Today We Remember: Buddy Holly – Best. Musician. Ever

Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s.  Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.

Hello everyone, it’s Retro Dee and I’d like to Welcome you to a very special edition of “Today We Remember”.

Today we remember the greatest musician of all time and my favorite person who ever walked the Earth: Buddy Holly.

When one thinks of Buddy Holly, an iconic picture of the 1950’s arises along with some of the best music from the decade (and, quite possibly, some of the best music of all time) But Buddy Holly was not just a popular act of the past, he was a pioneer of Rock n Roll. He paved the way for many musicians such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Elton John, and countless others who emulated his unique style.

Born Charles Hardin Holley on September 7, 1936, “Buddy” (as his family called him early on) was the youngest of four children. His father was Lawrence Odell “L.O.” Holley (1901-1985) and his mother was Ella Pauline Holley (née Drake, 1902-1990). He had two older brothers: Lawrence Odell “Larry” Holley Jr., (b. 1925), Travis Don Holley (1927-2016) and one older sister, Patricia Lou Kaiter (1929-2008)

Buddy was born on Labor Day in Lubbock, TX at around 3:30 in the afternoon. His first and middle names (Charles Hardin) came from his two grandfathers: Charles Wesley Drake and John Hardin Holley.

1936 was also the year of the Texas Centennial Celebrations in Dallas. Buddy’s hometown of Lubbock is forever synonymous with his legacy and he will always be known as the Pride and Joy of the city.

When Buddy was 11, he took piano lessons, but was more interested in learning the guitar. His parents bought him a steel guitar, but what he really wanted was an acoustic like Larry and Travis had. When oldest brother Larry returned from the service, he brought a guitar home for his little brother. However, it was Travis who taught Buddy how to play.

When it came time for Buddy to choose his electric guitar, he chose Fender over the more widely-known Gibson. He liked the Fender’s loud sound, and he was one of the very few artists at the time who played the avant-garde, futuristic-looking instrument.

Buddy attended Roscoe Wilson Elementary and J.T. Hutchinson Junior High. He graduated from the historic Lubbock High School in 1955. In his Senior year, he was the Vice President of the Vocational Industrial Club of Industrial Co-operative Training.

But more importantly, were the connections he made at Lubbock High. He met fellow musicians Jerry Allison, Sonny Curtis and Bobby Montgomery who he became close friends, and eventually band mates.

It was also in High School that Buddy met his first love, Echo McGuire. Buddy and Echo dated through school until Echo left him for a fellow student. There has been much speculation on which songs, if any, Buddy wrote regarding the loss of his first real love.

After graduating in 1955, Buddy pursued a professional career in music. He played in many clubs and venues, anywhere that would book him and his band. On Sundays he performed live on the local radio station KDAV in Lubbock on “The Sunday Show” hosted by D.J. Larry Byers. His band was called “The Buddy and Bob Band”.

In October of 1955, Buddy Holley, Bob Montgomery and Larry Welborn opened for Elvis Presley. It was then that Buddy was first discovered by talent agent Eddie Crandall. After hearing Buddy’s demo tape, in February of 1956, Decca records signed Buddy as “Buddy Holly”, accidentally omitting the “e” in Holley, thus creating his new stage name.

Buddy first recorded “That’ll Be The Day” in Nashville. The idea for the song came to him after seeing John Wayne in the movie The Searchers. Throughout the film John Wayne says, “That’ll be the day”, thus inspiring Buddy to turn the phrase into a song.

But stardom did not come easy. The producers in Nashville were not happy with “That’ll Be The Day”. They wanted more of a country sound. After failure to produce what Decca initially wanted, Buddy returned to Lubbock disillusioned. In the fall of 1956, the label dropped him.

Soon thereafter, Buddy met recording engineer and genius, Norman Petty. It was in Petty Studios in Clovis, New Mexico that The Crickets were formed. “That’ll Be The Day” was re-recorded once again in Petty Studios with Buddy singing lead, backed by musicians Ramona and Gary Tollet. The recording didn’t get started until 2 O’Clock in the morning and by the time the demo was finally finished, the song had a new sound.

The demo for “That’ll Be The Day” was sent out. Norman Petty, Buddy and the others assumed they’d have to re-record the song once again. But this time, it was accepted for distribution exactly the way it was recorded that morning in Clovis.

