This‘ll Be the Day

Sixteen years after his death, Buddy Holly’s music has a message for our time. 

April 1975By Comments

Illustration by Mike Hicks

It was really hard being a rock and roll singer in the Fifties. Larry McMurtry tells of the time he watched Elvis Presley get beaten to a pulp in the parking lot of a dance hall outside Wichita Falls. Elvis had approached a cowboy’s girl friend. That has always been a mistake, but it was a worse mistake for Elvis because in those days his raw posturing on stage inspired the same kind of rage in cowboys that long hair on men would inspire ten years later. Elvis pulled himself together enough to perform a few days later at the Cotton Club in Lubbock. He got beaten up again, more or less gratuitously this time, while other Lubbock gentlemen, their instincts overwrought, set fire to his white Cadillac.

But that -was actually the second assault on Elvis that evening. A high school student named Buddy Holly who sang on a local radio show had wrangled himself a place on the bill as a warm-up act. Buddy was himself no stranger to rock and roll’s hard knocks. A thin, curly-headed kid with glasses, shy and awkward, he was used to playing at teen dances in local roller rinks where certain kids got into the habit of beating him up. Sometimes Buddy’s two older brothers went down to the dances to even up the score. But Buddy kept on playing whether his brothers were there or not. That resiliency and that nerve showed through the night of Elvis’ concert. Buddy sang “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” one of Elvis’ own songs. He sang it in Elvis’ style, imitating his voice exactly. And, he jutted his hips and flailed his arms in a four-eyed, scarecrow parody of Elvis’ own act. It wasn’t that he outdid Elvis that night—it was Elvis’ car, after all, that got burned—but Buddy identified himself so flagrantly with Elvis and all he represented that it left Buddy an outsider in his own town.

Three years later Buddy appeared at the Cotton Club again in what turned out to be his last performance in Lubbock. By that time Buddy had a white Cadillac of his own. He had recorded three Number One records, toured the United States, England, and Australia, and written a handful of songs that helped determine the direction and development of rock and roll. Practically every teenager in the world who spoke English knew his name and recognized his voice. But fewer than 50 people came to hear his triumphant return to the Cotton Club. A few months later, on February 3, 1959, Buddy died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

 

Several months ago MCA reissued 24 of Buddy’s recordings in a double album titled Buddy Holly, A Rock and Roll Collection. It includes several of the songs that appear on his best-known album, The Buddy Holly Story, among them ‘‘That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy!,” and “Rave On.” Seventeen are lesser-known recordings, even though some of the songs themselves are well known. They include Buddy’s version of Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” King Curtis’ “Reminiscing,” a wonderful rendering of Lieber and Stoller’s “You’re So Square”—in which Buddy’s singing is the sincerest tribute to Elvis imaginable—and Buddy’s version of his own song “Not Fade Away,” which later became one of the Rolling Stones’ early hits. (Composer credit for that song and some others Buddy wrote is sometimes listed as Charles Hardin. Buddy’s real name was Charles Hardin Holley. Holley became Holly because of a printing mistake on an early record label.)

There are some even more obscure songs, including one from an album Buddy made with his high school singing partner, Bob Montgomery. Actually it was Buddy and Bob who were supposed to precede Elvis that night, but the final word was that only one of them could go on and it was Buddy who made it to the stage. Whatever the audience may have thought, the performance had the desired effect as far as Buddy was concerned. He was offered a contract with Decca, which brought him to Nashville for a recording session.

This was in 1956. Buddy had already written a good many songs when he went to Nashville, among them “That’ll Be the Day,” which eventually would become his first hit. But Decca didn’t understand that they had signed a rock and roll singer rather than a country singer. Although Buddy recorded “That’ll Be the Day” in the sessions in Nashville, that version is at the same time more tired and slicker than the version that finally became a hit. The drums and bass plod along as if they really didn’t want to be there, and Buddy, trying for all his worth to put the song over, sounds strained. Decca didn’t even bother to release it. Instead Buddy’s first release was a song by one Ben Hall called “Blue Days, Black Nights.” Buddy’s singing bops along with the same uptempo, forceful style that became his hallmark, but instead of a guitar break there is a syrupy interlude by a steel guitar which is contrary in rhythm and mood to Buddy’s rendering of the song. Everything waits until he starts singing again. Such a schizophrenic product attracted neither country fans nor rock and rollers; the record didn’t sell at all. His second release, “Modem Don Juan,” didn’t sell either and Decca, after six months, did not renew Buddy’s option.

