3 Février 2016
On the 57th anniversary of the his tragic death we revisit this profile of the clean-cut icon, first published in NME in September 1975 and taken from Rock’s Backpages
Buddy Holly, the first rocker to actually go on stage wearing horn-rimmed spectacles, who died in an air crash on 3 February 1959, and who thereby created rock’s very first tragic legend, was much more than simply another 50s rock ‘n’ roll front man who got thrown into unnatural notoriety by his premature death.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” you ask. Precisely that Holly was the one who, above all others, convinced a large number of nondescript male children that maybe they too could be rock performers.
Most of the early rock’n’roll stars had so much going for them that they tended to overawe the average fan. Only the extremely talented or the extremely crass could attempt to seriously emulate Elvis Presley’s dramatic hoodlum good looks and wide local range, Little Richard’s maniac energy, or Gene Vincent’s delinquent meanness.
Holly was the really accessible early rock star. His high, rather, lightweight tenor could be copied by any spotty third former who posed in front of a mirror with a six-pound mail-order guitar, while with his capped teeth and myopic grim he was certainly no winner in the beauty stakes. He was the first star who made it clear that just about anyone, given a lot of application and the right breaks, could actually make it in the wonderful world of rock’n’roll.
Among today’s superstars who fell under Holly’s persuasive spell was one Eric Clapton. In a number of interviews, Clapton has cited Holly as the artist who first inspired him to take up the guitar. Dylan also includes Buddy Holly in his list of early heroes, while John Lennon went to great pains to make the Peggy Sue cut on his Rock’n’Roll album a loving tribute to one of his first idols.
Holly may not have been over strong on charisma, but that didn’t mean that he was in any way short on talent. In terms of seminal creativity, Holly must rank close to Chuck Berry as one of the greatest innovators of the 50s. His songs had such lasting merit that more than half a dozen of them have earned a prominent place in the catalogue of all-time rock standards, and are still hitting the charts today in such grisly guises as Showaddywaddy’s Heartbeat.
His first stumble into show business was made during his high school days. He teamed up with another local boy, Bob Montgomery, to form a country duo called Buddy and Bob. It seems that even at that early age he had an uncompromising faith that somewhere, somehow, there was career for him in music.
Buddy and Bob might have gone on playing supermarket openings, fairs, and local talent shows until they were old and grey. Things, however, were moving in the outside world that would change all that.
After the disruption of the Korean war, which interrupted cthe areers of many young country musicians, a situation was created where the old guard of country pickers, who had risen to fame in the 30s and 40s, had a very conservative stranglehold on the country music output. This grip was so strong that drum kits were actually banned from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry until the mid-50s.
Despite all this there was a group of younger musicians determined to break out of the restrictions created by this early 50s Nashville mafia. While Holly churned out country standards for the good people of Lubbock, they were already flirting with black R&B, a flirtation that would eventually create the fusion that would be rock’n’roll.
Even in the comparative isolation of Lubbock, Buddy Holly was becoming fascinated by the more lively music of people like Hank Ballard and John Lee Hooker. When Elvis Presley played Lubbock, Holly went backstage to meet the new singing sensation from Memphis, and it was soon after his meeting that Holly resolved to go after the big time as a rock’n’roll star.
After a good deal of hustling he was given a contract with Decca Records in Nashville. Presley’s contract had just been sold to RCA. Capitol had signed Gene Vincent after a nationwide talent search, and Decca felt strongly that they needed a similar performer. Decca might have wanted a rock star in principle, but they hardly went out of their way to accommodate or assist their new find.
The total outcome of the relationship between Holly and Decca was the set of tracks later released in England on the That’ll Be The Day album. This material was recorded with Sonny Curtis on second guitar, Jerry Allison on drums and Joe Maudlin on bass. Maudlin and Allison were later, along with Holly, to form the nucleus of the Crickets.
Decca released two undistinguished singles, and then dropped Holly’s contract. Considerably sobered, Holly and his sidemen started a long grind of country roadshows. On these extravaganzas they usually opened with their own act, and then stepped back to accompany more established stars like Faron Young, Hank Thompson and Wanda Jackson. It might have been invaluable experience but it was somewhat crushing ordeal for a group of kids who wanted to be stars.
