As we draw close to the 63 year anniversary of that fateful plane crash, I am releasing the third and final instalment on Buddy Holly. Myself and many others will be reading on February 3 about that day in 1959, as well as the before and the aftermath, all I will say is that at age 22 he had left a legacy that is a crucial part of Rock and Roll history. He was there at the beginning, though he was inspired by him, he was a contemporary of Elvis Presley as well as Chuck Berry, but for the two years from his breakout song, we will never know what he could have achieved. To me he stood as an equal. Today I will talk more about the person, his music, the portrayals, and tie up any loose ends from my prior posts.
Buddy started his professional career as a teenager, he and his bandmates were still in Jr. High School. When he found his ‘voice’ with the above song in 1956, he sounded like no one else. As much as he was a gifted lyricist, singer and musician, he also had an ear for songs from other composers/artists.
As promised I am posting a series on Billie Holiday.
There have been other names but you can connect the dots of important women in Blues and Jazz music with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Most of my readers will know about Holiday but since this is the first in a short series I will give you this link to her bio from BillieHoliday.com.
From Wikipedia I gathered a few things everyone should know about her. She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, and to say she overcame horrendous circumstances is and understatement. She was abandoned by her father (believed to be Clarence Halliday) and then passed around by her mother to live among relatives throughout her early life. By the time she was 12 she had been sexually assaulted and was running errands for money at a brothel or scrubbing floors. She re-joined her mother who had left for Harlem by 1929. She began singing in nightclubs as a young teen and her first recordings, with the help of John Hammond were in 1933 at age 18. From there she would work with the leading names in Jazz and Blues including Count Basie and Artie Shaw.
She would rise to the highest height of success and not unlike many in the business she had her issues with alcohol and drug abuse. No doubt a combination of past trauma and getting caught up in the fast life of an entertainer she would struggle with addiction the rest of her life. At a pivotal point in her career she came to the attention of the FBI. This would lead to her incarceration on a drug charge. The song that brought her great success but also got her labeled a subversive or worse was “Strange Fruit”. From her first live performance in 1939 the evocative song about lynching and racism in the South would always stun the audience and serve as an education to many. Her insistence on recording it and continuing to sing it despite the warnings was likely the reason she came to the attention of law enforcement in the first place. Anyone singing protest songs and in this case about racism or lynching, in the late 1930’s and 1940’s attracted unwanted attention from authorities. Particularity for an outspoken Black woman.
“Strange Fruit” is a courageous recording by the legendary Billie Holiday from 1939. This song makes an appearance on my “25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #51-75” post. It is from a poem by another brave soul, Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol) as a protest against racism and lynchings in the American South. He put the poem to a tune and his wife and others sang it at protest rallies. The lyrics are dark and disturbing. Eventually the song made its way to Holiday who first added it to close her Nightclub act. It was only recorded after her efforts to find a label willing to do it. Her delivery is haunting and deeply emotional. Covered over 100 times. Here is Nina Simone with an equally amazing version from 1965.
You can find my post on Nina Simone from 2019 here.
Buddy is best remembered for his original songs, and he wrote or co-wrote most of them himself. His first single was under his new contract with Decca (1956) is “Love Me” that he co-wrote with Sue Parish from Lubbock, Texas. It was the A side of the first of two records released by Decca after those initial sessions in Nashville. On the B side was “Blue Days – Black Nights” written by Ben Hall, also from Lubbock. The other record had “Modern Don Juan” on the A side that was written by a longtime friend of Buddy and his family, Don Guess. Don’s (The Guest) Sisters recorded with Norman Petty in Clovis in the 1940’s and this provides the link to Buddy working with Petty after he left Decca. The B side was “That’s My One Desire” that was also written by Don Guess.
As we known there was a disconnect with Decca right from the beginning, they wanted a Country Singer, and Buddy wanted to do Rock and Roll. For his first recordings in Nashville, he had taken Sonny Curtis to play lead guitar, and Don Guess to play the bass. He left his friend and drummer Jerry Allison in Lubbock and Nikki Sullivan stayed in school. At that time in Nashville, Country & Western Music very rarely used drums and they did not really even know how to record them. They were banned from The Grand Ole Opry stage for many years. In the 1950’s much of the Country Music world worried that with drums it would start to sound like Rock and Roll. So Buddy could not get the sound he wanted and Decca put no effort in promoting him.
I know I posted this song recently but it was not until he worked with Norman Petty that the real Buddy Holly was heard. On “That’ll Be The Day” it was just Buddy with his jangly lead guitar, Jerry Allison on drums and from the first recording, replacing Joe Mauldin on bass it was Larry Welborn (who had also played on past Holly recordings). Nikki Sullivan (one of Buddy’s bass players) provided background vocals only, along with June Clark, Gary Tollett and Ramona Tollett. The resulting and much better version was released on Brunswick in May of 1957. This became his breakout single. It reached #1 on Billboard (this was pre-Hot 100), it went to #2 on the R&B Chart and was #1 in the UK. It was his only #1 in the US.
