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The Truth Behind ‘The Buddy Holly Story’

Friends say the movie’s not Cricket

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly circa 1970

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It’s really a tinsel-town movie. Everybody thinks it’s true — that’s the shame.
—Jerry Allison, Cricket

Even though Buddy Holly never had a Number One single in America, his legacy is immeasurable. Holly and the Crickets established the precedent for a self-contained rock & roll band, that is, one that wrote its own material and had enough studio freedom to do what it felt, in the process bridging country and rock.

It is clear that the early Beatles were heavily influenced by him (Paul McCartney now owns the Holly song catalog) and that Bob Dylan’s phrasing owes him a great debt. The Rolling Stones’ first American release was Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” So it’s important to know just who Buddy Holly was.

No authoritative biography of Holly is currently available (John Goldrosen’s Buddy Holly: His Life and Music, published by Bowling Green University Popular Press in 1975, is out of print), and MCA’s reissues of Buddy Holly and the Crickets records are in disarray. As a result, The Buddy Holly Story now stands as the official version of his life, but the movie does not seem to be about the real Buddy Holly.

I sat with Ed Cohen, executive producer of The Buddy Holly Story, in his New York office, along with the film’s director, Steve Rash, and its producer, Freddy Bauer, and asked them about all the liberties their film had taken with the reality of Holly’s life, liberties that Holly’s family and friends are indignant about. As I pointed out inaccuracy after inaccuracy to Cohen, Bauer and Rash, they agreed, but cited “dramatic license” in defense of their film.

I asked Bauer about a statement he had made: “Whatever we put up there on the screen will be the truth.” “I’ll tell you what I meant by that,” he said. “Ask moviegoers who invented the telephone. They’ll tell you that Don Ameche did.” Don Ameche… . . . he’s right, there’s no way to refute the reality that is invented by a movie. But what The Buddy Holly Story suggests is that Holly invented himself at a roller-rink show in Lubbock, Texas, and then was perfected by a woman he married five and one-half months before his death at age twenty-two on February 3rd, 1959. What the movie portrays in between — and what it leave out — has been criticized by those who knew Holly and those who feel it misrepresents the historical role of one of America’s major rock & rollers.

As Ed Cohen pointed out, you can only do so much with 114 minutes of film and $2 million — a very low film budget: Sgt. Pepper was up in the $12 million range. But a tight budget does not explain away the flaws in the story.

The three major complaints concern the portrayal of Holly’s family, the treatment of the Crickets and the omission of Norman Petty, Holly’s producer. There have been numerous attempts to adapt Holly’s life story to the screen. Three years ago, independent producers Freddy Bauer and Ed Cohen bought movie rights to Goldrosen’s book as source material. Meanwhile, MCA-Universal, with Petty’s help, considered a Holly movie-for-TV which never materialized. At the same time, 20-Century Fox actually did two weeks of filming of a script called Not Fade Away, from a story by Cricket Jerry Allison.

The Buddy Holly Story isn’t a rock & roll movie,” said the film’s director Jerry Friedman. “Not Fade Away would’ve been a damn right-on movie about rock & roll.”

According to Friedman, Fox shut the project down because the script mainly concerned itself with a bus tour the Crickets did with black groups (historically, that’s accurate: bookers thought Holly and the Crickets were black). The script was called fiction but it’s very close to fact. “I sure wish Fox hadn’t backed down on it,” said Allison. “I think the first footage showed a lot of hassles with blacks — but we did get in a lot of hassles with the black guys on the bus.”

“I think they [the Crickets] were fools,” recalled Bauer. “I called Jerry Allison during Not Fade Away and I said, ‘You signed your rights exclusively to Fox?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry for you because you’ll regret it. If the situation changes, here are my phone numbers, please call me.’ I never heard from him.”

“Freddy Bauer did call me during the Not Fade Away deal,” said Allison, “and I said, ‘I’m not interested in your deal; I have this movie.’ That’s the last time he ever talked to me about it.

“I saw a thing,” he continued, “about how they portrayed two Crickets from the twelve Crickets and, hell, there weren’t twelve Crickets during Buddy’s career — there was Niki Sullivan, Joe B. Mauldin and I.” Allison is right. Rhythm guitarist Sullivan left the group in December 1957, but during most of Holly’s career, drummer Allison and bassist Mauldin were partners with Holly, cowriting many songs with him and performing on all the tours but the last one. They and Holly split up in October 1958, about three months before his death, but had planned to get back together. On Holly’s last tour, though, he recruited Waylon Jennings on bass, Tommy Allsup on guitar and drummer Charlie Bunch to tour with him — not a full orchestra with strings as the movie depicts.

