Buddy Holly Biography

Charles Hardin Holley, 7 September 1936, Lubbock, Texas, USA, d. 3 February 1959, Clear Lake, Iowa, USA. Holly was one of the first major rock ‘n’ roll groundbreakers, and one of its most influential artists. He wrote his own songs, recorded with a self-contained guitar-bass-drums combo, experimented in the studio and even changed the image of what a rock singer could look like: until he came along, the idea of a bespectacled rock idol was unthinkable. Holly’s hiccupping vocal style and mature, melodic compositions inspired many of the rockers who would emerge in the 60s and 70s, from the Beatles and Bob Dylan to the Hollies. Later, British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello would emerge with an unabashed Holly-inspired physical appearance.

Like many other early rock ‘n’ rollers, Holly’s musical influences included both country music and ‘race’ music, or R&B. He made his first stage appearance at the age of five, joining with his brothers Larry and Travis in a talent contest; he won $5. During his childhood, Holly learned to play guitar, violin and piano, taking formal lessons but teaching himself boogie-woogie rhythms on the piano. At 12 years old he was entertaining friends with Hank Williams songs and in 1949 formed a bluegrass duo, Buddy And Bob, with friend Bob Montgomery (b. 12 May 1937, Lampasas, Texas, USA). He learned to play banjo and mandolin during this period. Holly made his first recording on a home tape recorder in 1949, a song called ‘My Two-Timin’ Woman’. By 1952 Buddy And Bob had become popular around Lubbock, recording two songs together at Holly’s home that year and another in 1953. In September of that year Holly and new partner Jack Neal appeared on KDAV radio, performing two numbers. Adding Larry Welborn on bass, they were given their own programme, The Buddy And Jack Show, which was retitled The Buddy And Bob Show after Neal left to get married and Montgomery returned to accompany Holly. The duo performed country material primarily, but occasionally included an R&B song by artists such as Hank Ballard. KDAV disc jockey Hipockets Duncan became the trio’s manager and secured work for them in the West Texas area. Further recording took place at KDAV but none of it was released.

In 1954, the trio added fiddler/guitarist Sonny Curtis and steel guitarist Don Guess to the group, and together made more recordings in Lubbock and at Nesman Recording Studio in Wichita Falls, Texas. That year the group, now including drummer Jerry Allison (b. 31 August 1939, Hillsboro, Texas, USA), opened concerts for Bill Haley And His Comets and Elvis Presley in Texas. Holly was impressed by Presley and began thinking about performing in the new rock ‘n’ roll style. However, in the meantime he continued to play country. In December 1955, Nashville agent Eddie Crandall requested of KDAV disc jockey Dave Stone that Holly and his group record four demo songs, believing he could secure them a contract with Decca Records. The group, now minus Montgomery and known as Buddy And The Two Tones, sent five songs, and Decca brought them to Nashville where they recorded four songs produced by Owen Bradley at Bradley’s Barn Studio on 26 January 1956. Decca issued ‘Blue Days, Black Nights’, backed with ‘Love Me’, under the name Buddy Holly And The Three Tunes (the Crickets were not contracted to Decca at this time), in April. Several other records were recorded in two sessions for Decca during the autumn of 1956, but Holly, dissatisfied with Decca’s insistence that he continue to play country music, together with the loss of his group to insensitive sessionmen, began making plans to secure a new contract. He was officially dropped by Decca in January 1957.

In February 1957, Holly, Welborn and Allison travelled to Norman Petty’s NorVaJak studios in Clovis, New Mexico, where they recorded a rock ‘n’ roll version of Holly’s ‘That’ll Be The Day’, a song from their period in Nashville. The song was a revelation and contained one of the most gripping vocals and distinctive galloping riffs of any record released during the 50s. Upon returning to Lubbock, Holly formed the Crickets with Allison, rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan (b. 23 June 1937, South Gate, California, USA, d. 6 April 2004, Sugar Creek, Missouri, USA), and bass player Joe B. Mauldin. A number of record companies turned down ‘That’ll Be The Day’ until it was issued by Brunswick Records in May, ironically a division of Decca. Another Decca subsidiary, the artistically independent Coral Records, signed a contract to issue records under Buddy Holly’s name. With Petty as manager, ‘That’ll Be The Day’ underwent heavy promotion until it reached number 1 in September 1957. It also reached number 1 in the UK. Just as the record was being released, the Crickets performed at such venues as the Apollo Theatre in New York and the Howard Theater in Washington, DC, winning over predominantly black audiences and helping to further break down racial barriers in rock. They spent the next three months touring the USA.

