The Widow’s Pique

For more than forty years, María Elena Holly has fiercely guarded the legacy of her late husband, rock and roll icon Buddy Holly.

February 2001By Comments

Photograph by Artie Limmer

“You know what they call me?” A coquette’s giggle flutters out the mouth of María Elena Holly—Buddy Holly’s widow to you and me—as she sits at the dining table in her tastefully appointed Turtle Creek townhouse in Dallas. “The Spanish Yoko Ono.” For the better part of this day, and a whole day before that, she has recounted the story of her personal life and her career as the guardian of the name, likeness, and public image of Buddy, the rock and roller from Lubbock who died young and tragically more than forty years ago.That role has defined the 68-year-old María Elena—a blessing and a curse, she will tell you. The upside is obvious, from the creature comforts that surround her to the perks her own celebrity brings, such as being on a first-name basis with Paul McCartney, the former Beatle who bought the rights to Buddy’s publishing catalog. The downside is being compared with Yoko Ono, the widow of another Beatle, John Lennon. Guarding the legacy of a celebrity while keeping the flame lit is no cakewalk, María Elena says. You’re sought out because you’re the closest link to the object of fans’ affection, but you can never be that person.

María Elena tried to leave all that behind. After Buddy died, in 1959, she disappeared from the public eye, and four years later she married Joe Diaz, a government official from Puerto Rico, her birthplace. They raised three children together and eventually settled in the Dallas area, all the while keeping a low profile about her connection to Buddy. “I didn’t want to share with anybody in the beginning,” she says. “I blamed the music for his death. I couldn’t even listen to his songs. But Joe convinced me that I was being greedy by keeping Buddy from his fans. He told me, ’María Elena, you need to tell your story.’ That’s how I got back with Buddy, through the help of a man who didn’t even know what rock and roll was.” So she gave her blessing to the 1978 film The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey. The legend was jump-started, but things were still not quite right. Buddy’s family attended the movie’s premiere in Lubbock, but María Elena chose to attend the opening in Dallas.

It was a portent of things to come. Over the next 22 years, María Elena would devote her time to protecting her late husband’s work and waging a campaign against exploitative record companies. She has become famous for her no-nonsense approach, but her businesslike manner has also had another effect, intended or not. María Elena has alienated fans, angered promoters, and most important, rubbed most of the folks back in Buddy’s hometown the wrong way, making her public enemy number one. Some people there accuse her of being interested solely in making a buck off his name. Others blame her for the fact that the city can no longer put on the Buddy Holly Music Festival each year. Yet María Elena’s relationship with Lubbock was troubled from the start, and she makes it clear that there’s no love lost on her part either. "I know what they say in Lubbock," she says, her voice assuming a dark tone, her eyes flashing and narrowing into slits. "That . . . greedy . . . bitch!"

She pours a round of Veuve Clicquot champagne, and the doe-eyed radiance and natural beauty that captivated a lanky guy from the Panhandle years ago crystallize in front of my face. María Elena Santiago wed Charles Hardin Holley (the e was mistakenly left out of his last name early in his career) on the heels of a whirlwind romance that lasted all of two weeks. It is a story she has told thousands of times but one she doesn’t mind telling again. It is part of the gig. She remembers working during the summer of 1958 as a temporary receptionist at Peer-Southern Music, a song publishing company in New York City, where her aunt and guardian, Provi García, ran the Latin division. This tall guy with glasses walks in for an appointment and—"Boom!"—he asks her out. "Is he crazy? He doesn’t even know me," she remembers thinking to herself. The 25-year-old María Elena had never even been on a date. Her aunt had already warned her not to socialize with music people: It was company policy. "Musicians are all crazy, and I don’t want you to get involved with that," she had told her niece.

María Elena had her own dreams of being on Broadway. "I was studying to be a dancer, a singer, and trying to finish college. I had so much going on," she says. But nothing had prepared her for this handsome 21-year-old gentleman from Texas who took her out to P. J. Clarke’s in a limousine on their first date, stopping first at a radio station to record some jingles. Buddy would ask her to marry him that night. A week later she met his parents, whom Buddy flew to New York. Not long after that, she flew to Lubbock, and she and Buddy were married by Buddy’s pastor from the Tabernacle Baptist Church in the Holley home.

She paints a vivid image of the six months they lived together in an apartment at Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue in New York’s Greenwich Village. He loved listening to jazz at the Village Vanguard and poetry at the local coffeehouses. He wanted to write movie scores. He saw himself as an actor like Anthony Perkins and wanted to take acting lessons— "If he can do that, I can too," he reasoned. He wanted to record with Ray Charles and loved gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. He wanted to produce young artists and already had one protégé, Lou Giordano. Ritchie Valens had asked Buddy to record him. On a night out at Cafe Madrid with María Elena and his friend Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers, he was so taken with the flamenco guitar that between sets he asked the guitarist to teach him how to play. He told Provi García he wanted to cover Spanish classics, translating them into English. Buddy Holly wanted it all.

