With his signature vocal hiccup and hits like "That'll Be the Day," "Rave On," "Peggy Sue" and "Not Fade Away," Buddy Holly was a rock & roll pioneer, as well as one of the genre's first great singer-songwriters. He used the recording studio for doubletracking and other advanced techniques, and popularized the two guitars, bass, and drums lineup. Holly's playful, mock-ingenuous singing, with slides between falsetto and regular voice, was a major influence on Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and numerous imitators. When he died in an airplane crash at 22, he had been recording for less than two years.
Born Charles Hardin Holley on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas, he learned to play the piano, fiddle, and guitar at an early age. He was five when he won $5 for singing "Down the River of Memories" at a local talent show. In the early Fifties he formed the country-oriented Western and Bop Band with high school friends Bob Montgomery and Larry Welborn. Between late 1953 and 1955 they performed on local radio station KDAV and recorded demos and garage tapes, several of which were posthumously released as Holly in the Hills (and more of which were reissued as part of the Down the Line: Rarities box set in 2009).
By 1956 (after Holly had dropped the e from his last name), the group's reputation on the Southwestern country-music circuit led to a contract to cut country singles in Nashville for Decca. The label didn't think much of Montgomery, who graciously bowed out, insisting that Holly accept the deal. With Sonny Curtis and Bob Guess, Holly cut "Blue Days, Black Nights" b/w "Love Me," billed as Holly and the Two Tunes. Like subsequent pure country releases ("Modern Don Juan," "Midnight Shift," and "Girl On My Mind"), it went unnoticed. One of his last recordings for the label (which Decca refused to release) was "That'll Be the Day," which in a later rock version became one of Holly's first hits. During this period, Holly began writing prolifically. Typical of his romantic fare was a song that began as "Cindy Lou" but was changed to "Peggy Sue" at new Cricket Jerry Allison's suggestion. ("Peggy Sue" was the future Mrs. Allison; they've since divorced.) It eventually became one of Holly's biggest hits.
Following the failed sessions with Decca, Holly and his friends returned to Lubbock. In 1956 and 1957 Holly and drummer Allison played as a duo at the Lubbock Youth Center and shared bills with well-known stars as they passed through the area. Once, they opened for a young Elvis Presley (Holly later said, "We owe it all to Elvis"), who influenced Holly's move into rock & roll.
On February 25, 1957, Holly and the newly named Crickets drove 90 miles west to producer Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, to cut a demo. Their rocking version of "That'll Be the Day" attracted a contract from the New York—based Coral/Brunswick label, and it rose to Number One by September. As with many of Holly's early hits, producer Petty picked up a cowriter's credit. The song's success prompted the Crickets' first national tour in late 1957. Several promoters (including those at the Apollo Theater in New York, where Holly and his group became one of the first white acts to appear) were surprised that the group was white.
Under a contractual arrangement worked out by Petty (who quickly became Holly's manager), some discs were credited to the Crickets, while others bore only Holly's name. His first hit under the latter arrangement was "Peggy Sue" (Number Three, 1957), which also became one of several big hits in England, where he toured to much acclaim in 1958. "Oh, Boy!," released at year's end by the Crickets, hit Number 10. By 1958, Holly had reached the Top 40 with "Maybe Baby" (Number 17), "Think It Over" (Number 27), "Early in the Morning" (Number 32), and "Rave On" (Number 37).
In October 1958 Holly left Petty and the Crickets (who continued on their own), moved to Greenwich Village, and married Puerto Rico-born Maria Elena Santiago after having proposed to her on their first date. His split from Petty (who died in 1984) led to legal problems, which tied up his finances and prompted Holly to reluctantly join the Winter Dance Party Tour of the Midwest in early 1959. He also did some recording in New York; many of the tapes were later overdubbed and released posthumously. During that last tour, Holly was supported by ex-Crickets guitarist Tommy Allsup and future country superstar Waylon Jennings (whose first record, "Jolé Blon," Holly produced).
Tired of riding the bus, and in order to get his laundry done, Holly, along with a couple of the tour's other featured performers, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, chartered a private plane after their Clear Lake, Iowa, show to take them to Moorhead, Minnesota. Piloted by Roger Peterson, the small Beechcraft Bonanza took off from the Mason City, Iowa, airport at about 2:00 a.m. on February 3, 1959, and crashed a few minutes later, killing all on board.
Holly's death was marked by the release of "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" (Number 13, 1959), which topped the U.K. chart for six consecutive weeks. In his wake, Holly left behind enough old demos and uncompleted recordings to fill several posthumous collections. A 1978 feature film, The Buddy Holly Story (starring Gary Busey), revived interest in Holly's life and career.
The Crickets continued on as a group through 1965, with a variety of personnel revolving around Allison, Curtis, and Glen D. Hardin. This lineup had some minor U.S. success but, like Holly, the Crickets were most popular in England, where they had three early-Sixties hits — "Love's Made a Fool of You," "Don't Ever Change," and "My Little Girl" — the latter of which was included in the British film Just for Fun. The Crickets later costarred with Lesley Gore in The Girls on the Beach. As the Sixties progressed, the Crickets' activities became more sporadic and included a Holly tribute album recorded with Bobby Vee. It was Vee who had filled Holly's spot on the ill-fated 1959 tour.
In 1973 Hardin left to join Elvis Presley's band (he would later join Emmylou Harris' Hot Band). Around this time the Crickets recorded an album with a lineup that included Allison, Curtis, and English musicians Rick Grech and Albert Lee (another future Hot Band member). Curtis and Mauldin regrouped the original Crickets in 1977 to perform in England for Buddy Holly Week (sponsored by Paul McCartney, who had just purchased the entire Holly song catalog).
Some of the Crickets have had solo careers. In 1958 Allison released "Real Wild Child" for Coral Records (with Holly on lead guitar) under the nom de disc of Ivan. Curtis, who wrote Holly's "Rock Around With Ollie Vee," went on to write "I Fought the Law" (covered by the Bobby Fuller Four and the Clash), "Walk Right Back" (for the Everly Brothers, for whom Curtis played lead guitar off and on throughout the Sixties), and the theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He has made solo albums since 1958 for A&M, Mercury, Coral, Liberty, Imperial, and other labels. By the early Eighties, he was still active with Elektra/Asylum, for which he released the single "The Real Buddy Holly Story" as a response to the Hollywood biopic, which he and others criticized as being factually inaccurate.
In 1986 Holly was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; seven years later he was honored with his own postage stamp. In 1988 the Crickets released a new album, Three Piece, on Jerry Allison's Rollercoaster label. Again they played the Buddy Holly Week festival that year; McCartney joined them onstage. In 1989 the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story opened on London's West End; it ran on Broadway in 1990 and also had a London run.
In 1996 MCA released Not Fade Away: Remembering Buddy Holly, featuring contributions from Waylon Jennings, Los Lobos, the Band, the Crickets, and others, as well as a "duet" between Holly and namesake the Hollies. Three years later the Buddy Holly Museum opened in Lubbock. Holly's music continues be reissued and repackaged. In 2008 Hip-o Select released a exhaustive six-disc, 203-track box set, Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More, earlier versions of which had been much-sought-after by collectors. The following year Geffen released a pair of more manageable sets — the double-disc rarities collection Down the Line and triple-disc Memorial Collection — which put Holly's music in its proper historical context without all the arcana that only fanatics would want.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.
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