The Crickets recorded prolifically in 1957, including such indisputable classics as ‘Words Of Love’ (April), ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘Everyday’ (May), ‘Peggy Sue’ (named after Allison’s girlfriend and originally planned as ‘Cindy Lou’), ‘Oh Boy’ and ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’ (June), ‘It’s Too Late’ and ‘Send Me Some Lovin’’ (July), and ‘Maybe Baby’ (September). Holly was innovative in the studio, making much use of newly available production techniques, such as overdubbing vocals and double-tracking guitar parts. The vocals on ‘Peggy Sue’ were a typical example of Holly’s technique. Although simple in structure and execution, Holly somehow managed to recite the words ‘Peggy Sue’ differently in every line, as if fascinated by the very syllables of her name. A seemingly straightforward song like ‘Everyday’ is similarly transformed by the ingenious use of a celeste (played by Petty’s wife, Vi) and the decision to include Jerry Allison slapping his knee, in place of drums.

Brunswick continued to issue recordings under the Crickets name despite Holly’s solo contract with Coral Records. Most releases featured the entire group, often with other musicians (Vi Petty on piano) and a vocal group (the Picks). Of these Holly ‘solo’ releases, ‘Peggy Sue’ reached number 3 in the USA and ‘Rave On’ number 37 during 1957-58. Contrary to the legend, Holly and the Crickets charted less than 10 times in the USA during their brief career. No albums charted during Holly’s lifetime.

The Crickets closed 1957 with an appearance on the influential Ed Sullivan Show, following which Niki Sullivan (b. 1938, d. 6 April 2004) left the group citing the harsh tour schedule as his reason. The Crickets returned to the Ed Sullivan Show at the end of January 1958 before recording ‘Rave On’ and ‘That’s My Desire’ in New York and touring Australia for six days. Further Clovis recording sessions, including ‘Well... All Right’ and ‘Think It Over’ occupied February. Jerry Allison also recorded ‘Real Wild Child’ which was later released under his middle name of Ivan. This was followed by a UK tour beginning on 2 March at the Trocadero in London, which also included appearances on the UK television programmes Sunday Night At The London Palladium and Off The Record. The UK tour finished on 25 March at the Hammersmith Gaumont. Holly and the group enjoyed immense popularity in Britain, with 10 Top 10 singles. ‘Maybe Baby’ became the fourth Holly/Crickets single to chart in the USA in March, eventually peaking at number 17 (and number 4 in the UK).

The group returned to the USA in late March and immediately embarked on a US tour instigated by disc jockey Alan Freed, also featuring such popular artists as Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. Coral released the frantic Holly single ‘Rave On’ in May and although it reached only number 37 in the USA, it made number 5 in the UK. Following the tour, on 19 June, Holly recorded two songs written by Bobby Darin in New York without the Crickets; they remained unreleased but signalled an impending rift between Holly and the group. While in New York Holly met Maria Elena Santiago, whom he married two months later. During that summer Holly returned to Petty’s studio in Clovis and recorded ‘Heartbeat’, ‘It’s So Easy’ and ‘Lonesome Tears’. Guitarist Tommy Allsup played on these sessions and was subsequently asked to join the Crickets. During September sessions in Clovis, extra musicians including saxophonist King Curtis and guitarist Phil Everly joined Holly. Waylon Jennings, then unknown, provided backing vocals on one track; during the same period, Holly produced Jennings’ debut single. By September three more Holly/Crickets singles had charted in the USA, but none fared very well.