Their next try at recording was brought about by an individual called Norman Petty. Petty was the kind of 50s rock manager from the cut-corners-and-get-rich-quick school. He negotiated a deal between Holly and the band and Coral, ironically an independent subsidiary of Decca.
On the strength of this Norman Petty became their manager. One initial problem that Petty foresaw was the possibility that Decca might cause trouble about the release of the group’s first single That’ll Be the Day. Holly had already cut a version of the song for Decca, and they would have been well within their rights in stopping any other recording of the song by Holly that came out within five years of their release.
Coral were insistent that That’ll Be The Day should be the first single, so Petty decided that the song should go out under a collective group name rather than Holly’s. After some deliberation a name was chosen, and the Crickets were born.
There were other legal worries. Holly had previously signed a number of publishing contracts, and to prevent possible injunctions, Petty apparently began shuffling the writing credits on various songs, often removing Holly’s name and taking on his own or substituting it altogether for the real writers. This practice may have circumvented possible trouble, but obviously it created a rather cloudy financial situation to say the least.
Another scheme of Petty’s that actually made money for everyone was the concept of simultaneously releasing singles under both Holly’s name, and that of the Crickets. In this way the group was able to put out roughly double the product of the average artist or band.
The relationship with Coral was more than happy. From 1957 to Holly’s death in 1959 there was a string of hits; the classic titles like Peggy Sue, Words of Love, Oh Boy, Rave On, Heartbeat and Maybe Baby.
Holly, Maudlin and Allison (Sonny Curtis had by this time left the band and been replaced by Niki Sullivan) began headlining the huge rock marathons that were the favourite method of presentation in the 50s. Eventually Niki Sullivan dropped out, finding that playing rhythm guitar behind Holly was redundant exercise. The Crickets toured Australia and England as a three-piece, where they baffled critics (including NME’s Keith Goodwin) with their ability to push out such a consistently solid sound.
Shortly after his return to the US, tragedy struck. Holly was killed in the plane crash.
Buddy Holly … Making it possible for any spotty third former to be a rock’n’roll star. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Most contemporary reports on Holly the man seem to agree that he was no wild hellraiser. Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps may have set fire to motel cabins and kept one jump ahead of the irate fathers of teenage girls, but this doesn’t appear to have been Holly’s style. His public image of the shy, bespectacled grinning, clean-cut kid seems to have extended uniformly into his private life.
When he first came out of Texas, he was reputed to have been something of hick in loud suits and wire rimmed glasses. As he became successful, and rubbed shoulders with more sophisticated performers he developed an almost collegiate taste for heavy black frames and Ivy League suits.
One paradox that has always been noticeable in Holly’s attitudes is that of his marriage. In most respects he seems to have been the typical good ol’ Texas boy, but his marriage to Maria Elena Santiago (a Puerto Rican) goes totally against the redneck racism that was so typical of the area he came from.
It Doesn’t Matter Any More, the single that was released around the time of Holly’s death, marked a new departure in his music. At the instigation of Norman Petty, who seems to have been something of a frustrated Mantovani, Holly was moving towards a lusher, string-riddled sound. This may have been Petty’s answer to the Dick Clark-style pop music of Fabian and Bobby Vee that was slowly edging the rough and ready original rockers out of the money.
Whether or not this was Petty’s idea of keeping Buddy Holly up with the latest trends, it was a retrograde step in terms of the mainstream progress or rock. The strength of Holly’s contributions was never in his lyrics, or his romantic voice. Holly’s power lay in his guitar parts and his inventive arrangements. Petty did his best to wipe these out with those saccharine strings.
Buddy Holly left the world with a major legacy. From 1955 on he was a compulsive tape freak. Almost every idea for a song or arrangement was committed to tape. After his death there was sufficient material for Coral to go on releasing tracks, original Holly, until 1965. Some of these were completed tapes. Others, however, were simply guitar and voice demos. Norman Petty personally supervised the addition of backing tracks by either the Jack Hansen Combo or, later, by a group called the Fireballs.