Buddy Holly's Widow Embraces Wave of Tributes

Maria Elena on 'Listen To Me' and Her Early Loss

September 2, 2011 1:55 PM ET
Buddy Holly's Widow Embraces Wave of Tributes

When he began assembling a lineup of singers to pay tribute to Buddy Holly for what would have been the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's 75th birthday, producer Peter Asher hadn't heard that a similar project was underway. Rave On Buddy Holly, a tribute album with tracks by the Black Keys, Lou Reed, My Morning Jacket and Paul McCartney (who owns the publishing rights to Holly's music), came out in June.

Now the second Holly tribute, Listen to Me: Buddy Holly – supported by Holly's widow, executive produced by Asher (one-half of the UK duo Peter and Gordon, who had a hit with Holly's "True Love Ways") and featuring contributions from Stevie Nicks, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Zooey Deschanel and ex-Fall Out Boy Patrick Stump – is set for release September 6th. A star-studded concert event will be filmed the following day, Holly's birthday, at the Music Box in Hollywood.

Exclusive Album Stream: Stars Salute Buddy Holly on 'Listen To Me'

Holly's widow, Maria Elena Santiago-Holly, says she's happy that so many artists still admire her husband. Are two tributes better than one?

"One hand washes the other, as they say," she says.

Holly met Maria Elena when she was working as a receptionist at the music publisher Peermusic in New York. On their first date, the young songwriter asked her to marry him. They were wed in Holly's home in Lubbock, Texas, with Jerry Allison, a member of Holly's backing group, the Crickets, and his wife, Peggy Sue, as witnesses. Holly and Maria Elena lived in New York together until his death less than a year later, at age 22, in a plane crash.

Holly, who wrote such enduring classics as "Not Fade Away," "That'll Be the Day" and "Words of Love," was oblivious that he was pioneering the idea of a songwriter performing his own music, says Maria Elena. The Beatles, huge fans who took their name in part as a tribute to the Crickets, came to epitomize the self-contained ideal of a rock 'n' roll act that wrote its own material, as Holly had.

"But he always said 'I really would like to be involved in every facet of the industry,'" says his widow. "He wanted to help upcoming musicians make it, because of the problems he had." Holly introduced black audiences at the Apollo Theater to rock 'n' roll; he nurtured a young Waylon Jennings, steering him from rock toward country. And, as Maria Elena recalls, he told her, "Come with me to the UK. You’ll see the talent out there. I really would like to develop that."

Holly also saw past the stereotypes of his hometown, where Mexicans and blacks were second-class citizens at the time. "I saw racial tensions in Lubbock," says Maria Elena, who was born in Puerto Rico. "As a matter of fact, Buddy warned me about it. Coming from an island, you don't see color."

She still regrets that she wasn't with the singer on the tour on which he died. Pregnant with the baby she later miscarried, she stayed home in New York, on her husband's urging.

Members of the Crickets, who split with Holly when he left Lubbock in a royalty dispute with the band's manager, Norman Petty, called Maria Elena while he was on the road in Iowa, hoping to reunite. Later that day, she got the news of the plane crash.

"Buddy would call me twice during the day," says Maria Elena, "but I was not aware he was taking that charter plane. I still sort of blame myself that I didn't put my foot down to come. I had my suitcases out the door. He would not have taken that plane, because I wouldn't have.

"Of course, you could go crazy saying 'What if?'"

Holly's widow eventually remarried and raised a family, moving to Florida and then Dallas with her second husband, a director for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. She is now a grandmother.

She retains the rights to Holly's image and trademarks. "Every single day I still think of Buddy," she says. "Everything reminds me of him." With the flurry of activity around his birthday, she wants to keep reminding Holly's fans, too. 

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