Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: Buddy Holly
Holly onstage with his Stratocaster, an instrument he perhaps did more to popularize than any other artist of the 1950s.
Photo credit: Getty Images
Fender introduced its Stratocaster® guitar in 1954, but it wasn’t until Dec. 1, 1957, that a great many people actually got a good look at one for the first time. That evening, a Texas quartet called the Crickets performed two songs—“That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue”—on The Ed Sullivan Show. A Stratocaster was slung over the shoulder of the group’s bespectacled leader, 21-year-old Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly.
Just barely more than 14 months and a string of timeless hit songs later, Holly was gone at age 22, the victim of a Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash near rural Clear Lake, Iowa.
Despite the brevity of his meteoric career, he left behind a remarkably prolific catalog, and he has exerted a profoundly powerful and enduring influence on succeeding generations of musicians who continually revere him as an original-era guitar hero. He was among the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and Rolling Stone ranked him in 2004 as 13th among the “Fifty Greatest Artists of All Time.”
He was born Charles Hardin Holley on Sept. 7, 1936, at his family’s home on Sixth St. in Lubbock, Texas, to Lawrence and Ella Holley. Almost immediately, his family called him “Buddy.”
Holley’s aptitude for music surfaced early; a Lubbock newspaper reported on April 9, 1940, that at the birthday party of a 4-year-old girl, 3-year-old Buddy Holley “sang a song for the occasion.” At age five in fall 1941, his vocal rendition of Albert Brumley’s “Did You Ever Go Sailing (Down the River of Memories)” won him the $5 first-place prize at a local talent contest he entered with his elder brothers, Larry and Travis.
Holley’s brothers taught him to play guitar, banjo and lap-steel guitar throughout his 1940s childhood, and he made his first known recording in 1949 in his very early teens—a bluesy version of Hank Snow’s “My Two Timin’ Woman,” done on a wire recorder borrowed by a friend. Later that year, Holley and Hutchinson Jr. High School classmate Bob Montgomery teamed up as “Buddy and Bob,” playing bluegrass music and singing harmony together at local clubs, school events and on local radio station KDAV. The pair made home recordings of several songs in the early 1950s, including “Take These Shackles From My Heart” and “I’ll Just Pretend” (1952), and Bill Monroe’s “Footprints In the Snow” (1953).
With friend Jack Neal, Holley formed another duo in September 1953. “Buddy and Jack” had their own show broadcast live on KDAV’s weekly Sunday Party program, and recorded “I Hear the Lord Callin’ For Me” and “I Saw the Moon Cry Last Night” at the station in November 1953.
Holley started making demo recordings in 1954 with friends including Sonny Curtis, Larry Welborn and future Crickets drummer Jerry Allison. A pivotal moment came on Feb. 13, 1955, when Buddy and Bob opened for Elvis Presley at the Fair Park Coliseum in Lubbock. Another pivotal moment came a couple months later, on April 23, 1955, when Holley walked into Adair Music in Lubbock and traded his first electric guitar to salesman Clyde Hankins for a brand-new Fender Stratocaster (priced at $305).
Late 1955 proved eventful for Holley. On Oct. 14, he opened for Bill Haley & His Comets at the Fair Park Auditorium, where Marty Robbins’ agent, Eddie Crandall, saw him. At the show, Crandall told KDAV owner “Pappy” Dave Stone that he was interested in Holley as a solo artist. At the same venue the next day, Buddy and Bob, with Welborn on bass, opened for Presley again. Two weeks later, on Oct. 28, Buddy and Bob, again with Welborn, opened for Robbins at the Fair Park Coliseum. Holley closed out 1955 by recording demos on Dec. 7 at Nesman Recording Studio in Wichita Falls, Texas.
1957 debut album The “Chirping” Crickets: From left, guitarist Niki Sullivan, drummer Jerry Allison, Holly and bassist Joe Mauldin. While Holly was alive, the group was called simply the Crickets; it wasn’t until after his death that the group was referred to on record as “Buddy Holly and the Crickets,” as seen on the 1962 reissue of the same album (below).
The Dec. 7, 1955, demos were then submitted to Decca Records, with whom, with Crandall’s assistance, Holley negotiated a recording contract in late January 1956. The first of three Decca recording sessions took place on Jan. 26, 1956, at Bradley’s Barn recording studio in Nashville (the others took place in July and November 1956), where Holley recorded under the name “Buddy and the Two Tones.”
Holley received his Decca Records contract on Feb. 8, 1956. On reading it, he noticed that Decca had misspelled his last name by dropping the e from Holley. From that point onward, he adopted the misspelling as his professional name—Buddy Holly.
