Joe B. Mauldin, Bassist for Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Dead at 74

Unsung hero of early rock & roll succumbed to cancer

Joe B. Mauldin, center, logged more than 50 years with the Crickets before he died of cancer. Credit: V&A Images/Hulton Archives

Joe B. Mauldin, whose bass playing for the Crickets helped set the pulse of rock & roll, died Saturday, February 7th. He was 74 years old. 

Raised in West Texas, Joseph Benson Mauldin, Jr. was barely 17 years old when he began playing with Buddy Holly, a local hotshot whose music mixed the twang of the Lone Star State with the sweep and swagger of rockabilly. At the time, Holly was looking to bounce back from a failed record deal with Decca, whose executives had signed the songwriter in 1956, paid for three unsuccessful recording sessions in Nashville and then dropped Holly from their roster in early 1957, threatening him with legal action if he re-recorded the songs for another label. Holly did re-record those songs, but he avoided a lawsuit by releasing them as a band, the Crickets, whose members also included drummer Jerry Allison and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan

With Sullivan dropping out of the band one year later, Mauldin and Allison became the Crickets' rhythmic backbone. Together, they represented the yin and yang of Holly's sound, with Allison's percussion — so loud that it often bled into Holly's vocal mic during recording sessions, forcing Allison to move his drums into the reception area of the studio — giving the music a wild, rambunctious edge, and Mauldin's stand-up bass — which he played like a country sideman, emphasizing the root and fifth of each chord — paying tribute to the western music they'd all grown up with. 

Although they were rattled by Holly's death in 1959, the Crickets moved forward as a band, teaming up with vocalist Earl Sinks and lead guitarist Sonny Curtis (who'd performed with Holly before his rise to fame, even making the trip to Nashville in 1956 for those botched recording sessions) for 1960's In Style with the Crickets. That album included the first recording of "I Fought the Law," which later became a hit for another Texas-based group, the Bobby Fuller Four. Over the next five decades, the Crickets continued releasing their own albums, occasionally with the help of guest vocalists like Bobby Vee. 

Mauldin briefly left the band during the Sixties. He enrolled in the U.S. Army in 1964 and, after his discharge in 1966, moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a recording engineer at Gold Star Studios. Richie Valens, who'd died alongside Holly in the 1959 plane crash that also claimed the life of J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, had recorded "La Bamba" and "Oh Donna" at Gold Star, which also served as the birthplace of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations."

By the mid-Seventies, though, Mauldin had rededicated himself to the Crickets, whose members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. He remained with the group until last weekend, when he lost a battle with cancer.