A legacy that won’t fade away

By Sergio Ariza

The musical legacy of Buddy Holly is, together with Chuck Berry, the most important of the first generation of rock & roll. It's a legacy that is the most diverse from the fathers of rock, it is sufficient to listen to Words Of Love to discover that jangle sound of the Byrds and the Beatles; I'm Gonna Love You Too can be considered one of the first ‘power pop pills’; Well... All Right is folk rock before those two worlds got close; and his final recordings with an orchestra can be considered forerunners of Yesterday, which appeared so revolutionary in the mid-60s. If Chuck Berry is the father of rock and the man on whom the Rolling Stones modelled themselves, Buddy Holly is both that for pop and the most influential figure in the Beatles career, a group that would inherit not only Holly’s line up - two guitars, bass and drums - but also their enthusiasm to experiment and open themselves up to other styles.       

Charles Hardin Holley was born on 7 September 1936 in Lubbock, Texas. He would only spend 22 years and five months on Planet Earth, but in that short space of time he profoundly marked a style – that of rock and roll - which was still in nappies, but that continues to consider him as one of the most important names. In order to understand his incredible trajectory it is sufficient to say that at the same age of his death, John Lennon, one of his clearest disciples, had only released one record, Please Please Me. It is impossible not to dream about what might have been had he not died so young but it seems clear that he would have perfectly slotted in to the innovations of the following decade. 

But it is best to focus on the incredible legacy that he had time to leave. Born into a middle class Texan family, the young Holley (his real surname) grew up loving country & western and bluegrass by people like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. Both his mother and his brothers sang and played some instrument, so at an early age Buddy was already taking his first musical steps. At school he formed a duo with his friend Bob Montgomery and he began to compose his first songs. But at the same time the young talent was starting to fall in love with black music that was being played in the nightime on the radio, and to his early love for country he added the blues and R&B that he was secretly listening to in his car. The final ‘light’ arrived on 13 February 1955 when Buddy and Bob opened for Elvis Presley himself. Buddy turned to stone when Elvis passed him his Martin acoustic for his performance, and after seeing the King with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, he knew what he wanted to do with his life - and rock and roll had won a new convert. That same year they would open for Elvis twice more in Lubbock; on the latter the King appeared with his brand new drummer, DJ Fontana and Buddy did not delay in working out how to get one himself, his friend Jerry Allison


Shortly afterwards came another of the most important moments in the history of rock. Buddy had bought himself his first electric guitar at the end of 1954 - it was nothing less than a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop - but the young guitarist was not very satisfied. Three months later he was passing by a music shop window in Lubbock and he saw a real beauty that cost 305 dollars. Buddy ddn’t have the money but he was going to have the guitar. He went to his brother Larry’s house and said to him something like "Larry, I am going to triumph in music and I need the best guitar”. His brother loaned him the money and Buddy bought himself a brand new Fender Stratocaster. The new Leo Fender model had not yet been on the market a year and Buddy was the man who introduced this legendary guitar to the rock universe. When he plugged in a Magnatone Custom 280 and, afterwards, a Fender Bassman, the sound of the Strato of Holly, a mix between country and blues, between rhythm and soloist, would change the course of rock. 


At the start of 1956 Buddy got his first record contract with Decca and made his first recordings. The company chose his musicians for him and Buddy ceded a lot of creative control. The shadow of Elvis continued to be enormous and the couple of singles that they released are clearly rockabilly in the Sun style, with the characteristic country hiccups of Holly. It was here when his surname lost the 'e', as it was missed out in error when Decca printed it. After failing in the charts the company sacked him and in January 1957 he joined up again with Allison on drums, as well as Joe Mauldin on bass and Niki Sullivan as the other guitarist, and left for Clovis to enter into a contract with Norman Petty, a record company producer who would be key to getting him a name.

In his first session he recorded That'll Be The Day and I'm Gonna Love You Too, two of the best songs of his career. Petty realised at once that he had a raw diamond, so, out of necessity, he made a decision that would mark his career. As Holly had already recorded That'll Be The Day for Decca, and that company continued to have the rights, he decided that the song would be attributed to the Crickets, the name of the accompanying band. Later they learned that Brunswick, the distribution company, was a subsidiary of Decca and, therefore, there were no problems, but Petty decided to continue using the name of the Crickets for some launches and that of Buddy Holly for others, so that they could release twice the number of songs. That'll Be The Day, with its magnificent guitar intro and its marvellous melody, was the song that catapulted them to success. After the first performances in New York, the song began to climb the charts and on 23 September 1957 it hit number one. Three days before his first single in his own name had been released, Peggy Sue; on which the Crickets also played as the accompanying band. Further, the song that Holly and Allison composed, was called that in honour of the drummer’s girlfriend. One can appreciate Holly’s particular style on the electric guitar on that track, using a percussive approach, with only downward strokes creating a peculiar rhythmic style based on the chords.

In October Peggy Sue had climbed to number three in the charts, and Buddy Holly and the Crickets were, officially, the new musical sensation. Petty took advantage to record more material and in November their first album appeared on the market: The "Chirping" Crickets, which would be a tremendous success in the United Kingdom. On the 1 December they made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Shortly afterwards Niki Sullivan left the group due to the intense touring schedule. Still, his presence in the classic line up of the Crickets would give the rock and pop of the following decade its magic combination - two guitars, a bass and drums.  

