Buddy Holly: American Hero

Last week would have marked the 80th birthday of one Buddy Holly – a man whose output and achievements in music were nothing short of staggering. The man paved the way for artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Elton John, yet tragically, didn't make it past the age of 22. Rather than agonising over what could have been, Headliner celebrates Buddy here by revisiting a short but glorious life.

Born Charles Hardin Holley on September 7th 1936 in Lubbock, Texas, he was the fourth child in a family who were members of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. Holley was nicknamed ‘Buddy’ from his early years. His father attempted to cope during the Great Depression with a number of job changes and moving his family around frequently.

With all of his siblings also picking up instruments and singing, one of Holly’s first public performances was accompanying his two older brothers on violin at a talent contest. However, as he couldn’t actually play the thing, his brother Larry greased the strings in order to mute the sound. The brothers went on to win the show! The pair were then called into serving the US in World War II, and Larry came home with a guitar he bought from a shipmate whilst in the Pacific.

Holly flirted with piano lessons, but settled on guitar when he was inspired by seeing a classmate playing and singing on the school bus. His parents bought him a guitar from a pawn shop, and his brother Travis taught him to play. During these formative years, Holly was listening to a lot of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family, discovering them on the late night radio shows playing blues and R&B that he eagerly listened to.

Upon finishing high school, Holly was convinced that he must pursue a full time career as a musician, particularly after seeing Elvis Presley perform in his home town. Before long, he was opening for Presley himself, performing with some of his school mates, Bob Montgomery among them. Holly and his group had been performing country and western, but by this time were already shifting towards rock and roll. Industry executive, Paul Cohen, caught wind of this success, and was suitably impressed to sign him to Decca Records. When drawing up the contract, the label misspelt his name as ‘Holly’ rather than his birth name Holley; thus he was christened Buddy Holly.

It was a somewhat frustrating relationship with Decca; the singles Holly released made little impression, and he was unhappy with his lack of creative control. He was released by the label in 1957. He then recorded a demo of the song, That’ll Be the Day, but due to the terms of his Decca contract, was unable to release it as a solo record. So his group with Jerry Allison, Joe B. Mauldin, and Niki Sullivan went from being called ‘Buddy Holly’ to The Crickets.

That’ll Be the Day topped the UK charts for three weeks in November 1957, and also topped the US ‘Best Sellers in Stores’ chart. In 1958, Buddy Holly and The Crickets, as they were now known, were now extending their reach with trips to Hawaii, Australia, and their first United Kingdom tour; this particular excursion saw them play 50 shows in 25 days.

In June that year, Holly went to a New York recording session without The Crickets, instead being backed by a jazz and R&B band. He recorded Now We’re One, and Bobby Darin’s Early In the Morning. Whilst there, Holly met Maria Elena Santiago, a woman he asked out the day they met, and then proposed to on their first date together. They were wed on August 15th. Holly’s manager, Norman Petty, was not happy with the marriage; in fact, he advised his star to keep it secret as to not upset the female fans. Holly did not take this well at all, already harbouring suspicions about Petty’s methods of bookkeeping.

Santiago went along on tour with Holly, and the union was kept secret with her being known to the public as The Crickets' secretary. Besides doing laundry and equipment set up for the band, she collected their earnings from concerts, which she held on to – previously the money was all sent to Petty in New Mexico. While assisting in The Crickets' finances, Santiago became convinced that Petty was secretly paying the group’s royalties to himself. Holly sided with his wife, and entered into a long and drawn out legal battle with his former manager, who quickly found himself fired.

Holly saw an increasing affinity for New York and its music scene, eventually settling in Greenwich with Santiago. While there, he recorded with members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, a legendary session which produced the tracks It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, Raining In My Heart, Moondreams and True Love Ways. The following December, Holly formally parted ways with Petty, which also prompted a split with The Crickets, who decided to keep the manager. With Petty still hoarding his royalties, Holly was forced to form a new band, and resume touring.

New line-up in tow, Holly commenced the Winter Dance Party Tour. Perhaps ironically, given the name of the tour, their tour bus broke down several times, and the unheated vehicle left the musicians suffering greatly in the cold. Holly took the decision that they would fly from their show in Iowa to the next one in Minnesota. In a morbid twist of fate, Ritchie Valens and J.P Richardson both won a coin toss for a seat on the plane. Pilot, Roger Peterson, took off in the early morning hours in wet conditions, despite not having the full certification to do so. Shortly after 1am, February 3rd 1959, Holly, Valens, Richardson, and Peterson were all killed instantly when their plane crashed, full speed, into a cornfield close to Mason City, Iowa.

Buddy Holly’s funeral was held on February 7th, 1959 at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lubbock. The service was led by Ben D. Johnson, who had overseen the singer’s wedding only a few months prior. His headstone has a carving of his signature Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Besides his signature horn rimmed glasses that Holly made incredibly popular, he was a true game changer in the music world. He will forever be remembered for his stuttering vocal style, and his trading between regular and falsetto singing. His instantly recognisable vocals were complimented by his percussive guitar playing – downstrokes, bent notes, solos, and stops, using the Stratocaster guitar that he championed.

Around the time of his death, Holly had wished to collaborate with Ray Charles and other soul artists. He had also made plans to pursue acting. He leaves behind quite the legacy. John Lennon and Paul McCartney saw him play as teenagers, leaving a huge impression upon them both. Even the name, The Beatles, was inspired by The Crickets. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were both ardent fans. Don McClean’s hit, American Pie, was inspired by Holly, and Elton John wore horn rimmed glasses despite having fine eyesight – in fact, he developed a dependency on them.

We simply would not live in the music world we have today, were it not for the mere 10 years in which Buddy Holly was active. An inimitable triumph. His memory burns stronger than ever.