That orchestra is dramatic license, said Bauer, because that’s the direction the producers of the film thought Holly would have taken had he lived. Norman Petty, for one, feels that’s an unreasonable assumption: “Certain liberties were taken there. There’s no way to predict what Buddy would have done. They forget — or didn’t know — that Buddy was initially opposed to recording with strings. I had to talk him into it. In fact, that whole scene in the New York studio with Buddy producing himself and writing charts is all wrong. For one thing, Buddy couldn’t read music and for another Dick Jacobs was the producer at the session. That’s unfair to Jacobs.

“I think that everyone in Buddy’s life was done an injustice because the movie makes Buddy look like a tyrant, a personal and musical tyrant, which he was not. He was very definite about his musical ideas but he was also a very warm, nice, human individual. People like Jerry Allison were very important to Buddy’s life, musically and personally.”

Allison and Mauldin are now in the process of suing over the use of the service mark “Crickets.”

Niki Sullivan, who is not involved in the suit, liked the movie. “I thought the portrayal of Buddy was wonderful, as lifelike as could possibly be. I know the movie was not as true to life as it should have been, but you have to make it salable. I was shortchanged as a Cricket. I was left out because they used the Goldrosen book as the source and I was not interviewed for that book. But some things were incorrect: the first two days that we played the Apollo, we were booed. The third day, Buddy said, ‘Let’s do Bo Diddley,’ and from that moment on we were a hit.”

Cricket Joe B. Mauldin, who couldn’t say much because of the pending lawsuit, said, “I’m not highly impressed with the movie. I feel the producers made something teenyboppers can relate to. It was presented as biography and it is a long way from that.”

Peggy Sue Gerrow Allison Rackham, for whom the song “Peggy Sue” was written, married Jerry Allison in August of 1958 and then honeymooned in Mexico with Buddy and Maria Elena. “The movie’s typical Hollywood, gobbledygook fantasy,” she said. “I had thought there would be more of a story than what there was. There was never a Cindy Lou — the song was ‘Peggy Sue’ from the start. And Jerry and Buddy were very close, closer than most brothers.”

Omitting Norman Petty greatly simplifies Holly’s career, rendering it inaccurate. (Why he was omitted remains unclear: the producers say he wanted script control; Petty says he asked only to be allowed to read the script.) In the movie, after an abortive Nashville session, a live tape of “That’ll Be the Day” is accidentally released and a mad disc jockey plays it nonstop. Instant stardom. The band moves to New York and Holly writes everything himself and produces himself.

Holly and the Crickets actually had three producers. Owen Bradley produced three Nashville sessions in 1956 (and he doesn’t recall being punched out by Holly, as the movie depicts). Dick Jacobs produced six songs in two New York sessions in 1958. But most of the songs and the hits were produced by Norman Petty in 1957 and 1958 at his studio in Clovis, New Mexico. “That’ll Be the Day” was cut there in 1957 as a demo for Roulette Records, which turned it down. Petty then got Bob Thiele at Decca (now MCA) to release it on Decca’s subsidiary Brunswick label. He simultaneously worked out a deal for Holly’s solo records to be released on Coral, another Decca subsidiary, to double the group’s chances for success.

Even though controversy lingers over the extent of Petty’s cowriting with the Crickets, Goldrosen’s biography amply documents that he did much of the writing and arranging, played keyboards on many of the records and overdubbed the background vocals (either overdubbing Holly himself or using two Clovis groups, the Picks and the Roses. The Crickets themselves, contrary to The Buddy Holly Story, never sang on any records).

“I do find it amusing that the producers put mountains in Lubbock,” said Petty. “But I was purposely left out of the movie. I felt like a nonentity, like some very important years of my life had just been wiped out.”

One of the key points of the movie is that Holly was the first rock & roller to have total production control. Was that so? “Actually, I think this is inaccurate,” Petty said. “Jerry always said I was fairly tyrannical in the studio. I don’t think Buddy had production control. Buddy had musical control, but I don’t think it ever entered Buddy’s or Jerry’s mind to usurp the position of the man in the control room.

