From the back of a school bus to the front of a curtain on a TV studio stage,
from the back room of a radio station to the front speakers in a million cars,
from a tiny recording studio to the record players of four generations,
Charles Hardin (Buddy) Holley traveled far and wide, mostly on three chords,
three minutes and a very few words, typing onto our consciousnesses
with lightning speed, accompanied by a soul-piercing voice and a
wake up call from a single guitar.
A now iconic image, the tall skinny boy with a skinny guitar held like a slipping signpost across the
middle of his body, the thick framed glasses like two TV screens perched on his
long head, Buddy trod the boards of stages on two continents and a couple of islands,
leaving behind a little film and a lot of very impressed young guitarists.
His intelligence went beyond his high school education and his sense of
style has slid through the years beyond the short period in the late fifties
when he had the public attention to influence dedicated individuals
to this day.
His words spoke to universal concerns of the heart and his music
carried his words on a freight train of momentum, strength and
whimsy that still hasn't run out of steam.
His recorded songs, if you want completeness, will barely cover
2 CDs. Most of his early work was covers, natch, and a lot of his famous work
was very formulaic. Even the stuff that was recorded as a sound check off the air
of a one horse station when he was fourteen has a certain power to it. His almost
breathless delivery, distinctive accent and obvious enthusiasm, coupled with his
tightness with partner Bob Montgomery, makes you wonder why more people
haven't found these songs worth more exposure. Of course, this researcher's tenure
as a fanatic tends to lend a bias to such comments.
Pretty much just a regular boy by all accounts, Buddy liked cars, motorcycles and girls.
He had the same girlfriend from Junior High until the end of a High School. Her name was Echo.
Oddly, he never seems to have written a song about or for her. The Peggy Sue of fame was actually the
paramour of one of his band mates.
The woman Buddy eventually married was a little older than he and he told a friend
before his first date with her that he intended to have her for his bride.
He didn't actually propose for a couple of weeks. Maria Elena has shared and suffered
with Buddy's family from the fame and fallout that resulted from her short time with him.
When Buddy was born, the local paper reported that a girl had been produced.
When he was in Primary School, he was crowned King of the Sixth Grade.
At the age of five, he helped his brothers win a talent contest by standing and singing with a violin
in hand, the bow greased so that he couldn't make too much noise.
When he was twenty, he went to Nashville to record for a big company,
which refused to let him use his own band mates, guitar or tempo.
These recordings, although interesting, are regarded as his weakest,
and don't put Decca in a very good light. A subsequent session with the
same crew was slightly better, but the resulting recordings didn't produce
a single until after his fame on another label and the remainder of the songs
didn't scratch vinyl until after his death, when, if he'd had an answering machine,
even those noises would have sold.
We will never know exactly what was in his record collection or what he listened to on the
radio, but his influences show in his work. He was aware of country swing, the works of Les Paul and Mary Ford, Little Richard, Elvis, and the pervasive tunes of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.
He gave his all even to such sugary schmaltz as “Wait ‘Til The Sun Shines, Nellie”, which he recorded at the request of his mother, ala Elvis recording “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for his. His closest contemporaries music-wise were the Everly Bros, with whom he associated and even wrote a song for, and Roy Orbison, also a Texas geek boy with glasses, who never met Buddy as far as this researcher knows.
His work at the Clovis, New Mexico studio with producer, manager, and musician Norman Petty stands head to head with similar work at Sam Phillip’s Sun studios. Buddy had an “ear” for what worked and he wasn’t afraid to keep trying if he didn’t get what he wanted. The minimalist sound and spare arrangements foreshadowed the Beatles early work and Paul McCartney many years later gained control of the Buddy Holly catalogue, even having Denny Lane of his Wings group record an album of Buddy covers.
Though the spectacles are regarded now as one of his leading innovations, a thorough perusal of the style and fashion of his generation shows several public figures in films and TV wearing thick frames. Steve Allen, Bill Cullen, Wally Cox and Dave Garroway are good examples. His mother said that he tried to perform without them, as other musicians and singers have done, but his eyes were so bad that when he dropped his pick, he had to get down on his hands and knees. So he kept the glasses, and he started keeping a spare pick shoved in his pick guard.
The third part of the iconic image, the Fender Stratocaster solid body electric guitar, was actually a very late addition to his arsenal. Buddy had owned and played at least a half-dozen other guitars before he acquired his first Strat. Before he died, he was to own three that we know of, due to the successive theft of two while on the road. Only the one he had on tour with him when he died is in the possession of The Buddy Holly Museum in Lubbock, Texas. That institution also has his Gibson acoustic guitar for which he made a leather cover with rosettes and his name, ala Elvis. His last pair of spectacles and the white buck shoes that he was wearing when he died are also there.
Buddy’s death, along with that of Richie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, and their pilot, in a private plane accident in the snow, made headline news around the world. Buddy’s and Richardson’s wives were pregnant. Maria Elena miscarried a short time later and Mrs. Richardson gave birth to a son who is now carrying on his father’s legacy. As far as is known publicly, Richie Valens left no issue.
The three performers ostensibly took the risk of flying in the cold and the snow to get some laundry done at the next stop in the tour itinerary. They had been traveling with the rest of the tour groups in unheated buses that were in dire need of a vacation in a junk yard. According to the story told by Waylon Jennings, who was the Cricket’s bass player that trip, and one of the Crickets (insert name here), a coin was flipped to see who would go on the plane.
The pilot was an unexperienced sort who had not been checked out on using the instruments, particularly the artificial horizon, that would have been needed for the nighttime flight in inclement weather. The plane flew out of sight of the observers at the small airstrip and didn’t make it very far before it dove into a cornfield and skidded into a fence, with the pilot still strapped in and the passengers flung like rag dolls away from the plane. Government investigators concluded that they died instantly. Accident site photos do not show a pretty sight. There’s not much to a Cessna single engine airplane to begin with. To add to the tragedy, the law enforcement officers first at the scene discovered a wallet belonging to one of the band members who had stayed behind. The wallet was to be used to provide ID so that Richardson could pick up a registered letter at the next stop.
Buddy has been immortalized in movies, TV documentaries, and a couple of musicals. His recordings have been released, re-released and even re-recorded dozens of times. Several boxed sets purportedly have his “complete” recordings on them, including some that he made on a reel-to-reel tape recorder in his New York apartment not long before he died. Maria Elena can be heard making noise in the kitchen on a couple of them. Festivals have been held and even a convention or two. He now has a statue and a museum. None of that really matters if you are a fan. The immediacy and in-your-face quality of his best recordings will allow you to have a private performance from a very much alive young man, if only for three minutes.