"He felt so free about his music and what he wanted to do. He didn’t have anyone telling him no," she says. "All the time we were together, he’d always say, ’I don’t have the time.’ He was always in such a hurry to do things. He hardly ever slept." She traveled with him on the road. She helped with his public relations, setting up the photo sessions with the celebrity photographer Bruno; Norman Petty did the photography before that. She was with him when he confronted Petty for money he was owed. She was by his side when he decided to tour again in the middle of winter to get the cash he could not squeeze out of Petty. María Elena wanted to go with him, but Buddy put his foot down. She was pregnant with their first child, so she would stay home.

"Up to this day, I still say that if I would have been there on that tour, Buddy would have never gotten on that plane," she says, tears welling up in her eyes. But he did. Buddy died when his chartered plane crashed into a snowy field in Iowa, also killing the pilot, Valens, and J. P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big Bopper, who had scored a hit with "Chantilly Lace." It was February 3, 1959, a date forever known as the Day the Music Died, thanks to singer Don McLean’s 1971 song "American Pie." To María Elena, the date marks the end of a fairy tale. Less than a week later she suffered a miscarriage. Looking back, it’s all a blur.

Nothing could have prepared the Nuyorican big-city girl for the Hub City of the South Plains when she first saw it in 1958. "Even from the air, you could see it was so flat. But all I cared about was Buddy," she says. Lubbock was like another planet. Segregation was still the social practice, if not exactly the law, and Mexican Americans were the most ostracized minority. Like it or not, María Elena passed for Mexican. She learned the hard way at one restaurant. She placed an order that wasn’t acknowledged by the waitress, and her husband had to do it for her. "When Buddy told me to come to Lubbock, he said, ’María Elena, I must warn you, we’re a little different here. We’re a little backward.’ Where I came from, we weren’t aware of color or our differences. It was a mixed culture."Bill Griggs, the Lubbock resident who is the world’s leading authority on Buddy and his music, insists that Buddy was coming back to his hometown to open a studio and production facility after he learned the business in New York. Griggs still has the business cards that Buddy had printed for Prism Records to prove it. María Elena suggests that if he ever had gone back home for good, she wouldn’t have gone with him.

The City of Churches (250 houses of worship, more per capita than any city its size in the United States) was uncomfortable about paying tribute to a local kid who happened to become famous by playing rock and roll— "the devil’s music," as one resident called it. David Langston, the mayor of Lubbock from 1992 to 1996, says you have to understand the forces at work. "You have this residual resistance to Buddy Holly and what he stood for here in Lubbock. This is a very conservative region," he says.

Two decades would pass before the city officially acknowledged his contributions by erecting a life-size bronze statue by sculptor Grant Speed. It was dedicated in 1980 in front of the civic center as the centerpiece of the West Texas Walk of Fame, which honors local and regional celebrities, including Mac Davis; Sonny Curtis, a member of Buddy’s band, the Crickets, and composer of the theme for television’s Mary Tyler Moore Show; and Ralna English, a staple of The Lawrence Welk Show. Yet even though the city was just beginning to come around, the widow and the hometown could not see eye to eye. María Elena let it be known that she would have preferred a scholarship at Texas Tech to a statue of her late husband. "I felt like it would have been more beneficial," she says. Jump ahead twenty years, during Labor Day weekend in 2000 and the week of Buddy’s birthday, and the Buddy Holly permanent exhibition in the Buddy Holly Center is packed. Bill Griggs is talking with groups of fans who have flown in from overseas and introducing visitors to people like the Tolletts, the now-elderly couple who sang backup vocals on "That’ll Be the Day." When the song starts playing over the center’s sound system, Griggs stops in his tracks, turns, and salutes. "The National Anthem of West Texas Music," he bellows proudly.

The setting is impressive. Time lines of Buddy’s career highlight exhibit cases containing his trademark black horn-rimmed glasses and 1958 Fender Stratocaster electric guitar (the whammy bar was removed because Buddy didn’t use one, Griggs points out). Other displays feature more guitars, Buddy’s Lubbock High School yearbook, his report cards (A’s, B’s, C’s, and a few D’s in biology during the 1952-1953 school year, as well as teachers’ comments such as "Does nice work"), his first-baseman’s mitt, and his Cub Scout uniform.

