Buddy Holly Biography Lubbock and The Holleys
Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holley was born in Lubbock on September 7, 1936, the fourth child and third son of Lawrence Odell "L.O." Holley and his wife, the former Ella Pauline Drake. He was nicknamed "Buddy" because, as his mother once confided, "Charles Hardin was just too long a name for such a little boy."
The Holley's were originally from Vernon, Texas, migrating to Lubbock in 1925 in search of better jobs which the cotton economy and the newly opened Texas Technological College could provide. Mr. Holley worked as a tailor, short-order cook and a carpenter to support his young family, which included Larry (born in 1925), Travis (1927) and Patricia (1929).
Growing Up Musical
Buddy Holly was raised in a musical household. His mother Ella was an excellent vocalist, having sung duets with her sister from an early age. Oldest brother Larry studied classical violin, Travis played accordion, and Pat played piano and sang. Buddy's father, "L.O.," was the designated listener. "He couldn't carry a tune in a bag," Travis recalls.
Buddy, however, was quite another story. As a child, he showed a quick aptitude for music, taking violin and piano lessons, and later steel guitar lessons, before losing interest. It wasn't until brother Travis returned from the Marine Corps with a $15 pawnshop Harmony that Buddy took up guitar. "I taught him a few basic chords - - G,C,D,A,E," recalls Travis, "and before long he was telling me, 'No, Travis, you're playing it wrong, it should go like this.'" "Buddy was very quick to learn. Mother used to say it was a shame that he wasn't so quick in applying himself to arithmetic and spelling."
Early School Days & Musical Friendships
When Buddy entered J.T. Hutchinson Junior High School in 1949, he was already an accomplished guitarist, banjo player and mandolinist. He and fellow 7th grader Bob Montgomery listened to the radio religiously, learning the repertoires of Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim & Jesse and the entire casts of the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ol' Opry. A local group, The Mayfield Brothers, were also an early influence.
Buddy and Bob would form several country groups during their junior high and high school years that included Larry Welborn, Don Guess, Jack Neal, Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and other young Lubbock area "pickers." The boys would play at school functions, talent shows, car dealerships, grand opening promotions, parties -any venue that would give them experience in front of an audience and exposure for their music. "We'd play for the opening of a pack of cigarettes," says one former bandmate.
Elvis --And Rock 'N Roll!
If there was a single influence that indelibly shaped Buddy Holly's life and music, it was Elvis Presley. By the time Elvis first barnstormed through Lubbock in early 1955, Buddy and Bob (along with Larry Welborn) were starring on their own Buddy & Bob Show on Lubbock's KDAV radio Sunday Party. They were also opening shows for the big country acts at the Fair Park Coliseum and local clubs.
The boys were familiar with Presley's early Sun Records That's Alright Mama and Good Rockin' Tonight, as well as black rhythm and blues picked up from powerful late night radio stations in Memphis and Shreveport. But seeing "The Hillbilly Cat" in person at Fair Park Coliseum and the Cotton Club was something else. "Presley just blew Buddy away," recalls Sonny Curtis. "None of us had ever seen anything like Elvis, the way he could get the girls jumping up and down, and that definitely impressed Holly. But it was the music that really turned Buddy around. He loved Presley's rhythm --it wasn't country and it wasn't blues --it was somewhere in the middle and it suited just fine. After seeing Elvis, Buddy had only one way to go." Buddy himself would later tell Billboard columnist Ren Grevatt that "without Elvis Presley none of us would have made it." Rock 'n roll had taken hold of Buddy Holly -- and vice versa.
Nashville -- Blue Days Black Nights
Buddy Holly was no overnight sensation. His first recording contract, with Decca Records in Nashville, was the result of being in the right place at the right time. In October of 1955, Buddy & Bob performed as the opening act for a country package show at the Fair Park Coliseum that included Bill Haley & The Comets. Also in attendance was Eddie Crandall, a Nashville talent agent and Marty Robbins' manager, who liked what he saw and heard in Holly's spirited performance. Crandall quickly helped broker a Decca recording contract for Buddy (Bob was not included) through music publisher Jim Denny.
Buddy would record only a dozen tracks for the label, primarily using veteran session players under the direction of producer Owen Bradley. While Sonny Curtis, Don Guess and Jerry Allison would also be used on various tracks, Bradley pushed for a formula country sound with predictable arrangements -- and, sadly, received predictably disappointing results. Holly's two single releases, Blue Days Black Nights/Love Me and Modern Don Juan/You Are My One Desire went nowhere and his Decca contract was not renewed. Years later, Owen Bradley would reflect, "We had been very successful with a country format; we were all into country, and it's hard to change patterns. Buddy couldn't fit into our formula any more than we could fit into his -- he was unique, and he wasn't in a pattern. We didn't understand, and he didn't know how to tell us."
That'll Be The Day
John Wayne's famous line from The Searchers was more than just the inspiration for Buddy Holly & The Crickets' first big hit. That'll Be The Day really sums up the spirit of determination -- the refusal to quit -- that sustained Buddy Holly after the Decca debacle. Returning from Nashville, Buddy began an intensive period of practicing, performing and songwriting with drummer and best friend, Jerry Allison. The two were well known at various independent studios around the West Texas area where they would cut demos. One such studio was owned by Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico, a hundred miles northwest of Lubbock. Built in 1955 to record his own group, the Norman Petty Trio, the studio was considered state-of-the-art by 1956 standards. Petty was a gifted engineer as well as musician, and would record numerous hopeful singers and local bands, including Buddy Holly and his friends. And it was there in the early morning hours of February 25, 1957 that Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison, Larry Welborn, Niki Sullivan and Gary and Ramona Tollett met to record That'll Be The Day. The rest really is rock 'n roll history.
