining whether the Crickets, the name of Buddy's band, were white or black singers. Holly indeed sometimes played with black musicians Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and incorporated the Bo Diddley beat in several songs. The Crickets were only the second white rock group to tour Great Britain.
Holly was also famous for his distinctive, black-framed eyeglasses, which have since become a lasting part of his iconic image. As a result, countless other musicians (Roy Orbison, Hank Marvin, John Lennon, Elton John and Elvis Costello) were inspired to wear their own glasses during their performances. Initially, Holly was hesitant to wear his glasses on stage, out of fear that they would contrast with his "rebellious" image. But since Holly had very poor vision (his visual acuity was allegedly 20/800) and contact lenses weren't as prevalent in the 1950s, Holly was left with little choice but to wear his glasses.
Contrary to popular belief, teenagers John Lennon and Paul McCartney did not attend a Holly concert, although they watched his television appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Ian Whitcomb once said "Buddy Holly and the Crickets had the most influence on the Beatles." Lennon and McCartney later cited Holly as a primary influence. (Their bug-themed band's name, the Beatles, was chosen partly in homage to Holly's Crickets.) During breaks in the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, CBS coordinator Vic Calandra talked with Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Lennon asked him if he was working on the show in 1957 when one of their favorite groups was a guest. "They were huge fans of Buddy Holly and the Crickets and John asked me, 'Buddy Holly, was this the stage he was on?' I said, 'Yeah, in fact, I held cue cards for them.' And he said, 'Oh, my God.' It was quite an experience."
The Beatles did a cover version of "Words of Love" that was a close reproduction of Holly's version, released on late 1964's Beatles for Sale (in the U.S., in June 1965 on Beatles VI). During the January 1969 sessions for the Let It Be album, the Beatles played a slow impromptu version of "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues" – although not written by Holly, it was popularized by him – with Lennon mimicking Holly's vocal style; the recording was eventually released in the mid-1990s on Anthology 3. Also, Holly's "That'll Be the Day", which had been covered by the Quarrymen, was released on Anthology 1. In addition, John Lennon recorded a cover version of "Peggy Sue" on his 1975 album Rock 'n' Roll. McCartney owns the publishing rights to Holly's song catalogue.
A 17-year-old Bob Dylan attended the January 31, 1959, show, two nights before Holly's death. Dylan referred to this in his 1998 Grammy acceptance speech for his Time Out of Mind being named 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."
Keith Richards attended one of Holly's performances, where he heard "Not Fade Away" for the first time. The Rolling Stones had an early hit with the song.
The launch of Bobby Vee's successful musical career resulted from Holly's death, when he was selected to replace Holly on the tour that continued after the plane crash. Holly's profound influence on Vee's singing style can be heard in such songs as "Rubber Ball" (the flip side of which was a cover of Holly's "Everyday") and "Run to Him."
Holly influenced many other singers during and after a career that lasted barely two years. Keith Richards once said Holly had "an influence on everybody." In an August 24, 1978, Rolling Stone interview, Bruce Springsteen told Dave Marsh, "I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on; that keeps me honest."
The Grateful Dead performed "Not Fade Away" 530 times over the course of their career, making it their seventh-most-performed song. The song also appears on eight of their official live recording releases.
Various rock-and-roll histories have asserted 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.
Don McLean's popular 1971 ballad "American Pie" is inspired by Holly and the day of the plane crash. The American Pie album is dedicated to Holly.
On September 7, 1994 (Holly's 58th birthday), Weezer released their single "Buddy Holly".
In 1980, Gyllene Tider scored a hit with the song Ska vi älska, så ska vi älska till Buddy Holly.
Buddy Holly released three albums in his lifetime. However, he recorded so prolifically that Coral Records was able to release brand-new albums and singles for 10 years after his death, although the technical quality was mixed, some being studio quality and others home recordings.
Buddy Holly continued to be promoted and sold as an "active" artist, and his records had a loyal following, especially in Europe. The demand for unissued Holly material was so great that Norman Petty resorted to overdubbing whatever he could find: alternate takes of studio recordings, originally rejected masters, "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" and the other five 1959 tracks (adding new surf-guitar arrangements), and even Holly's amateur demos from 1954 (where the low-fidelity vocals are often muffled behind the new orchestrations). The last new Buddy Holly album was Giant (featuring the single "Love Is Strange"), issued in 1969. Between the 1959–60 overdubs produced by Jack Hansen (with vocal backings imitating the Crickets' sound), the 1960s overdubs produced by Petty, various alternate takes, and Holly's undubbed originals, collectors can often choose from multiple versions of the same song. There are also many different versions of Holly's "Greatest Hits" as well as covers/compilation albums of Buddy's songs performed by various artists.
Holly's life story inspired a Hollywood biographical film, The Buddy Holly Story (1978). Star Gary Busey received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Holly. The movie was widely criticized by the rock community and Holly's friends and family for its inaccuracies. This led Paul McCartney to produce and host his own documentary about Holly in 1985, titled The Real Buddy Holly Story. This video includes interviews with Keith Richards, Phil and Don Everly, Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison, Holly's family, and McCartney himself, among others.
In 1987, Marshall Crenshaw portrayed Buddy Holly in the movie La Bamba. He is featured performing at the Surf Ballroom and boarding the doomed airplane with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Crenshaw's version of "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" is featured on the La Bamba original motion picture soundtrack.
Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, the jukebox musical depicting his life, is credited as being the first of its kind, spawning a breed of jukebox shows, including the likes of Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You. Buddy – as it is abbreviated on occasion – started in the late 1980s and its most recent a UK tour went out in February 2011.
Holly was depicted in the Quantum Leap episode entitled "How the Tess Was Won" although his identity isn't revealed until the very end of the episode. According to this episode, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) influences Buddy Holly to change the lyrics from "piggy, suey" to "Peggy Sue", thus setting up Holly's future hit song.
There are also a number of acts in both the US (Johnny Rogers, John Mueller) and the UK (Marc Robinson, Spencer J etc.) who specialize in performing Holly's songs.
In 2010, Guy Kent portrayed a modern-day interpretation of Holly in the independent film The Day the Music Died.
Holly was based in Lubbock, Texas, as his career took off between 1956 and 1958. In 1980, Grant Speed sculpted a statue of Holly playing his Fender guitar. This statue is the centerpiece of Lubbock's Walk of Fame, which honors notable people who contributed to Lubbock's musical history. Other memorials to Buddy Holly include a street named in his honor and The Buddy Holly Center, which contains a museum of Holly memorabilia as well as a Fine Arts Gallery. The Center is located on Crickets Avenue, one street over from Buddy Holly Avenue, in what used to be the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway Depot.
In 2010, Grant Speed's statue was taken down for refurbishment, and construction began on a new Walk of Fame. On May 9, 2011, the City of Lubbock held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Buddy and Maria Elena Holly Plaza, the new home of the statue and the Walk of Fame. The plaza is across the street from the museum.
On September 7, 2011 (what would have been Holly's 75th birthday), he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame posthumously. His widow, Maria Elena Santiago, attended, as did Phil Everly, Peter Asher, Priscilla Presley and actor Gary Busey, who played Holly in The Buddy Holly Story.
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