In January 1958 they went out on tour with The Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran and Paul Anka. Holly’s friendship with the Everlys would last the small time that was left to him of his life (Phil would be one of those responsible for carrying his coffin on the day of his burial). If we add Everly’s harmonies to Holly’s music and the sound of his band we have quite a good close approximation to the sound of the early Beatles. A group that would also inherit their ‘good guy’ image.


However, despite that image, Holly could not free himself from the hostility towards everything related with rock and roll by the puritanical American society of the 50s. The clearest case was their second visit to Sullivan’s popular programme on 26 January 1958. Sullivan didn’t like rock, but the audiences gave the orders, and Holly was one of the sensations of the time. Buddy neither wanted to suck up to that old man who made little effort to hide the little appreciation he had for Holly and his music. Despite everything it was difficult for Holly to reject the tremendous diffusion that Sullivan and his program had. This is how things were when the Crickets appeared in the studio to play their latest hit Oh Boy and another song. But Sullivan decided that they would only play one song and that was not going to be Oh Boy, a track that seemed to him "too sexual". 

Buddy refused before the all powerful Sullivan to not play his current hit and Sullivan got ready to sabotage the performance from behind the scenes. The sound and light started to mysteriously fail, but Buddy managed it well and gave a performance that allowed him to be invited back a third time … But he was a proud Texan boy and he told the most powerful man in the American entertainment industry - someone who guaranteed him an audience of 50 million spectators - to go take a walk.      

On 1 March 1958 they travelled to England, on that tour they were discovered frist hand by some youthful adolescents called John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton (the first time that he saw a Stratocaster), Mick Jagger or Graham Nash (who would christen his band The Hollies). Some years later it would be them who would disembark in America to return the music that had marked them so much.

During the rest of the year Buddy would take his music to new levels, increasingly involving himself on the production side and taking care of every detail, and so Not Fade Away arrived, with a rythym similar to that of Bo Diddley, Words of Love and Listen To Me, which preceded the jangly guitar sound of the Byrds, and Well... All Right, on which he plays an acoustic Guild F-50 Navarre, and the final recordings released while he was alive, together with a string orchestra, on tracks like True Love Ways. The song was dedicated to Maria Elena, the woman who became his wife and who led him to distance himself from Norman Petty. The bad part of this was that Petty decided to play dirty and he convinced the rest of the Crickets to stay with him and, what is worst, he froze Holly’s accounts, sending him out (unwittingly) on the tour that would kill him.   


In December 1958, in his Greenwich Village apartment, Holly wrote and recorded some of the best songs of his career with only an acoustic Gibson J200 for accompaniment. He was so excited that he even wrote to his parents saying that he had composed some great songs, the best of them one that was totally secret called Peggy Sue Got Married. It was possibly his attempt to make peace with Jerry Allison, the man who had, finally, married Peggy Sue. But before recording those songs he had to solve his economic problems, so he organised a tour through some of the coldest states in the US in winter. For that tour he contracted musicians like Tommy Allsup, a guitarist who had appeared on some of his recordings like Heartbeat and It's So Easy, and Waylon Jennings, the future country star, as bassist. Ritchie Valens, Dion & The Belmonts and The Big Bopper completed the line up.


On 31 January they played in Duluth Minnesota, in front of an impressionable young man called Robert Zimmerman. Years later, then using the name that has become a part of history, Bob Dylan, he would recall Holly in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature. On 2 February they played before an audience of some 1,300 people at the Clear Lake Surf Ballroom. Dion & The Belmonts played before them, and as the drummer was ill, Buddy took his place. When the concert came to its end, Dion presented the band, and at the end he said “our new drummer, Buddy Holly!" At that moment Buddy, who had been in the shadows, got up and started to play Gotta Travel On before the delerious crowd that packed the Surf Ballroom. Later he joined with the rest of the band, who for the ocassion had Ritchie Valens on drums. At the end Valens got up from the drums and Bopper (sweating due to fever) joined them on stage to sing La Bamba together. 

Holly had decided not to travel on the uncomfortable bus tour and gain a day of rest by renting a small plane to take them to their next stop. However it only had three seats and he gave them to his other two colleagues in the band, Allsup and Jennings. But before the concert Bopper had managed to convince Jennings to give his place up to him, due to his fevered state. After the concert Valens managed to take Allsup’s place by tossing a coin in the air. The author of Donna said ‘heads’ and he won the place saying that “it is the first time in my life I have won anything”. Before going to the airport Holly said goodbye to Jennings, and as a joke said “I have heard that you are not coming in the plane with us”. Waylon confirmed it and Buddy with a smile said “well, I hope your old coach freezes up” to which Waylon replied with the sentence that would haunt him all his life “and I hope your old plane crashes.”

3 February 1959 was the day, according to Don McLean, "that the music died”. Holly, Valens, Bopper and the pilot died but, in contradiction to American Pie, that was not the day the music died. That day Buddy Holly died but his music lived on.

Five months after his death some adolescents called The Quarrymen came together to record their first song. It was the first time that the voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and the guitar of George Harrison, were recorded for posterity. Their choice was none other than That'll Be The Day. Before the year was out they would enter a competition on Britsh TV in which they would cover Think It Over and It's So Easy. When in January 1960 they took the name The Beatles, they did it in tribute to the Crickets. They would be responsible for taking Holly’s music to the places that he could not. Today McCartney is the owner of the publication rights for the man who defined their path for them. 

His legacy is far from fading away…