2-3-59February 3, 2017
Innocence is apparently a renewable resource. Americans have lost it dozens of times in the last 60 years. There was JFK and Vietnam and RFK and Martin and Watergate and the Challenger disaster — every one of those signal events wounded us and made us believe the world could never be the same again.
Yet, then again, maybe there is something to the cliche. Maybe the death of idols and the indifference of heaven teaches us lessons we need to learn in order to grow up. At least we feel compelled to find some point in catastrophe. Innocence lost, something gained. Maturity, perhaps? Or wisdom?
At 1 a.m. Feb. 3, 1959, a four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza took off from Iowa’s Mason City airport in a light snow heading to Moorhead, Minn. Minutes later, it crashed in a cornfield, instantly killing its young pilot and his three famous passengers — Buddy Holly, 22; Richie Valens, 17, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28.
“The crash first scraped the ground at a spot in the middle of the field, breaking off one wing and other parts of the plane,” reported The Clear Lake (Iowa) Mirror-Record. “It then bounced and skidded about 200 yards further to the northwest, scattering wreckage and debris along the way until it piled into a wire fence along the north end of the pasture. The plane was completely demolished in the crash, but did not burn.”
Hours earlier, the three stars had performed at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake before a sellout crowd as part of a multi-state “Winter Dance Party” tour of the Midwest.
It had been a miserable tour plagued by bad weather and a creaky bus. Holly chartered the plane, feeling he needed a respite from the cold, bone-jarring bus. Originally he planned to take his band mates — guitarist Tommy Allsup and bassist Waylon Jennings — with him on the plane. But Jennings gave up his seat to Richardson, who had a cold, and Allsup ended up losing a coin flip with Valens.
That plane crash, rock ‘n’ roll’s first tragedy, shocked a naive generation into the realization they were not immortal. As songwriter Don McLean put it in his windy ballad “American Pie,” it was “the day the music died.”
And it was. The crash proved to be a harbinger of hard times for ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard got religion, Jerry Lee Lewis had been derailed by scandal, the law was hounding Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins was almost killed in a car wreck. And the generation of teen-idol performers who began to emerge after the founding fathers faltered threatened to swing rock ‘n’ roll back in the finger-poppin’ direction of Pat Boone.
It is fitting that a 16-year-old kid named Robert Thomas Velline — who used the stage name Bobby Vee — filled in for Holly the night after the plane crash (amazingly, the promoters refused to cancel the tour). Holly’s crash turned out to be Vee’s big break; the death of the genuine fertilized the growth of the imitative.
And Buddy Holly was genuine. He was fast emerging as a contender to Elvis’ throne with such Top 10 hits as “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” — bracing, brisk records that retain their fresh allure today. Though he recorded for only three years, Holly and the Crickets produced dozens of songs that have become part of the rock ‘n’ roll canon — from the anthemic “Not Fade Away” to the melancholy “Learning the Game” to the uncanny “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (Holly’s first posthumous hit).
All those songs are just part of it. Holly and the Crickets were the first self-contained rock ‘n’ roll band that wrote songs as well as performed them. Their two-guitar, bass and drums lineup became the model for rock bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Holly popularized the Fender Stratocaster —still the world’s most popular electric guitar. Many British Invasion groups copped Holly’s guitar style and hiccuping, rockabilly vocals. Paul McCartney admired him so much he later acquired the publishing rights to his music; he has been quoted as saying if not for The Crickets, there would have been no Beatles. John Lennon and Roy Orbison said that Buddy Holly made them feel it was OK to wear glasses on stage. By dying young, Buddy Holly was caught in amber; his geeky good looks and heavy black glasses were enshrined as icons in our collective consciousness. He seems less a person than some kind of Eisenhower-era cartoon, a rock legend who didn’t live long enough to wear out his welcome, to succumb to the temptations of the high life, to make mediocre records.
But Buddy Holly isn’t just a legend; he was a rangy, raw-boned country boy from Lubbock, Texas, too. Jerry “J.I.” Allison met Holly in when he was in the seventh grade and the legend-to-be was in the eighth.
It was Allison who married Peggy Sue Gerron — the inspiration for at least two of Holly’s most famous songs — and whose steady drumming helped define The Crickets’ trademark sound. He is usually referred to as Holly’s best friend — he and Peggy Sue accompanied Holly and his wife, Mary Elena, on a double honeymoon in Acapulco.
“We really didn’t start hanging out together until high school,” Allison says, “when we started learning to play rock ‘n’ roll together. I was playing in a country band called Cal Wayne and the Riverside Range Hands; Buddy used to come out and sit in with us and do Bill Haley stuff.”
At the time, Allison says, the teen-age Holly was playing with schoolmate Bob Montgomery, doing Louvin Brothers songs and similar material. In 1954, however, Holly saw — and apparently met — Elvis Presley when he played Lubbock’s Cotton Club. Buddy and Bob added a bassist to their act and amended their business cards to read “BUDDY AND BOB: WESTERN AND BOP.”
Holly’s precocious songwriting and energetic performances earned him a contract with Decca, who summoned him — minus his band mates — to Nashville in January 1956. Although those Nashville sessions were overseen by the veteran producer Owen Bradley, Holly didn’t really click with the Nashville pros.
Starting with “Blue Days, Black Nights,” Holly recorded five straight-ahead country singles for Decca Records’ Nashville division that went unnoticed. Disappointed with the results, Decca allowed Holly’s contract to expire. He returned to Lubbock where he worked with several local musicians before settling on the lineup that would become the original Crickets — Allison on drums, Joe B. Maudlin on bass, Nikki Sullivan on guitar.
Recording with Norman Petty at his Clovis, New Mexico, studios 100 miles west of Lubbock, the Crickets soon earned themselves new record deals on Decca subsidiaries Coral (for records released under Buddy Holly’s name) and Brunswick (for records credited to The Crickets). By August 1956, the Crickets had a No. 1 hit with “That’ll Be the Day.”
They went on to have an iconic pop career — a few hits, a break-up and a plane crash.
At the time Holly died, he had made only $60,000 or so in royalties. Now his estate is estimated to bring in more than $1 million per year; and he has sold nearly 60 million records posthumously.
If Buddy Holly were alive, he’d be 80 years old now. What if the first wave of American rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t gone down in that Iowa cornfield? It is possible that, like James Dean before him, Buddy Holly left the stage at precisely the perfect time for legend-making. He had broken with The Crickets and moved to New York, and there were pressures on him — as with Elvis Presley — to move in the direction of pop music.
Buddy Holly might have tried to make himself into Dean Martin — after all, no one could have had any real expectations that the rock ‘n’ roll idiom would survive more than a few years. He had also expressed a desire to do a gospel album with Mahalia Jackson, and to do more songwriting and producing for other artists. He might have evolved into a country artist, like Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash or even his last bass player, Waylon Jennings. Had he survived, Buddy Holly might have managed to preserve his dignity, and to have escaped the appetites and excesses that ruined Elvis. He might even have done what that most perfect rock ‘n’ roll song rails against: he might have slipped away, back into obscurity.
But there are only a few transcendent moments in rock ‘n’ roll, and when Buddy Holly hit that first line of the second verse of that song — “My love’s bigger than a Cadillac” — he walked right into one of them. Not fade away? He hasn’t. Not fade away? Don’t worry, he won’t.