Rock fans remember Buddy Holly and the night the music died

Don McLean said, “I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside the day the music died.”

Maybe you think “American Pie” is little more than an obnoxious “Piano Man”-like radio cliché. I have fought my own battles with its ubiquity as well. But there is a reason it immediately seized ahold of American listeners when it was first released: Everyone could understand the story Don McLean was telling as he gestured toward musical shadows on the wall. Everyone had rather traumatically just lived through it. And everyone understood why the story begins where it does.

For on February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (better known as the Big Bopper) boarded a plane to fly from Clear Lake, Iowa, to another gig in Moorhead, Minn. Holly’s bandmate for the tour, Waylon Jennings, gave up his seat to the Bopper because he was ill and volunteered to take the unheated tour bus instead. His generosity saved his life, because that plane crashed almost immediately after takeoff, killing all three men as well as the pilot.

The loss to music was immediate, and without getting into unnecessary detail it is more than mere mythmongering to say that it put a temporary halt to the evolution of rock and roll for several years. The reason for this is that, as great a loss as Valens and Richardson were, Buddy Holly was nearly irreplaceable as a creative force.

Holly was a pathbreaking musical giant experimenting with advanced recording techniques, creative autonomy, and writing and producing with his band as a self-contained unit, all while pounding out one legendary rock-and-roll classic after another. He was there almost at the start, and the music (and musical decisions) he made fundamentally defined what so many other artists after him would aspire to be. His loss ranks as perhaps the greatest premature death in modern popular-music history. (The other candidate is Otis Redding, who — as if the Fates were cruelly mocking us — died in exactly the same way on a similarly cold Midwestern winter’s night eight years later.) I fear it’s too easy to forget about Holly the further our living shared cultural memory recedes from that dark day on February 3, 1959, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I rave on for a little bit.

Holly first came to fame with “That’ll Be The Day,” the song whose refrain (“That’ll be the day-hey-hey when I die”) McLean hinges his entire thumbnail history of rock around. The song was a revelation to the country, and a notable step forward for Holly himself. He had been playing in public since 1952 and formed a duo with his friend (Buddy & Bob, whose few recordings reveal a remarkable country-folk origin to Holly’s sound). But it was opening for the young, fiery Elvis Presley during his swing through west Texas in 1955 that truly galvanized Holly. Think about it for a second: Imagine being a young Buddy Holly, and you are opening for Sun Studios-era Elvis Presley. It would be like witnessing a meteor strike from ten yards.

The effect on Holly was instant and can be traced delightfully throughout his recordings during these years. His country becomes rockabilly, and that hiccupping rockabilly soon begins to mutate into a unique early fusion of pop, rhythm & blues, and country: in other words, to listen to Holly is to hear a founding strand of rock and roll being born. After an unsatisfying detour in Nashville where he lacked creative control, the young man from Lubbock, Texas, decided to return to the West instead, to Clovis, N.M., of all places. There he would work with a producer named Norm Petty whose serendipitous penchant for crystal-clear recording techniques was matched by his willingness to develop new ones as well. The “vocal overdub,” where a singer harmonizes with himself? Buddy Holly and Norm Petty invented it in 1957 when Holly wanted to duet with himself on a new song he had written called “Words Of Love.”

From that moment onward, Holly wasn’t just writing some of the most explosive music of the early rock era (it will always amuse me that “Not Fade Away,” perhaps one of the most iconic rock songs ever written, was the B-side of a single). He and Petty were also shaping (in a very real sense creating out of nothing) the earliest contours of modern studio-recording technique, employing overdubs and introducing non-standard instruments like celestes (on the unforgettably simple “Everyday”) or strings to back Holly’s band, the Crickets. Listen to the paradiddle rhythms of “Peggy Sue” as they bob and duck in and out of the mix. It immediately catches your attention on a subconscious level, and that’s the trick. That’s why listeners in America noticed it as well.

And not just in America. To be clear: The most important case for Buddy Holly’s greatness is made by his own music. (If you don’t feel invigorated hearing Buddy sing “All my love! All of my kissin’!/You don’t know what you’ve been missing, oh boy!” then we simply misunderstand one another.) But the case for Holly’s historical importance is proven by his influence on a later generation of British musical groups who kept alive his spirit of independence, self-determination, and fearless (almost naïve) musical intelligence.

If you haven’t already figured out where I’m heading here, then let me explain that the first-ever recording made by three teenagers from Liverpool in 1958 was, in a stroke of glorious cosmic alignment, a cover of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day.” Those kids — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison — were merely known as the Quarrymen back then, but because they were so fiercely inspired by Holly, they would change their name to the Beatles as a tribute to the Crickets and their self-contained ethos. The Beatles based their internal order on what they perceived Holly and the Crickets to stand for, and a thousand other groups then based themselves on the Beatles. So it’s altogether too fitting (and eerily coincidental given how both were cut down) that Buddy Holly and John Lennon’s careers, each documented by Don McLean in “American Pie,” both truly begin by singing the very same words that first made Holly a star, and provided his epitaph: “That’ll be the day when I die.”
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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