That’ll Be the Frames
The inside story of Buddy Holly’s glasses.
It is easy to find the Buddy Holly Center, in Lubbock, because a gigantic pair of Holly’s famous black-rimmed eyeglasses, worked in welded steel five feet high and thirteen feet wide, sits on the front lawn. The real ones are inside.
Holly was born in Lubbock on September 7, 1936. He was christened Charles Hardin Holley but was called Buddy from the time he was a baby. His last name was misspelled “Holly” on his first recording contract, in 1956, and that became the name the entire world knew him by.
Holly started playing the guitar and singing with his friend Bob Montgomery when they were both in the seventh grade at J. T. Hutchinson Junior High School. He was born to sing, but he was also born nearsighted. When he was fifteen, a routine school exam showed that he suffered from myopia, and his parents took him to a local optometrist named J. Davis Armistead, who determined that Holly had 20/800 vision in both eyes. He couldn’t even read the top line of the eye chart.
By that time, Holly and Montgomery were playing at whatever public venues Lubbock offered two teenage musicians—car dealerships and department store grand openings—and both knew that they wanted professional careers. Holly hated the idea of appearing onstage in glasses. For several years he wore the least conspicuous clear-plastic frames he could find. He even tried playing without glasses, but he once dropped his guitar pick and had to crawl around the stage to find it. After that, he took his glasses off for publicity photos but kept them on while he was performing. He told his mother, “If people are going to like me, they are just going to have to like me with glasses on.”
Armistead, who died this past June at the age of 98, liked to tell about the time Holly asked to be fitted with contact lenses. It was in early 1956, and Holly was going to an audition in Tennessee. The contact lenses back then were quite large and had to be floated over the cornea and sclera with saline solution, which would cloud up and needed to be frequently replaced. Holly was unable to wear his contacts for more than an hour or two at a time, so he and Armistead worked out a strategy for the audition. Holly was to wait to go onstage until just a few musicians were in front of him, then excuse himself, go to the bathroom, and insert the contacts. He followed the plan exactly. But when Holly came out of the bathroom, the judges had called an unexpected break, and when it was his turn to perform, he couldn’t see the audience. He gave up contacts after that.
It was Armistead who finally had the idea for Holly’s trademark glasses. Armistead was watching Phil Silvers play Sergeant Bilko on television one night when he realized what skillful use Silvers made of the black-rimmed glasses that defined Bilko’s character. He thought that a heavier-rimmed pair would be perfect for Holly’s narrow face. On a trip to Mexico City, he discovered the perfect ones in an optician’s window. Made by a Mexican company named Faiosa, the frames featured the angular, slightly upswept top corners that he wanted. He bought two pairs, one black and one demi-amber, and fitted them with Holly’s prescription lenses. Holly chose the black pair.
Holly rocketed to fame wearing the glasses Armistead picked out for him. He tended to knock them out of alignment and frequently dropped by Armistead’s office to get a new pair. “He always had a gang with him when he came by the clinic,” Armistead told a reporter in 2008. “I always knew when he was out front because I could hear them beating the time [to a song] on the corner table in the waiting room.” If Armistead could not get the Faiosa frames, he supplied Holly with similar Sidewinder or Freeway frames, made by an American company called Shuron.
When Holly and his wife, the former María Elena Santiago, moved to New York in the summer of 1958, Holly started buying his glasses from Courmettes and Gaul, a Manhattan optometry office that was able to obtain the Mexican frames for him. Those were the glasses that he was wearing when he was killed, along with Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, in a plane crash in a cornfield near Mason City, Iowa, on the snowy night of February 3, 1959.
The glasses were thrown clear of the plane wreckage and buried in the snow. They were found, along with the Big Bopper’s watch, when the snow melted in April and were turned in to the Cerro Gordo County sheriff’s office, where they were placed in an envelope marked “Personal property—airplane crash—received 7 April ’59.” That envelope remained in storage until February 1980, when it was found and opened by Sheriff Jerry Allen. Holly’s parents claimed the glasses, as did his widow, and in March 1981, after a court decision, Allen sent them to María Elena. She kept them until October 1998, when she sold them to Civic Lubbock, the nonprofit cultural organization that created the Buddy Holly Center. The price was $80,000. Today they are on exhibit at the center, in a case near Holly’s Fender Strato-caster.
People wearing eyeglasses suffered a certain stigma in the fifties, and music historians have suggested that Holly paved the way for Roy Orbison, John Lennon, and Elton John to perform wearing distinctive eyewear. One thing is certain: Buddy Holly’s black frames became iconic. A 1981 MCA album of his love songs has nothing on the cover but a pair of glasses. Steve Teeters’s outsized sculpture of them at the Buddy Holly Center not only immediately identifies the building with Holly and his music but has become a photo opportunity for fans, visiting bands, sports teams, and limousine loads of high school kids on their way to prom. Before his death, Armistead was sometimes asked to pose with the glasses by fans who knew the story.