As I have mentioned, there are movie portrayals and many have seen some of the great theatrical performances, also the books and other tributes to Buddy Holly. There was a Tribute album “Rave On” released in 2011 that was unfortunately a critical failure with some less than stellar efforts from some respected artists. There is one standout version from My Morning Jacket on “True Love Ways“. Then there is the namesake band called The Hollies. Elvis Costello’s look was not a mistake either. As I mentioned in Part 1 and many have said, the course of (what we think of as the original) Rock and Roll changed as a result of that plane crash. I believe it was a key part of the decline of the genre but there were many other events in and around the same time that had an impact. For more on that story you can read my post, When did Rock Drop the Roll. I think the biggest loss with Holly was the direction he was moving with his music.
Buddy never thought Rock and Roll would last much longer, at least not at its current pace of the late 1950’s so he turned his focus to other styles and types of music. The move to New York was due to his desire to focus more on writing and publishing. This led to a split with The Crickets who were for the record, drummer Jerry Allison, bassist Joe B. Mauldin, and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan. They would form the band that toured with Buddy in 1957. If you are following with the names I have mentioned on recordings, the three were rarely together in studio.
After the move, Buddy had a bit of a cash flow problem, for reasons I won’t go into now but this led to his decision to join the Winter Dance Party tour. He put together a new band with fellow Texan Waylon Jennings, a guy Buddy had been grooming for stage performances (lead Guitar) and another Texan Carl Bunch (drums) along with Tommy Allsup (Guitar) who had also been playing in Texas. There are many accounts surrounding the events of that fateful tour. I will try and present the rest of the story as I understand it and wrap up with Buddy Holly Part 3.
Thanks to the band Weezer and this retro themed song and video from 1994 it gave many younger listeners a look back in time and perhaps some discovered the amazing Buddy Holly collection. Not to mention Mary Tyler Moore! BTW and I am sure this is no coincidence on the part of Weezer, the theme song for The Mary Tyler Moore tv show was written and sung by Buddy’s friend Sonny Curtis.
I hope you continue to enjoy my blog and as always, thanks for reading!
Happy American Thanksgiving and a special hello to my family and extended family living in the US. I have a lot of favorite songs I do admit and with Buddy Holly it is hard to pick just one. His original song “Heartbeat” was credited to Buddy’s highschool friend, bandmate and his first writing partner, Bob Montgomery. While I can’t provide any concrete evidence, I feel Buddy also played a large part in the writing as it was from a time when the two worked very closely together and it is so similar to some of Holly’s other songs such as “Words of Love” that Buddy had recorded earlier. To take nothing away from Bob who recorded an unreleased demo of the song with Norman Petty (who would take a song credit) and he wrote other songs such as “Misty Blue” and a song for Patsy Cline, but it was Buddy that moved on to greater things. Buddy was known to be generous with songwriting credits. Part of the reason Bruce Springsteen used to (maybe he still does) listen to Buddy Holly before going on stage was a reminder to “keep it simple” and this song is a perfect example. Straightforward lyrics and vocals with a great accompaniment gives us this beautiful little song.
I did say it was hard to pick just one! “True Love Ways” was written by Holly and recorded on October 21, 1958. Written for his soon to be wife, Maria Elena Santiago it is another simple but beautiful song. It was one of the last songs Buddy recorded but never performed and it was released after his death in March of 1960.
The Beatles loved to cover Buddy Holly songs during live performances. On the album Beatles For Sale, released in 1964 (UK only) they covered Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Dr. Feeelgood and (as noted above) Buddy Holly’s song “Words of Love”. Very few artists could write and sing Rock and Roll Ballads like Buddy Holly.
Thanks for reading, so many more great covers of Buddy Holly songs but that’s the end of Holly Days! Next we move on to Happy Holidays and first featuring the extraordinary Billie Holiday.
The Rolling Stones covered this song in 1964 and in reaching #3 it gave them their first top 10 in the UK and it became their first charted single in the US at #48. Released in 1957 it was not a hit for Holly and it appeared on the B side of “Oh Boy” that had reached #10 on Billboard. “Oh Boy” as did almost all of Buddy Holly’s songs charted better in the UK reaching #3, hence the the flip side (Not Fade Away) also gained some popularity and came to the attention of Mick and Keith who worked on the arrangement themselves. The original was written by Buddy Holly and draws inspiration from the great Bo Diddley beat. Drummer Jerry Allison used a cardboard box instead of drums to get that distinctive sound ala “Party Doll” (1957) by fellow Texan Buddy Knox, who was also recorded (April 1956) by Norman Petty at his studio in Clovis.
The Rolling Stones had been touring with Bo Diddley in the UK so this cover of Buddy Holly served as a tribute to both of the artists. I have to say they nailed it. This would be the second cover version as The Bobby Fuller (who covered the Crickets “I Fought the Law”) did it first in 1962. It has since become the most covered Buddy Holly song with over 140 versions. A live performance by Bo Diddley himself appears on the 20th Anniversary of Rock and Roll album from 1976. Other notable covers include Tanya Tucker and Stephen Stills both from 1978 and the Lolitas in 1989. Rock icons Rush released a version of this song in 1973, it was their first single and it charted at #88 in Canada. For a great many artists this is a stage favorite such as Bruce Springsteen and Los Lobos. The Grateful Dead played this song frequently during live performances but I could not find a studio version. If you have a chance to check out this clip of a Celebrity Ensemble doing the song on Austin City Limits, it’s worth it just hear Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt.