The life of someone cannot be packed and explained in mere words, and especially when it is about a famous personality such as Charles Hardin Holley aka Buddy Holly. Born on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas, this fella achieved a number of achievements in such a young age. But the world wasn’t able to listen to this young Rockstar for a long period of time as he died way too soon on Feb. 3, 1959 (age 23) when he was just starting his trajectory into rock and roll mortality. Due to his melodious voice and infectious personal charm, his classmates declared him “King of The Sixth Grade”. His passion for music was pure and unstoppable that at about age 12 he pursued it with natural ability. Mastering several music styles, he was already a seasoned performer by the age of 16.
Amazing thing is that Buddy Holly, at the time of his death, had recorded only three albums in two years, when his career had only begun to flourish. From his signature geeky looks to his skillful guitar-playing and songwriting, his influence on the realm of pop music and culture cannot be denied. Just like any other music-loving white teenager, Holly was tremendously impressed by the African-American rhythms and blues that he heard on the radio in the racially segregated America of the 1950s. Some of the records that impressed Holly the most are: “Work with me, Annie” by Hank Ballard and Midnighters, “Love is Strange” by Mickey and Sylvia, and “Do Diddley” by Bo Diddley.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Bruce Springsteen, and many musicians/bands in generations to come — have been much inspired by Holly’s singular musical style. The popular magazine “Rolling Stone” placed Buddy Holly at #13 in their “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” list. Later after seven years (on the day of Holly’s birth), he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
His family was extremely fond of music, and his brothers taught him to play a number of musical instruments. In his teenage, he made friends with his classmate Bob Montgomery who also had an interest in music. Ultimately, the duo started performing at clubs and high school talent shows. It was not until, in 1955, when Holly saw Elvis perform in Lubbock that he decided he should be a full-time rock and roller. Inspired by Elvis, he bought a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and developed his own major chords that later become his trademark and identity – which is most recognizable in his solo break “Peggy Sue”.
In 1956, Holly was signed to Decca Records, whose contract given to him misspelled his last name, dropping the “e”. Not wanting to jeopardize the contract, he adopted “Holly” as his professional name. Also, after some time in 1957, Holly formed a group named “Buddy Holly and the Three Tunes” which was later revised and dubbed to “The Crickets”. Holly wrote, composed, and recorded his first hit “That’ll Be the Day” with The Crickets – while Niki Sullivan was on guitar, Joe B. Maudlin on bass, and Jerry Allison was on drums. Between 1956 and 1957, Holly and his team already charted at seven different Top 40 Singles. In his band, he was the frontman – singing as lead and guitar lead, which was an indeed an unusual combination but there is more; he was writing and co-writing many of his songs at the same time as well. Such a talent he was! He was already great in what he did and the addition of his bandmates Allision, Joe B. Mauldin and Niki Sullivan contributed to the songwriting and provided a solid rhythm section that made the band second to none.
Any rock and roller at that time would have to get past of the image of Elvis to gain popularity. Elvis, who became a millionaire at just the age of 22. The fact that Elvis Presley never ever wrote any song as he was not a songwriter, made Buddy Holly more creative and versatile as a rock and roller. Though Holly’s band The Crickets songs weren’t appreciated and noticed by the public until the 1970s, thousands of aspiring musicians and songwriters including Paul McCartney and John Lennon tried their best to emulate Holly singing style. Luxuries that were given to famous and successful artists like Elvis, Sinatra or later The Beatles included getting a blank check in the studio and even ignoring union rules, which was a rare privilege and wasn’t given to Holly or his bandmates. The great thing about them was they were never asked by any union to start or stop their work; they delivered the best without copying anyone else’s work. Buddy Holly and the Crickets were not just popular in America but in England too. They even spent a month in England in 1958 and played a series of shows that were still being talked about 30 years later – this was something that Elvis never did.
Despite the success of The Crickets, Holly became disillusioned with his manager Norman Petty. Petty parceled out the writing credits of “I’m Gonna Love You Too” at random, and gifted himself, Niki Sullivan and Joe B. Mauldin the co-authorship of that song while initially leaving Holly’s name off of “Peggy Sue” as well. Also, Petty usually added his name in the credit line, which was a common practice for the managers and producers back then in the 1950s who wanted to get the bigger piece of the cake. After facing too many problems in credits section and other legal problems concerning royalty money (which Holly had problems getting from Petty), he split from The Crickets and his manager in 1958 and moved to the Greenwich Village in New York City.
This was the start of his Solo career and period of his untimely death. Earlier that same year, he married Maria Elena Santiago, whom Holly asked to marry on their first date. She was a receptionist and four years older than him. He later wrote the song “True Love Ways” as a wedding gift to her — the song showed a lot of promise. But sadly, Holly never got to see its potential.
Following his separation from his former mates and manager, Holly assembled a band of musicians — including the rising star Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and other acts — to embark on a three-week tour across the Midwest called The Winter Dance Party in January 1959. However, it wasn’t exactly a “party” for the performers on tour. Plagued by miserable conditions, an ill-equipped bus along with its damaged heater, and most of all, the freezing weather, Holly decided to charter a small plane to take him and the guys to the next stop on the tour.
After some negotiations between band members, Holly, along with Valens and Richardson, took off from the Mason City Airport in the wee morning hours of February 3, 1959. But unfortunately, the plane was crashed within minutes of leaving the ground, killing all four men (including the pilot). Who knew his decision will cost him his life.
According to the investigators, the cause of the fatal crash was a combination of bad weather conditions and pilot error. Holly’s untimely death is indeed heartbreaking — one of the most tragic casualties the world of music has ever known. Holly’s love of life, Maria Elena Santiago didn’t attend his funeral due to the recent miscarriage she suffered. However, she still owns rights to Buddy’s songs, name, trademark, and other intellectual property.
The pioneer of rock and roll, Holly, was memorialized in Don McLean’s (a little-known singer/songwriter) iconic song “American Pie” as “the day the music died” in 1971. Yet Holly’s music, influence and legend will never die — and otherwise live on in the hearts and minds of music-lovers in the future forever. His narrative created confusion that he was referring to the death of President Kennedy, but McLean disposed of this erroneous notion by clearly stating that he meant Feb. 3, 1959 incident relating to Holly. Holly’s unissued recordings and compilations didn’t stop just there after his death, they were released in a steady stream throughout the 1960s.
Due to Holly’s continuous popularity in music and movie adaptions of his life: “Buddy Holly: Listen to Me; The Ultimate Buddy Party” and “Peggy Sue Got Married”, his horn-rimmed glasses and hiccups are still easily recognized today. The interesting thing about Holly’s style was that his getup was not even close to the other rock and rollers of that time. He was an exciting figure on-stage, rocking a look of an ordinary guy who simply played good guitar and sang well. He provided inspiration to thousands of British youngsters who couldn’t even imagine competing with Elvis or Gene Vincent in the rock and roll department.
Though his tenure as a popular rock and roll star lasted only 2 years, his recordings have highly influenced the likes of musicians Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, who saw Holly perform on his final tour. A rock band named “The Rolling Stones” covered Holly’s “Not Fade Away” that was a big success and was listed in top 10 single in 1964. Paul McCartney of The Beatles later purchased Holly’s publishing rights and the name of the band “The Beatles” was also a kind of homage to The Crickets.
A selection of Holly’s undubbed masters of original recordings was issued by MCA records in 1983 in the album “For the First Time Anywhere” which was followed by “From the Original Master Tapes” – it was the first attempt to put together a collection of Holly’s originals with upgraded sound quality. These titles and “The Great Buddy Holly” were the first and earliest official CD releases of Holly’s songs. After a while in 1986, BBC aired “The Real Story of Buddy Holly”, a documentary produced by McCartney that was counteractive to the movie “The Buddy Holly Story”.
The purpose of this documentary was to cover all those major areas that were carelessly ignored in the movie. Now, there have been a number of stage musicals and plays, reissues of Holly’s work, and tribute albums, all continue to come out at a regular pace more than 60 years after his death. Memorials in his honor include a statue of him placed at Lubbock’s Hall of Fame, “The Buddy Holly Center”, and a street in his name.
“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.”
Here are some fascinating facts about the great Buddy Holly:
- “Peggy Sue” was originally “Cindy Lou”
- In McLean’s memorial song “American Pie”, the “widowed bride” he referenced to was Holly’s wife
- Waylon Jennings was discovered by Buddy Holly
- The designation “Singer-Songwriter” was given to Buddy Holly for the first time because back then songwriting and singing were, for the most part, separate businesses.
- His horn-rimmed glasses made him a fashion trendsetter
- “The Beatles” band would not even exist if it wasn’t for Holly’s band, The Crickets
- Out of many singles of Holly, only one topped the U.S charts: “That’ll Be the Day”, in 1957
Holly and his partner Bob Montgomery opened for Elvis Presley on Feb. 13, 1955, at the Fair Park Coliseum, Lubbock