“I was also disappointed because, in my book, Buddy’s father is the real hero of the Buddy Holly story. He was the man who gave Buddy this tremendous strength. Buddy knew he had his dad’s backing on everything he did, and the picture doesn’t show the help his father gave him. The movie makes Mr. and Mrs. Holly [Buddy dropped the ‘e’ from his last name after it was misspelled on his first recording contract] seem like some sort of religious zealots. I do think the movie was a disservice to everyone concerned with Buddy’s life and I don’t think it’s fair to call it The Buddy Holly Story when in fact it isn’t. There were so many liberties taken. His real life story was meteoric and, if anything, the film makes it dull, makes it dull, makes him an individual with only one thing on his mind — to succeed.

If you, like many others, went out after seeing The Buddy Holly Story and — heeding the words in the closing credits — tried to buy the Ballantine paperback version of the movie, you were unable to find it. That’s because it doesn’t exist. John Goldrosen, whose book is credited as the movie’s source, says he blocked publication of the book once he’d read the script. Goldrosen, meanwhile, is trying to get his book back in print.

Goldrosen said he was very unhappy with the movie: “The producers admitted they were making The Glenn Miller Story of the Seventies. They chose to reinforce a lot of rock & roll clichés but they could have told the truth and still be commercial. They wound up hurting people. The Holleys were portrayed wrongly. The church scene was wrong.”

Mrs. Ella Holley agreed: “We were disappointed by the movie because it wasn’t what we thought it was going to be. That church scene [where Buddy and rock & roll are condemned from the pulpit] could never have happened. Buddy was close to his pastor, the Reverend Ben Johnson, and he was a member of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. Buddy always gave ten percent of his earnings to the church. I will admit that was the reaction of a lot of churches to rock & roll, but it wasn’t what our pastor did.”

What about the scene where you and Mr. Holley are depicted as pushing Buddy to give up rock & roll?

“We were behind Buddy one hundred percent. We were very anxious for him to make a career as a singer. We were his biggest fans. You know, I wrote ‘Maybe Baby’ for Buddy. I was always trying to help him write and he always said my songs were too serious. So I decided I would write him a silly one. I wrote ‘Maybe Baby’ and gave it to him and the next thing I knew it was out on record. I said, ‘I hope you didn’t put my name on it,’ and he said, Oh no, I knew better than that.’ “

Did the movie producers talk to your family for research?

“No,” said Mrs. Holley. “They were supposed to consult with us but we never saw the script at all. It just didn’t seem to be the story of Buddy’s life; not to anybody who knew him.”

Buddy’s older brother, Larry, who loaned Holly the money to buy his Fender Stratocaster, was more blunt: “It didn’t portray his life at all, really. They didn’t ask us about a thing. It was mostly Maria Elena’s version of his life. I didn’t feel that was my brother up there on the screen. We weren’t happy with the movie at all.”

Back in the office with Bauer, Cohen and Rash, I asked them about the extreme liberties taken in those scenes.

“We had to use our own conscience,” said Cohen, “to ask, ‘Was he really like this?’ We weren’t out to hurt anybody. We were just out to make a movie that would make a lot of money and the Holleys and Maria Elena would make money. I can understand how Mrs. Holley feels.”

“There’s no question,” said Rash, “that the church scene takes dramatic license — to try to lay some groundwork for why what Buddy was trying to do was not considered acceptable.

“We could quibble all day about inaccuracies,” he continued. “The three of us have for years. It would be nice to do a movie for the purists, but they already know the story. It’s the public that needs to know about Buddy Holly.”

Bauer: “We tried to make a commercial film and still be true to what we told Maria Elena and Mr. and Mrs. Holley, that we were gonna make Buddy an American hero.”

“See,” said Rash, “I think establishing the attitude is more important than all the facts put together.”

“That’s it,” Cohen said. “That’s everybody’s idea of Buddy Holly and there’s nothing the three of us are ashamed about that’s up on that screen. We’re pretty proud.” “The important thing,” said Rash, “was to try to let the general public know part of where rock & roll came from. If the purists lose, the general public is the consideration.”

There’s one inaccuracy Holly probably wouldn’t have minded. Near the ending, he calls Maria from on the road to tell her that he was chartering a plane to fly ahead to the next date because the tour bus had broken down. That plane crashed, of course, killing Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The real reason Holly chartered that plane was to fly ahead to the next city so he could get his laundry done. Dirty clothes killed Buddy Holly.

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