Holly and the Crickets toured the north-east and Canada during October, by which time there was apparently friction between the Hollys and the Pettys. Buddy and Maria Holly travelled separately from the group between dates. During the trip, Holly decided to try recording with strings, but prior to returning to New York for that session in October 1958, he announced to manager/producer Petty that he was leaving him. To Holly’s surprise the other Crickets chose to leave Holly and remain with Petty; Holly allowed them use of the group’s name and they continued to record without him (Sonny Curtis joined the group after Holly’s death). Meanwhile, on 21 October, Holly, producer Dick Jacobs and studio musicians (including a string section) recorded ‘True Love Ways’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ (written by Paul Anka), ‘Raining In My Heart’ and ‘Moondreams’. They were held for later release while ‘It’s So Easy’ was released; it failed to chart in the USA. ‘Heartbeat’ was issued in December and became the last Holly single to chart in the USA during his lifetime. The superb ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ was released posthumously and its lyrics betrayed an unintended elegiac mood in light of the singer’s fate. The song provided Holly with his only solo UK number 1 hit and served as a perfect memorial. The flip-side, ‘Raining In My Heart’, was equally inventive, with a touching melody reinforced by the orchestral arrangement in which strings were used to startling effect to suggest tearful raindrops.

In December 1958 Holly, now living in New York with his wife, recorded six songs at home on his tape recorder, presumably to be re-recorded in the studio at a later date. During Christmas Holly returned to Lubbock and appeared on radio station KLLL with Jennings. He is prompted by a bet to write a song (‘You’re The One’) in less than 30 minutes. Back in New York during January 1959, Holly made other demos at home by himself. That month he began assembling a band to take on the ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour of the US Midwest. Allsup was hired on guitar, Jennings on bass and Carl Bunch on drums. They were billed as the Crickets despite the agreement to give Holly’s former bandmates that name. Also starring Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, Dion And The Belmonts and the unknown Frankie Sardo, the tour began on 23 January 1959 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On the afternoon of 1 February the tour played in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but an evening show was cancelled owing to bad weather. The 2 February date at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, went ahead. It was following this show that Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper chartered a small plane to take them to the next date in Moorhead, Minnesota, rather than travel on the tour bus, which had a defective heater and had previously broken down several times. In the dark early hours of a freezing cold morning and as a result of the snowy weather, the plane crashed minutes after take-off, killing all three stars and the pilot. (The tour actually continued after their deaths, with Bobby Vee, Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Avalon filling in.)

Holly’s popularity increased after his death, and his influence continues to this day. Several of the posthumous releases fared particularly well in the UK. In 1962, Norman Petty took the demos Holly had recorded at home in 1958 and had the instrumental group the Fireballs play along to them, creating new Buddy Holly records from the unfinished tapes. In 1965, Holly In The Hills, comprised of the early Buddy and Bob radio station recordings, was released and charted in the UK. Compilation albums also charted in both the USA and the UK well into the new millennium.

During the 70s the publishing rights to Holly’s song catalogue were purchased by Paul McCartney, who began sponsoring annual Buddy Holly Week celebrations. A Buddy Holly Memorial Society was also formed in the USA to commemorate the singer. In 1978, a movie called The Buddy Holly Story, starring actor Gary Busey as Holly, premiered; members of the Crickets, in particular, denounced it as containing many inaccurate scenes. The following year, a six-record boxed set called The Complete Buddy Holly was released in the UK (it was issued in the USA two years later). A 1983 release, For The First Time Anywhere, contained original Holly recordings prior to overdubbing. In 1990, Buddy, a musical play that had previously been staged in London, opened on Broadway in New York.

Buddy Holly’s legacy lives on, not only with tributes such as these, but in the dozens of cover versions of his songs that have been recorded over the years. Holly was an initial inductee into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986. To have a catalogue of songs of this calibre behind him at the age of 22 was remarkable. How would he have approached the 60s and subsequent decades? Such was the quality of his work that few could doubt that he would have lasted the course.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.