Buddy Holly had two major record labels, both subdivisions of Decca: Brunswick (The Crickets label) and Coral (Buddy Holly’s label). The reason for this was so that the songs could get more exposure. A D.J. would not play more than one song from a group or artist within a show, but if they were categorized as two separate names on two separate labels… you get the idea. This stroke of genius marketing allowed Buddy (with and without The Crickets being named) to distribute twice the amount of songs at one time.

The Crickets were initially a group of four members which consisted of Buddy Holly (lead), Niki Sullivan (rhythm guitar), Jerry Allison (drums) and Joe B. Mauldin (bass).

“That’ll Be The Day” was released on Brunswick and became The Crickets first hit record in 1957 with “I’m Looking For Someone To Love” (also written by Buddy Holly) on the B-side. The jukebox staple “Peggy Sue” was released on September 20th, 1957 with the lullaby-like tune “Everyday” on the B-Side. The Crickets next major hit “Oh Boy!” (written by Sonny West) was released that November with one of Buddy’s most famous works “Not Fade Away” on the B-Side.

By the fall of 1957, Buddy Holly had reached international success with The Crickets. They made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” singing “That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue”. The broadcast was the very first time that the now iconic Fender Stratocaster guitar was seen on television.

As Buddy made the transition from local celebrity to World Superstar, his original glasses were replaced with his now iconic, black horn-rimmed frames. His teeth were capped with porcelain veneers. Close friends Don and Phil Everly took Buddy shopping in New York for new clothes, in an attempt to make him more mainstream in appearance and less “West Texas”.

Despite his genre of rebellious Rock N Roll music, Buddy Holly’s appearance still remained well within in the realm of conservative 1950’s men’s attire. He either wore a suit and tie or sometimes, an Ivy League-styled sweater. Between the glasses and suits, you could say he looked more like a CPA than a Rock N Roll rebel. He was very rarely seen in denim and leather unlike his contemporaries Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Eddie Cochran.

But Buddy’s Nifty Fifties style was none-the-less embraced by the World. In his suit and tie, armed with his Strat, he was the perfect mix of Dapper Dan and Rock N Roll Rebel. His tall, lanky stature and iconic black horn-rimed glasses made him instantly recognizable. Fans and upcoming stars alike wanted glasses just like his. (It has been said that young Elton John spoiled his own vision by wearing a pair of “Buddy Holly glasses”!)

On January 25, 1958, Buddy and The Crickets recorded the classic hit “Rave On!” The very next day, The Crickets (now down to three after Niki Sullivan left the group) appeared once again on The Ed Sullivan Show . This time they performed (the then too-suggestive) “Oh Boy!” live to millions of viewers across America. The performance was much to Ed Sullivan’s discontent, but the nation went wild.

At the end of the same week, Buddy Holly and The Crickets left for a long overseas tour to the UK where future legends John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Elton John saw Buddy Holly play Live and In Person. It has been said that the very first time Eric Clapton saw a Fender Stratocaster was in Buddy Holly’s hands. Amazed by Buddy’s playing and the instrument itself, it was then that Clapton decided: he needed one of those!

After the UK tour, the group spent time performing to fans in Australia. This epic tour of early Rock n Roll superstars included greats such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and, of course, Buddy’s good friends, The Everly Brothers.

When The Crickets returned to the United States, they continued touring. In early May of 1958, a riot broke out at a Chuck Berry performance produced by Alan Freed. As a result, Rock n Roll was BANNED in Boston! The remainder of The Crickets tour was canceled. Now with some time off, the boys headed to Dallas, TX where Buddy, Jerry and Joe B. all purchased motorcycles and rode them the rest of the way home to Lubbock.

Upon returning to New York, in the Summer of ’58, Buddy met the stunningly beautiful Maria Eléna Santiago. It was “love at first sight” for both of them. He asked her out immediately upon meeting her. During dinner on their very first date, Buddy bought a rose for Maria Eléna and asked her to marry him. She enthusiastically agreed, and the love-struck couple could not be married soon enough. After getting Maria Eléna’s aunt’s blessing, the two married in Lubbock on August 15, 1958.

Buddy settled in Greenwich Village, NY with his bride. She accompanied him on all his performances and tours. The two would drive from tour date to tour date in Buddy’s Cadillac. They were so madly in love, that not a day went by that they weren’t together.

In September of 1958, Buddy produced the songs “Jole Blon” and “When Sin Stops (Love Begins)” with a young Waylon Jennings singing the lead. Jennings has said that Buddy was responsible for his success in the music industry. The two are said to have been best friends. At one time, Jennings was quoted saying: “Buddy was an upper. He was happy. He loved music and he was really happy…I don’t know… I don’t believe in reincarnation at all…but if all that stuff is true, then he might have been on his last time around.”

