Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly has been on my mind recently due to a co-worker who went to see Buddy, the stage musical currently playing in Philadelphia about the protagonist's life and music.

In the early 80s, when records still outsold CDs, my wife gave me a hefty, six LP box called The Complete Buddy Holly, as a present. It was a set I actually asked for, but in the end, for some reason I never played more than a smattering of its tracks. While I’ve always been aware of Holly and his achievements he and his band have always been relegated to the back of my mind while I concentrated on other musical fare. Recently, with his name and fame resurfacing in our town I decided to dig a little deeper into his catalog beyond the hits that we all know.

Before Holly most of rock n' roll's inventors were solo performers, not bands. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were pianists steeped in controversy. Both were excellent but neither had Holly's eclectic composing skills. The biggest star of the group, Elvis Presley, was a fabulous vocal interpreter of other people's songs. (Did he ever play that guitar or was it just a prop)? Bill Haley and The Comets were neither composers nor trailblazers. Carl Perkins got derailed by a bad car accident and is mostly known for one song. Chuck Berry was different. His legacy is as strong as Holly's, perhaps because he also played rock's premier instrument and wrote his own material. He's also responsible for some of the most famous and greatest guitar riffs in history.

The Beatles deservedly get tremendous credit for saving rock n' roll after the men who initially brought it into the world either self-destructed or burned out. Among their great contributions were popularizing the template for the standard rock band lineup of two guitars featuring a prominent rhythm player, bass, and drums that Holly used years earlier. Unusually, The Beatles were also a completely autonomous unit who wrote, sang, played, arranged, and produced their own records. After their meteoric rise to become kings of the mountain, a throne they never relinquished at anytime during their career, no rock band worthy of mention was ever allowed to do things differently. If you didn't compose your own songs you were nowhere, man.

However, even though the Liverpool quartet may have carved in stone the commandments that rock outfits everywhere would soon follow for generations to come, much of what they did came straight from Holly (a man they believed to be God). He and The Crickets were already accomplished at doing things The Beatles were so well-respected for while the latter were still The Quarrymen. Holly wrote his own music and the band also had a hand in the arranging and production. His work was the most sophisticated rock music released up to that point. On "Words of Love" Holly was an early user of double-tracked lead vocals (a technique the Beatles later used extensively). He is also credited with introducing the Fender Stratocaster to England where his popularity even outpaced his fame here at home.

Ask any rocker who was part of the original British invasion and they will tell you how important Holly was. John Lennon and Paul McCartney readily acknowledged that The Beatles were modeled after The Crickets, right down to their group's name. Graham Nash and his mates named their band after him and Keith Richards was a fan too.

So, what is the point of this article? In their pre-Ed Sullivan years The Beatles were more followers than the innovators people believed them to be. I'm not here to discredit their contributions to rock because their importance was insanely huge and they still stand out as the most significant band ever. Instead, it's time to ask people to dig deeper into both Holly's music and the story behind it in order to understand the power he had over almost all rockers who came of age after his short time in the spotlight. Many of rock's basic components began in Lubbock, Texas (Holly's hometown) and Clovis, New Mexico (where producer Norman Petty brought the band to record). It's safe to say rock as we know it may not exist without the nerdy looking young man in the huge glasses.

Holly's career lasted only a year and a half. The man accomplished so much it's hard to believe he was only twenty–two years old when he died.


  1. Raining In My Heart is one great example of Holly leading the pack as an innovator. The string arrangement just kills me. He was extremely important as a composer when "rock" was still in the cradle.

  2. Excellent piece. I remember reading in the late 1980s - when the record collecting/history bug hit me - that Holly's catalog was a mess. I did manage to find a collection of his original hits then (as well as a few other bits and pieces, including some post-mortem overdubs), and I still find myself humming "Rave On" at odd moments.