By then he had returned to Lubbock. He made a tooled-leather covering for his acoustic guitar which, besides the usual western scallops, had “Blue Days, Black Nights” and “Love Me” (the flip side) painted on it in large letters. Buddy wanted people to know he had made a record even if they’d never heard of it. Today that guitar leans against a corner in the front room of Buddy’s parents’ home in Lubbock.

It is a large, modern, single-story house, much more comfortably furnished than the places Buddy and his two older brothers and older sister were accustomed to when they were growing up. There’s a green holly leaf painted on the front door.

Leaning against the same wall as the acoustic guitar is a black case that holds Buddy’s electric guitar. A publicity photograph of Buddy, enlarged to poster size, hangs on another wall. On an octagonal coffee table is a geometrical arrangement of the English releases of Buddy’s albums. The American releases line another wall and a large record rack holds the albums which contain other artists’ versions of Buddy’s songs —everyone from Bobby Vee to the Rolling Stones. “We keep it this way,” Mr. Holley said, “because it keeps Buddy alive to us. As alive as he could be under the circumstances.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Holley are now elderly. Mr. Holley, a tall, dark-haired man who wears the same horn-rimmed glasses Buddy did, has suffered from a stroke and must walk with a cane. Mrs. Holley, a small woman with carefully styled grey hair, sat primly on the edge of her chair with her hands folded in her lap while she talked about Buddy. “Sometimes we wonder if we hadn’t let Buddy go on with his music, whether he’d be alive today. But he wanted to do it and it wouldn’t have been right to keep him from it, either. We’re Baptists and Buddy was saved so we have that. The last time Buddy was at home—we tithe, you see—the minister told me Buddy had come to see him and given him a check for $1000.”

She said that Buddy had taken piano lessons when he was nine. His father had given him his first guitar when Buddy was twelve. “He used to sing Hank Williams songs on the way to school, and he listened to Ray Charles a lot. He was interested in anyone who had real talent. And there was one record, ‘Love Is Strange’ by Mickey and Sylvia. I can remember him sitting in his room and playing it over and over. He liked the way the guitar sounded.” It is amazing, even judging only on the evidence of the songs reissued on the new album, how much Buddy’s guitar style was influenced by that one record. “And not many people know this,” Mrs. Holley went on, “but Buddy toured with Hank Thompson. He didn’t sing any, oh maybe a little bit, but he played guitar in the band. He always said Hank Thompson took real good care of him, watched out for him since he was so young. Buddy always thought a lot of Hank Thompson.”

Toward the end of 1956, with his Decca contract unrenewed and the tour with Thompson over, Buddy started putting together a group of his own. It began quite informally. Niki Sullivan, who played rhythm guitar with Buddy, remembers meeting the first time at Buddy’s house and just fooling around. “I didn’t know much,” Sullivan said. “Buddy had to show me the B chord.” Besides Sullivan on rhythm and Buddy on lead, there were Joe B. Mauldin on bass and Jerry Allison on drums.

After a couple of these sessions Buddy went to Clovis, New Mexico, where Norman Petty, who would later collaborate with Buddy on many of his hits, ran a recording studio. Later, he went with the group and in three hours they recorded “That’ll Be the Day.” Before it could be released, they had to think up a name for themselves. The song couldn’t be released under the name Buddy Holly because Buddy had originally recorded the song for Decca. For some reason they wanted to name themselves after an insect. They looked in a dictionary that had a color plate of common bugs and narrowed the list to three names—the Spiders, the Beetles, and the Crickets. Everyone liked The Spiders best, but there had already been a group from New Orleans named Spiders, who had three minor hits in 1954-55. They finally chose the Crickets because they decided that crickets’ chirping sounded musical. Later the Beatles would choose their name for its oblique reference to Buddy’s group.