Echo McGuire Griffith shows me the new Echo McGuire showcase, paying tribute to Buddy’s high school sweetheart, the girl before María Elena. Her frilly prom dress, the necklace Buddy gave her, and the stuffed hound dog he and his first performing partner, Bob Montgomery, signed are all on display. She introduces me to her husband, Ron, who has a habit of telling people that he is the man who stole Buddy’s girlfriend. She tells me with a sweet smile that they broke up because of what Buddy was doing, playing rock and roll. "I have felt like I’ve had the call of God all my life," she says. "We were headed in different directions."

Being the keeper of all things Buddy means an endless stream of legal battles, negotiations on licensing agreements that go on forever, and calls during all hours from fans around the world wanting to connect with Buddy. "I didn’t ask for it. I was assigned to it," María Elena says. "I don’t complain about that. It has been good to me. The Man has been taking care of me, but He said, ’You don’t get something for nothing. You have to work your ass off for it.’" Her own personal crusade was to secure the rights of her late husband’s works. She points toward a circled item from a recent Rolling Stone. It reads that President Clinton backs the Copyright Corrections Act, which reverts the ownership of master recordings back to the artists, rather than to their recording company or manager. María Elena smiles. If protecting Buddy’s image is a job that never ends, at least she is compensated well for her efforts. The stylish furnishings, the art hanging on the wall, the neighborhood she lives in, the Veuve Clicquot ("One of my little pleasures," she says) all attest to that.Whether it’s the champagne talking or plain old common sense, I know that as charming as María Elena is, I wouldn’t want to be sitting across the table from her trying to negotiate the use of Buddy’s likeness or music. She’s a hard-nosed businesswoman, a reputation burnished by her role in the enactment of Chapter 26 of the Texas Property Code, better known as the Buddy Holly bill, a landmark piece of legislation passed in 1987 that protects the heirs of deceased celebrities from exploitation. María Elena hired lawyer Shannon Jones, Jr., of the Dallas firm Passman and Jones, to help her push the bill through, and they personally lobbied legislators to ratify it.

She’s still at it too. A suit she filed with some of Buddy’s relatives against MCA Records, the company whose labels Buddy recorded for, is in a California court. It involves a dispute over royalties and the ownership of Buddy’s master recordings.

The sad part is that while María Elena has won so many important legal victories, her relationship with Lubbock has only gotten worse. Though she cooperated with the Buddy Holly Center and the permanent exhibit, which opened in 1999, her relations with another civic organization have grown so strained that the annual Buddy Holly Music Festival is now called the Crossroads Music Festival, even though it takes place within shouting distance of the center. David Langston spearheaded the effort to spend $175,000 of the city’s hotel-motel tax to purchase the collection that ultimately led to the creation of the Buddy Holly Center. He’d seen the light after attending a musical production in London that was based on Buddy’s life. "People were rocking in the aisles over this music from Lubbock, Texas," he says. He thought to himself, "Why aren’t we taking advantage of this?" Buddy was a means to market Lubbock to the world.

Langston contacted María Elena to work out a licensing agreement and kept negotiations going until they agreed upon the Buddy Holly Music Festival. It would be promoted by Broadway Festivals, a civic-oriented nonprofit organization that Langston headed. After he left office, in 1996, the festival became the responsibility of the Lubbock Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is overseen by Market Lubbock.

Negotiations to renew the licensing agreement for the Buddy Holly Music Festival broke down shortly before the 1999 event. The relationship between María Elena and C. David Sharp, the CEO of Market Lubbock, was rancorous from the start. "He was a good ol’ boy trying to bully me," she says. "He said it was a take-it-or-leave-it deal." The offer on the table was a generous one: $50,000 and 15 percent of the gate receipts. She left it.

The sticking point was her refusal to allow the festival promoters to use her late husband’s image however they saw fit. Sharp told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that María Elena "was not willing to grant us the latitude that we needed without us having to constantly go back with what I call ’Mother, may I?’ questions." María Elena says she didn’t want to see Buddy’s likeness attached to beer or tobacco company logos, which could have happened, given the language of the agreement and the likelihood that organizers would seek sponsors to offset the costs of the festival.

In addition, the company that merchandises Buddy, CMG Worldwide, had allowed María Elena to assign rights to the festival only to help get it off the ground. Now CMG wanted to be compensated, but no amount of money would persuade it to give the festival blanket rights. "The way the deal was structured, the producers [Lubbock] would effectively acquire unilateral merchandising rights," says Jonathan Faber, an assistant vice president of business and legal affairs at CMG. "It would cause a host of problems if another entity is capable of granting licenses to use the name, image, or likeness of one of our clients." That catch-22 ended the negotiations. "I declined," María Elena says, "and I was accused again of being greedy. The truth of the matter is, I’ve been very protective of Buddy’s name and image. I guard that name and that image like a mother hen."

