This‘ll Be the Day

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

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