Petty got Brunswick Records in New York to release the song. According to Sullivan, a disc jockey in Ottawa and one in Philadelphia were paid $200 to play the record for one hour straight. Two weeks later it had sold 50,000 copies.

The group followed with “Oh Boy!” and then with Buddy’s biggest-selling record, “Peggy Sue,” which he released under his own name. Buddy had originally written the song about, a niece of his named Cindy Lou and sang it with a cha-cha beat. In the recording studio he heard Jerry Allison doing paradiddles, a simple drum exercise. He wanted Allison to use that same rhythm and pattern on the song. Allison said he would if Buddy would change the title of the song to Peggy Sue, the name of Allison’s girl friend. Allison and Peggy Sue later got married, prompting Buddy to write “Peggy Sue Got Married,” not a bad song at all, though it was never much of a hit.

“Peggy Sue” was released in the fall of 1957 and marked the height of Buddy’s short career. His records were selling, his tours were going well, and the following summer he met Maria Elena Santiago in the offices of his music publishers in New York. They were married in Lubbock in August of 1958. According to Niki Sullivan, “She was the smartest person we met in all our traveling. She knew the most interesting people and the most interesting places to go. And she was beautiful.” That fall Buddy took an apartment in New York for Maria and himself. He left the Crickets, severed his relation with Norman Petty, and struck off on his own.

 

Niki Sullivan is the only member of the original group who still lives in Lubbock, where he is a wholesaler of Admiral appliances. He says the continuing interest in Buddy is “eerie.” Over the years royalty checks have continued to arrive regularly. Last year Buddy’s music was popular all over again in Germany and the checks were larger than usual.

“We liked our music,” Sullivan said. “When we were on tour, if we went into a restaurant we would play our own records on the juke box. Even today, Buddy Holly is still my favorite singer.”

Of all the early rock singers Buddy Holly was probably least influenced by the blues. He listened to Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry who were directly influenced by blues, but what caught Buddy’s ear were the changes they had made, the changes that made the new rock music so appropriate to his own experience. He had been booed off the stage in high school, he had been beaten up after playing at dances, he was an outsider. And like most outsiders, especially teenaged ones, he was both protectively arrogant—“That’ll be the day, when you say good-bye”—and helplessly desperate—“Maybe baby, I’ll have you/Maybe, baby, you’ll be true.”

In “Not Fade Away,” Buddy wrote one of rock’s most evocative lines: “My love is bigger than a Cadillac.” But a Cadillac, grand as it is, is an unwieldy vehicle to carry matters of the heart. The next line is “I try to show it and you drive-a me back.” They are the lines of someone with confidence in his own feelings but with just enough experience to be dismayed at how those feelings are treated. Confidence and dismay are themes of nearly all Buddy’s songs.

 

He didn’t want to make that last tour. He had spent the better part of the last two years on the road, he had been married only a few months, and they had just learned that Maria was pregnant. (She later lost the baby. She has since remarried and now lives in Florida.) But his record company thought his career needed a boost since his last records hadn’t been selling as well as the earlier ones. Buddy gave in to their pressure. He went back to Lubbock to form another group of Crickets, who included a local disc jockey named WayIon Jennings. On the tour with Buddy and the new Crickets were Richie Valens, the Big Bopper—both of whom died in the crash with Buddy—and Dion and the Belmonts. The whole show traveled by bus from small town to small town in the Midwest.

Monday night, February 2, they played in Clear Lake, Iowa. Everyone was tired. Faced with a long drive to their next booking in Fargo, North Dakota, Buddy and the other two stars decided to charter a plane. Among the few things they took on the flight was some dirty laundry belonging to other members of the tour; they wanted to get it washed by the time the bus arrived. The plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, crashed in the snow not far from Clear Lake, killing the three singers and the pilot. Buddy was 22. In the spring when the snow melted a farmer found Buddy’s watch and mailed it to his parents in Lubbock. 

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