Langston vouches for that. "She wanted to have a say in what kind of lettering we’d use, whether T-shirts would be all cotton or a fifty-fifty blend. She wanted to be involved in every detail, and she has the legal right to do so. As it was, everything worked out pretty doggoned well the first two years, except we didn’t make any money."

So when the Buddy Holly Center was dedicated, there was no Buddy Holly Music Festival. A street concert did feature a rockin’ oldies show featuring Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon, Chris Montez, the Drifters, and the Coasters, along with a special appearance by the son of the Big Bopper, J. P. Richardson, Jr., who reprised his father’s hit, "Chantilly Lace," with a cell phone. The Crickets even performed with the Lubbock Symphony and folk singer Nanci Griffith at the Civic Center, an event sponsored by the Civic Center. María Elena was conspicuous in her absence.

"I’ve had my emotions tied up in Lubbock for forty years," she sighs. "All this time, I have seen the city of Memphis get behind Elvis Presley one hundred percent. This is an everyday situation with the city of Memphis to honor Elvis, not just a day or a week. The city embraced that in a way the city of Lubbock has not with the Buddy Holly Music Festival. They’ve never done it openly and directly. It’s always a new organization or a new person. I’m not saying everyone’s afraid, but city officials don’t want to ruffle feathers. I’m a hot potato in their hands. I’m the witch. It’s always this or that doesn’t happen because María Elena won’t agree. She wants too much money. Bull."So is the fact that the celebration that will be held this year—marking Buddy’s sixty-fifth birthday—will be called the 2001 Crossroads festival. Surely a compromise can be found to unite the widow with the town and keep the legend alive. Several high-profile folks in Lubbock enjoy good relations with María Elena, including Connie Gibbons, the soft-spoken director of the Buddy Holly Center who worked with her to prepare the permanent exhibit. Gibbons is responsible for paying 15 percent of the sales of Buddy Holly T-shirts, souvenir horn-rimmed glasses, coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, and all other Buddy Holly merchandise to María Elena. "I brought her here before we opened, and she spent a couple of days," she says. "She could tell what it was. I think she was impressed. She was supportive and complimentary."

María Elena should linger long enough to hear what Gibbons hears. "I guess we’ll always have the element that doesn’t appreciate his contributions to music," Gibbons says. "But you know, when locals visit the exhibit for the first time and see him placed in a sociohistorical context instead of the kid next door, I’m always hearing the reaction, ’I had no idea!’ They begin to appreciate his significance. It’s a slow process, one that’s been going on for forty years."

"It’s not easy trying to deal with the city that never gave her husband his due until recently," concurs Victor Hernandez, a Lubbock city council member who helps promote an annual Diez y Seis celebration. "Lubbock hasn’t learned to do that yet. A lack of respect is what it boils down to. I don’t know if it’s the fact she’s Latina or was married for such a short time to him. What she and Buddy did was not socially accepted and with some people, it still isn’t. But she hasn’t gotten that respect."

Yet Lubbock isn’t the upright, uptight city that she first encountered decades ago. It has finally come around to recognizing the value of Buddy, if for nothing else than an effective means of selling Lubbock to the world. Otherwise, the Buddy Holly Center would not exist. It’s a pity there isn’t a music festival to go along with it. María Elena talks of staging a Buddy Holly Festival in Dallas next year. But she also says she’s open to negotiating once again. "I’ve been involved in ongoing talks for the past forty years with different people," she sighs wearily. "I always go back, for more punishment probably. Hopefully, if the right person is there to be honest enough to come forward and say, ’Maybe we misunderstood,’ then I’m open to more punishment."

I am not. The bottle of champagne has been drained. I want to throw my hands up and tell María Elena that it’s time to get together with Lubbock for the good of Buddy, but I defer. Instead she starts to walk me out. For all the time we’ve spent getting lost in Buddy, I realize I’ve neither seen nor heard him. That’s when she opens a door to her office. Buddy is everywhere: his pictures on the wall, CDs of his music scattered around the desk alongside papers pertaining to the particulars of his career. Across the hall is the audio room, where she listens to music—Buddy’s music. Gold records and platinum records line the wall. When María Elena opens those doors, Buddy Holly lives.

Back in Lubbock, the clearest sign of hope is the Body Holli Custom Painting and Body Shop, just off Buddy Holly Avenue, the wide thoroughfare formerly known as Avenue H on the edge of the Depot district. It is the first local business to pay indirect tribute to the West Texas teen who rocked the world. Regardless of the infighting, his legacy will not fade away.

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