No mention of Buddy Holly or his music is complete without The Crickets. The original lineup included Buddy Holly, vocal & lead guitar; Jerry "J.I." Allison, drums; Joe B. Mauldin, bass; and Niki Sullivan, rhythm guitar. Sullivan would leave the group after their first national tour in the fall of 1957, and the band continued as a threesome.
The Crickets were not simply back-up musicians. The Buddy Holly "sound" is built around the close interplay of Holly's voice, open-chord guitar strumming and Jerry Allison's syncopated drumming. There is a tightness, a oneness to Buddy and J.I.'s playing that has rarely been equaled. "We listened to the same music, played the same licks, and had the same job of filling up the holes in our sound that we just knew what the other was going to play," says J.I. Although some records would be issued under Buddy Holly's name alone, it was The Crickets who played on most of them. The sound of the Crickets inspired legions of young rockers worldwide, including two lads from Liverpool who named their group, The Beatles, after the boys from Lubbock.
The British Tour
On March 1, 1958, Buddy Holly and The Crickets began a 25-day tour of England.
Many rock historians point to this tour as a major turning point in popular music. The British loved American rock ‘n roll, and the personal appearance of one of their favorite groups gave young English rockers a first hand look at how the music was actually made.
Paul McCartney would later recall watching Buddy Holly perform on Sunday Night at The London Palladium television program just to see which chords Holly used and where he placed his guitar capo.
Drummer Bob Henrit, who played with Adam Faith, would also add: "Jerry Allison was a schooled drummer and we weren’t. Every drummer played Peggy Sue hand to hand, but he played as a paradiddle. We didn’t even know what a paradiddle was! And the way he played Oh Boy was subtle. He was putting something into rock we weren’t seeing. We were emulating him without realizing what he was doing."
Even Holly’s physical appearance –– black horn-rimmed glasses and 3-button Ivy League jackets –– would influence early English rock fashions.
When the "British Invasion" began in the early ‘60s, it was led by musicians such as Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Keith Richards and others who were forever moved by Buddy Holly and The Crickets’ visit to England a few years earlier.
It is entirely fitting that the Rolling Stones’ first big hit was Buddy Holly & The Crickets’ Not Fade Away.
Learning the Game
During the last year of his life, Buddy toured constantly and continued the same relentless pursuit of hit records.
His private life, however, changed drastically. In June of 1958, he met and fell in love with Maria Elena Santiago, a receptionist at Peer Southern Music in New York. The two were married on August 15, 1958.
As Holly became more sophisticated in the business of music, he was no longer content to have his affairs managed by Norman Petty, and the two ended their business relationship in October.
The Crickets and Buddy would also part ways. Pressures of the road, business dealings, and Holly’s recent marriage had caused dissension between Buddy, Jerry and Joe B., and the three severed their relationship after a final tour in the fall of 1958.
Discouraged, but still very determined, Buddy and Maria moved to an apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village where Buddy concentrated on songwriting, developing his solo career, and producing young, upcoming artists.
The Winter Dance Party
While Buddy’s financial affairs were being resolved, General Artists Corporation, his booking agency, offered a temporary source of cash –– a 3-week tour through the frozen Midwest beginning January 27, 1959.
Because of his split from The Crickets, Holly recruited guitarist Tommy Allsup (who had played on several of Buddy’s recordings and tours), drummer Carl Bunch, and KLLL disc jockey turned bass player, Waylon Jennings. Dubbed the "Winter Dance Party," the tour also included Ritchie Valens (a 17-year old Californian whose record Donna was at the top of the charts), J.P. Richardson, a 28-year old disc jockey from Beaumont, Texas better known as "The Big Bopper," and Dion and The Belmonts, a popular teenage vocal group from New York City. A young unknown singer named Frankie Sardo and several horn players rounded out the entourage.
Almost immediately, the tour was plagued with problems. The busses were poorly heated and prone to frequent breakdowns. Below-zero weather dogged the group as it criss-crossed Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Holly’s drummer would eventually suffer frostbite, and colds and flu quickly spread among the performers.
By the time the tour limped into Clear Lake, Iowa on the evening of Monday, February 2, Holly had decided to charter a small plane for himself, Allsup and Jennings to fly to the next venue in Fargo, North Dakota following two shows at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom. At the last minute, Jennings gave up his seat to The Big Bopper (who had the flu); Tommy Allsup lost his seat to Ritchie Valens with a flip of a coin.
At approximately 1:00 a.m., the Beechcraft Bonanza plane took off from the nearby Mason City airport. It crashed less than five minutes later, literally flown into the ground by a pilot blinded by bad weather. One of the greatest rock ‘n roll artists of all time lay undiscovered in a frozen Iowa wheat stubble field until well after dawn.
Buddy Holly’s influence on popular music is enormous. The recordings he made in Clovis are extraordinary for their ingenuity and high level of engineering. Long before overdubbing became a common practice, Holly was "layering" his records with multiple vocal and instrumental lines (as he did on Words Of Love and Listen To Me).
He was an experimenter as well. Anything was fair game –– J.I.’s drumming on a cardboard box, playing electric guitar through an organ speaker, adding a delicate celeste –– if it fit the musical textures Holly was painting.
That Buddy Holly and The Crickets could make it all sound so easy that any high-school garage band could play right along is a testament to their genius. Holly’s trademark "chord lead" style of rhythmic guitar playing can be heard in every rock ‘n roll band since, from the Beatles to the kids next door.
For musicians, his spirit and creativity remain basic lessons on how rock ‘n roll music should be played. The enormous joy that his music still brings is an inspiration for why it is worthwhile to do so. His friend Sonny Curtis expressed it best when he said that Buddy Holly lives whenever rock ‘n roll is played.