Buddy Holly's Guitarist Dies

Niki Sullivan was an original member of the Crickets

April 8, 2004 12:00 AM ET

Guitarist Niki Sullivan, who played rhythm guitar and sang background vocals in Buddy Holly's Crickets, died on April 6th; he was sixty-six.

Born in Southgate, California, Sullivan and his family eventually found their way to Lubbock, Texas, where he met Holly as a teenager. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the two were actually third cousins. Sullivan stumbled into a musical partnership with Holly in late 1956, when a mutual friend took him along to Holly's house to record the future legend with a hand-held tape deck. Upon learning that Sullivan played guitar, Holly asked him to retrieve his instrument from his car, and with drummer Jerry Allison they began working on songs.

Sullivan, who was delivering flowers for a living at the time, was with the band for the early 1957 sessions that yielded "That'll Be the Day" and "I'm Looking for Someone to Love," and was a regular part of Holly's touring troupe at the time. Though Holly often went to outside vocalists for backing on his songs, Sullivan provided the additional voice on two of Holly's bigger hits, "That'll Be the Day" and "Not Fade Away."

Despite being in on the group's success ("That'll Be the Day" topped the charts in August 1957), Sullivan's tenure was short-lived. The guitarist claimed to never quite fit in with Holly, Allison and bassist Joe Mauldin, whose penchant for teasing and pranks while on the road never sat well with Sullivan. "We all did pick on each other," Sullivan said in the Holly biography Remembering Buddy, "but it really grated on me. I took things more personal than the other guys did."

Holly and the Crickets initially performed as a trio, eventually bringing guitarist Tommy Allsup on board. Holly left the Crickets in the fall of 1958; he was killed in a plane crash in February 1959.

Sullivan signed his own label deal after his departure and a single, "It's All Over," enjoyed some regional success. He then headed to Los Angeles where he joined Soul Incorporated before retiring as a performer and working for Sony Electronics.

Sullivan's contribution to the group was not recognized in the 1978 biopic The Buddy Holly Story. Although he claimed to strike a deal that would have given him a percentage of "That'll Be the Day" earnings, Sullivan maintained that the only money he was ever paid for his Crickets tenure was a weekly stipend while on tour in 1957, a small severance check shortly after his departure and royalties on "I'm Gonna Love You Too."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Wake Up Everybody”

John Legend and the Roots | 2010

A Number One record by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes in 1976 (a McFadden- and Whitehead-penned classic sung by Teddy Pendergrass) inspired the title and lead single from Wake Up!, John Legend's tribute album to message music. The more familiar strains of "Wake Up Everybody" also fit his agenda. "It basically sums up, in a very concise way, all the things we were thinking about when we were putting this record together in that it's about justice, doing the right thing and coming together to make the world a better place," he said. Vocalists Common and Melanie Fiona assist Legend on this mission to connect.

More Song Stories entries »