In an interesting musical/historical footnote, Warner Bros. released epic John Ford western The Searchers on March 13, 1956. In it, John Wayne, as embittered Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, utters the famous line, “That’ll be the day,” a phrase that would soon loom large in Holly’s career.
Holly’s first Decca single, “Blue Days, Black Nights” (backed with “Love Me”) was released on April 16, 1956, and promptly did … nothing. That summer, on July 22, he recorded the first version of a song he wrote with Allison, “That’ll Be the Day,” in Nashville, but Decca chose not to release it. Second Decca single “Modern Don Juan” (backed with “You Are My One Desire”) was released on Dec. 24, 1959, but sales remained elusive and the label shelved its remaining Holly tracks. His contract with Decca expired on Jan. 26, 1957.
Undaunted, Holly continued recording. He laid down “I’m Looking For Someone to Love” at producer Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, N.M., at sessions on Feb. 24 and 25, 1957. These dates also produced a more upbeat version of “That’ll Be the Day.” The song was given a faster and lower-pitched treatment than the July 1956 version, and featured bass by Welborn and backup vocals by Niki Sullivan, June Clark, and Gary and Ramona Tollett. In a common practice of the era, Petty was listed as a co-author of the songs even though his contribution was solely production.
Holly, however, was contractually prohibited by Decca from re-recording any of the songs—released or not—from his 1956 Nashville sessions for five years. To dodge this legality and release the new version of “That’ll Be the Day,” Holly and his band adopted a new name in February-March 1957—the Crickets (the band was never referred to on record as “Buddy Holly and the Crickets” until after Holly’s death). The quartet’s lineup coalesced over the next month, with Holly, Allison, Joe Mauldin on bass and Sullivan on second guitar.
It should be noted that by this point Holly was a highly accomplished and innovative guitarist. Able demonstration of this came on April 28, 1957, when Holly played lead guitar on Jack Huddle’s “Starlight” and “Believe Me”; the former of which is widely considered one of Holly’s best guitar breaks on a record that wasn’t one of his own.
Holly’s lead guitar work was not typical of the era, however, as he was an instinctive master of a more rhythmic and chordal approach later adopted by many players in single-guitar bands (the Who’s Pete Townshend, perhaps most notably).
“He was among the first to depart from single-note lead lines to a unique rhythm/lead style where the ‘lead break’ was essentially a rhythmic emphasis (with plenty of treble) on the open chords of the song,” noted Guitar Player magazine in a June 1982 cover story. “Sometimes he would embellish this chord lead with a blues riff or a hint of the melody line, such as in ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ but it was always played within the context of the open chord structure of the song. It may sound elementary today, but at the time it was a marked departure from the religiously copied Scotty Moore (with Elvis)/Frank Beecher (with Bill Haley) school of rock guitar: three verses of vocals followed by a hot single-note solo and back to the chorus and closing verse.”
Finally, the newer version of “That’ll Be the Day” was released on May 27, 1957. It came out on the Brunswick label, which, ironically, was a Decca subsidiary, and almost immediately became a sensational nationwide hit. Decca subsequently re-signed Holly to what amounted to two contracts—Crickets records would be released on Brunswick, with Holly solo records released on fellow Decca imprint Coral.
Things happened quickly now. In August 1957, the Crickets were one of the first white rock ‘n’ roll acts to play the Apollo Theater in New York. On the 26th of that month, they performed “That’ll Be the Day” on American Bandstand in Philadelphia. The song reached number one on Billboard magazine’s “Best Sellers in Stores” chart (a predecessor of the Hot 100) a month later.
The group’s debut album, The “Chirping” Crickets, was released on Nov. 27, 1957, and included hit singles “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh Boy,” “Maybe Baby” and “Not Fade Away.” Its title notwithstanding, Allison, Mauldin and Sullivan didn’t sing on the album; backup vocals were provided by the Picks (Bill Pickering, John Pickering and Bob Lapham).
“A highly accomplished and innovative guitarist”: Holly making a 1958 U.K. televised appearance with his ever-present Stratocaster.
Photo credit: Getty Images
Then came the famous Dec. 1, 1957, appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, immediately after which the Crickets returned to Lubbock and Sullivan left the lineup, making the group a trio.
The next album was credited to Holly and hence released on the Coral label even though Allison and Mauldin backed him on it. Buddy Holly was released in February 1958 and contained hits “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday” and “Rave On” (“Words of Love” from the album was recorded by the Beatles in October 1964). Decca then repackaged Holly’s 1956 singles and shelved recordings and released them in April 1958 as third album That’ll Be the Day.
