When Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, he was just 22 years old and had been writing and recording songs for only about two years. But that music – including immortal hits like “Not Fade Away” and “Peggy Sue” – has had an incalculable impact on rock history. “He was a major influence on the Beatles,” Paul McCartney told Rolling Stone recently. “John and I spent hours trying to work out how to play the opening guitar riff to ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ and we were truly blessed by the heavens the day we figured it out. It was the first song John, George and I ever recorded.”
A half-century later, McCartney has returned to Holly’s catalog, cutting a smoking rendition of “It’s So Easy.” It’s one of 19 newly recorded Holly covers – by an all-star lineup including the Black Keys, My Morning Jacket, Kid Rock, Fiona Apple, Patti Smith and Lou Reed – for the tribute disc Rave On Buddy Holly, spearheaded by Randall Poster, music supervisor of movies such as The Royal Tenenbaums and I’m Not There. “We wanted to commemorate Buddy’s 75th birthday,” Poster says. “I’ve used a lot of his songs in movies, and they’re so powerful and so ripe for interpretation.”
Florence and the Machine cut a New Orleans-flavored version of “Not Fade Away” while on tour in the Big Easy last year. “My grandmother took me to the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story when I was a kid, and it changed my life,” says singer Florence Welch. “When we were in New Orleans, we decided it would be good to use the environment around us, so we brought in local Cajun musicians.” Cee Lo Green tackled the relatively obscure “You’re So Square (Baby, I Don’t Care).” “We wanted to keep the rockabilly intact,” he says. “But we broadened it and gave it a bit of something unique to me. There’s something Americana about it, something country and something African.”
Smith selected “Words of Love.” “During the song she talks in Spanish and is sort of channeling [Holly’s widow] Maria Elena Holly,” says Poster. “It’s so romantic and so novel. More times than not, we were just overwhelmed by the power of the renditions that we received.” Despite Holly’s extremely brief career, Poster thinks the set could have been even longer: “There’s probably a half-dozen more songs we could have done. If I had more time and more of a budget, I would have kept on going.”
This story is from the July 7th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.