In the fall of 1958, Buddy recorded four songs with a backing orchestra. Those recordings are known as “The String Sessions”. It was the first time that Buddy worked with an orchestra and his natural talent made the outcome appear effortless. The four songs recorded were: the breathtakingly romantic “True Love Ways” (which he wrote for Maria Eléna), “Raining In My Heart”, (written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, best known for their songs written for The Everly Brothers), Norman Petty’s “Moonbeams” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (written by a teen-aged Paul Anka.)

The three-hour recording session was witnessed by Buddy’s wife and close friends, (including Peggy Sue Gerron) and was recorded at Pythian Temple in New York City.

In the Hollys apartment in Greenwich Village, Buddy recorded “Listen To Me” and “Words Of Love”. Although he was the only singer, the harmony was achieved by recording on two separate tracks and editing them together. The classic “Crying Waiting Hoping” was also recorded in the Holly’s apartment in December, 1958, along with “Peggy Sue Got Married” (the follow-up to the original hit). Both songs were edited with back-up singers and were not released until after his Buddy’s death in 1959.

In December, 1958, Buddy cut ties with manager Norman Petty. On top of rumored financial disputes, Buddy didn’t agree with the reigns Mr. Petty tried to put on him. Namely, Mr. Petty wanted Buddy to pass Maria Eléna off as a secretary, fearing that the fans might be heartbroken (and therefore turned off) if they found out that their idol and heart-throb, Buddy Holly, was married.

After spending the 1958 Holiday Season in Lubbock with his bride, Mr. and Mrs. Holly returned to their apartment in New York. Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup and a 16-year-old drummer named Carl Bunch stayed with the couple just before the ill-fated Winter Dance Party Tour of ’59. It was in the band he formed with Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup that Buddy performed with for the last time.

As the story goes, Maria Eléna was supposed to go with her husband on the tour. However, she was newly pregnant and not feeling well, so she decided to stay behind. She said goodbye to Buddy for what was supposed to only be three weeks. Little did she know, she would never see him again.

On February 3, 1959, eleven days into the tour, Buddy Holly’s plane crashed in Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all four people on board. The other two stars who died that day were Ritchie Valens  , 17, and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), 28. The plane was flown by 21-year-old Roger Peterson, a pilot who worked for Dwyer Flying Service, a local charter company.

It is staggering to note that in just eighteen months, Buddy Holly shot to stardom, had 12 chart-topping hits, became an international icon and changed the music industry forever.

And then he was gone.

In 1971, singer Don McLean wrote the classic hit “Miss American Pie”. Since then, the tragic event has been known as  “The Day The Music Died”.

Buddy was buried in The City of Lubbock Cemetery on February 7, 1959. His headstone has a carved picture of a Stratocaster guitar and reads:

“In Loving Memory of Our Own 

Buddy Holley 

September 7, 1936 – February 3, 1959.” 

Fans from as far as 10,000 miles away have come to visit the grave site and pay their respects to the amazing young man we lost too soon.

60 years after his death, Buddy Holly is still loved the world over, just as he was back in the 1950’s. His work is still being discovered and embraced by the young generations and has stood the test of time despite decades of change in popular music.

Dick Clark has been quoted saying: “Elvis was King of Rock N Roll, but Buddy Holly was the undisputed Father of Rock N Roll.”

What I personally love about Buddy Holly was his enthusiasm for life, his determination, and his drive to go after what he wanted without ever questioning himself. I love the fact that he truly adored music and it showed in every single thing he produced. I appreciate his unique genius and immense talent. He made music interesting and fun to listen to in a way that no other artists could ever quite replicate.

I also love the fact that he was both a strong man, yet gentle and extremely romantic. He was loyal to his friends and he treated his peers in the industry like family. He never forgot where he came from. He wasn’t afraid of anything and he was almost always smiling.  When I look at him, I see a god – yet a human being at the same time. There was something humble about him; something vulnerable and Earthly, despite his celebrity status. And do I really need to mention that he was gorgeous? Yes. Yes, I do. 🙂

As one of Buddy’s biggest fans, I feel that I must state the obvious and say that we all wish we could have had him here longer— or, at the very least, we wish we could thank him somehow for sharing his talent with us… and for everything he brought to the world.


Buddy Holly (1936-1959)

“There’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”

– The Sandlot 

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