The Crickets spent most of March 1958 conducting their one and only U.K. tour (one show was reportedly attended by Keith Richards, who would’ve been 14 at the time; the Rolling Stones’ early 1964 cover of Holly’s “Not Fade Away” became the group’s first top five hit in Great Britain).
Visiting the New York offices of music publisher Peer Music in June 1958, Holly met receptionist Maria Elena Santiago, who had only worked there for two weeks. He asked her out, but Santiago had never been out on a date and told Holly he’d have to get her aunt’s permission (her aunt was her legal guardian; Santiago was sent to New York from her native Puerto Rico by her father). Holly did so, and proposed to Santiago on their first date. Less than two months later, on Aug. 15, 1958, they married in Lubbock.
The Crickets headlined the fall 1958 Biggest Show of Stars northeast U.S. tour from Oct. 3-19, but cracks were widening—Holly had become increasingly interested in the New York music recording and publishing scene, but his band wanted to return home to Lubbock. The Crickets disbanded, and Holly ended his business partnership with Petty in November 1958 (Allison and Mauldin remained under Petty’s management). Buddy and Maria Elena Holly moved into an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he recorded acoustic songs such as “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and “What to Do,” which were posthumously released as the “Apartment Tapes.”
January 1959 saw Holly enlist a new band, consisting of guitarist Tommy Allsup, bassist Waylon Jennings and drummer Carl Bunch. This new lineup was assembled for the three-week Winter Dance Party tour of the Midwest, which began on Jan. 23, 1959, in Milwaukee and was scheduled to continue through Feb. 15 with shows in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. At the Jan. 31 performance at the National Guard Armory in Duluth, Minn., 17-year-old Robert Zimmerman—later Bob Dylan—was in the audience.
“I was three feet away from him,” Dylan said in 1998. “And he looked at me.”
The Winter Dance Party tour pulled into Clear Lake, Iowa, for a Feb. 2, 1959, show at the Surf Ballroom. Immediately after the show, Holly boarded a four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft in nearby Mason City, Iowa, that he’d chartered to fly him and his band to Fargo N.D., on the way to the next show, in Moorehead, Minn.
Bunch couldn’t make the flight, as he was recovering from a case of frostbite suffered only days earlier in a tour bus breakdown. Allsup lost a coin toss with singer/guitarist Ritchie Valens for a seat on the plane, and Jennings gave his seat to flu-stricken singer J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson.
The plane took off in light snow and gusting winds shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 3. Minutes later and only eight miles from the airport, it crashed, killing Holly, 22, Valens, 17, Richardson, 28, and pilot Roger Peterson, 21.
Holly was laid to rest in the Lubbock city cemetery on Feb. 7, 1959, after a 2 p.m. funeral service in Tabernacle Baptist Church. His headstone bears the original spelling of his surname (Holley) and a relief of a Stratocaster. The service was officiated by Ben Johnson, who had presided at Holly’s wedding only months earlier. The pallbearers were Allison, Mauldin, Sullivan, Bob Montgomery, Sonny Curtis and Phil Everly.
Holly’s 1958 eponymous second album was credited to him alone even though Crickets Jerry Allison and Joe Mauldin backed him on it.
Although Holly released only three albums during his lifetime, he recorded so much material that Coral Records was able to release brand-new albums and singles for an entire decade after his death (although these ranged from studio-quality to home-recording quality).
Lifelong fan Paul McCartney bought the rights to Holly’s catalog in July 1976, and he organized a weeklong tribute to in September 1976 for what would’ve been Holly’s 40th birthday. “Buddy Holly Week” has since become an annual event.
Hit biographical film The Buddy Holly Story was released in May 1978 and won an Oscar for Best Adaptation Score (and a Best Actor nomination for star Gary Busey), but was roundly criticized as a highly fictionalized portrayal of Holly’s life containing a number of historical inaccuracies. Not the least of these concerned the guitars Holly played in the film, which included a Fender Bronco (a model not introduced until 1968), a Telecaster (which Holly never used onstage) and a 1970s-era Stratocaster.
Such details aside, Holly’s popularity remained remarkably durable long after his death, as it continues to do today. Indeed, as Guitar Player magazine noted in 1982, “Ironically, Buddy Holly and his music are probably known by more people today than when he was at the height of his playing career.”
The many inaccuracies in the 1978 film prompted McCartney to produce his own documentary film, 1985’s The Real Buddy Holly Story, which included interviews with Allison, Curtis, Keith Richards and Phil and Don Everly.
As noted, Holly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the institution’s very first induction ceremony, held Jan. 23, 1986, in New York. Maria Elena Holly was present to accept the honor. Today, more than half a century after his amazing career and his tragic and untimely passing, Buddy Holly remains as popular and influential as ever.