There have been many rock heroes who have died young. I hate to be a cold bitch about it (not really), but only a very few of those deaths truly qualify as tragic from a musical perspective. It’s always sad when someone dies before they’ve had a chance to experience life in all its stages, but the truth is that many of the fallen heroes who have become the subject of veneration had pretty much exhausted their musical possibilities before they died.
As Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”
To understand why the loss of Buddy Holly truly qualifies as tragic, you have to consider his contributions in the larger historical context. At the most basic level, any rock song has three basic components: the melody, the groove and the lyrics. While there are some artists capable at all three, the more common tendency is for an artist to be really strong in one area and at least adequate in the other two. While harmony certainly matters (as The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys and The Beatles certainly proved), harmony is dependent on melody. Production and arrangement are also secondary considerations.
In that light, and considering for the moment only the American progenitors of rock, you could say that both Chuck Berry and Little Richard emphasized the groove. Although Chuck Berry wrote some pretty good lyrics, the words really wouldn’t matter until Bob Dylan came along.
The melodic emphasis in early American rock music manifested itself primarily in three artists: Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson. Orbison was a problematic melodist because his three-plus-octave range combined with his uniquely intuitive songwriting style made it impossible for less gifted vocalists and songwriters to go where only Roy could go. Buddy Holly’s music was more accessible: a kid could listen to Buddy Holly and think, “Maybe I could do that.” The sheer joy Buddy brought to his music only added more encouragement. Brian Wilson certainly had an abundance of melodic talent, but it was The Beach Boys’ glorious displays of harmony that defined their sound and proved to be the primary source of their influence. Like Orbison, though, The Beach Boys are hard to emulate: you need a bunch of guys who can sing well together, and that’s not as easy as it sounds.
From my perspective, the reason why Buddy Holly’s death was so tragic was that American rock music lost a major champion of melody. After Roy Orbison’s peak in the early 60’s and Brian Wilson’s collapse, the melodic emphasis became the least important of the three core components in American rock music. Most of the great melodic rock artists since the 60’s have come from the Mother Country. American music emphasized groove and lyrics, and often featured singers with distinctly anti-melodic voices: Dylan, Tom Waits, Springsteen and a horde of others (eventually the lack of interest in melody would encourage the development of the noteless, tuneless genres of rap and hip-hop). The reason why you see more classic reviews of British artists than American artists on this site is not because I think my homeland is a gun-crazed, homophobic, racist and paranoid place full of greedy and selfish people. Of course I think that, but the real reason has to do with my love of melody and people who can sing melodically. I can certainly do groove-emphasis music, but I have a much harder time with lyrical emphasis when the singers can’t fucking sing. Buddy Holly was wonderful at melody, more than competent with groove, lyrically adequate . . . and boy, oh boy, could he sing!
The Buddy Holly Collection does a decent job of lining up the tracks in the general order of recording, not an easy feat due to the multiple and overlapping contracts Buddy (and The Crickets, separately) had with Decca, Coral and/or Brunswick . . . to say nothing of the fact that sometimes the record companies released multiple singles in the same month. Our journey opens with three relative rarities that were originally and posthumously released by Coral Records in the 1960’s: “Down the Line,” “Soft Place in My Heart” and “Holly Hop.” The tracks establish Buddy’s roots in country and rockabilly as well as his early affinity with harmony on “Soft Place In My Heart.” They’re a hoot to listen to, for though they are very primitive recordings, the sincerity and energy that defined his style are present for all to hear. Only when we get to his first single, “Blue Days, Black Nights”/”Love Me” do we hear his voice clearly and distinctly, and though it would get better over time and the “hiccup” in his style more prominent, that inimitable and engaging sweetness is there at the core. Let me make something clear before I go any further: there are no truly weak tracks on this 50-track album; even the songs he recorded while trying to find his voice and establish his credibility have an irresistible sincerity about them that overcome any structural or recording limitations.
“Midnight Shift” was part of That’ll Be the Day, a compilation of 1956 recordings released by Decca in 1958 after Buddy hit it big with Coral and Brunswick. There’s some nice guitar picking here and on “Baby Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” another posthumous release that Buddy helped compose. The next two tracks qualify as early Buddy Holly solo compositions: “Changing All Those Changes” and “I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down.” The first is somewhat unusual because it opens with a couplet that contains the single-line chorus, but instead of going straight to the verse, there’s some guitar-picking that goes on a few bars longer than one would expect. “I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down” is a classic blues progression with stop-time lines in the verse and instrumental passages; what makes this song interesting is you can clearly hear the hiccup style and the seeds of Peggy Sue-oo-ooh.
I’m listening to this album as I write and I just noticed I’m doing something I rarely do when concentrating on a review—I’m smiling! I don’t know what it is about Buddy Holly, but if he doesn’t make you feel good, please get the fuck off my social calendar because I don’t want to know you.
“Rock Around with Ollie Vee” features Buddy at his most Elvis-like, but with distinct Buddy Holly-isms on the high-note vowels. These are even more apparent on the ballad, “Girl on My Mind,” full of say-hey-hey-heys and luh-huh-uvs. Its future flip-side, “Ting-A-Ling,” is so Early Gene Vincent I half-expected Buddy to be-bop-a-lu-la at the end. “Modern Don Juan” features an unusual mix filled with saxophone slides and muffled piano. This was his second single release, and while it’s a pleasant little number, it wasn’t the breakthrough hit he needed. Neither was his version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” which would have to wait until 1963 to be released as a single.
The one that broke him out of the pack was “That’ll Be the Day,” and you definitely notice the difference. While the first fourteen tracks all make for a delightful listening experience, Buddy is in command on this song. The bubbly enthusiasm of his early tracks is tempered just enough to increase the impact of his vocals without squeezing the life out of them. And even though I’ve heard this song a billion times, his guitar picking frigging floors me, from the iconic opening to the beautifully underplayed solo where he lets the high notes sit for a few bars before bringing them back to seal the deal. The Crickets do a marvelous job echoing The Jordanaires, giving Buddy a solid foundation for him to do his thing.
The original flip side, “I’m Lookin’ for Someone to Love,” reflects the same level of discipline and commitment as the A-side. Baby, this is one hell of a single! This side also has a fabulous guitar solo reminiscent of Carl Perkins’ work. It’s followed by the endlessly charming “Words of Love,” which The Beatles would later cover with suitable veneration and more complex harmonies. This solo composition definitely reveals his growing talent for developing a beautifully flowing melodic line.
I said that Buddy was pretty good at the groove as well, and he proves that in his co-written composition, “Not Fade Away.” Man, that voice! He’s got the glissandi going, the hiccups, the dynamics, the range. I adore the simplicity of this arrangement: cardboard box percussion, bop-bops from The Crickets, occasional guitar riffs from Buddy. Good old stripped-to-the-bones rock ‘n’ roll.
If you needed any more proof that this was the period when Buddy found himself, you’ll find it in “Everyday,” another exquisitely beautiful melody with gorgeous movement. The decision to use the celeste on the arrangement was a stroke of genius, for it perfectly complements Buddy’s vocal approach. The sweet optimism in his tone and the mingling of both uncertain anticipation and cheery confidence in his voice is so vulnerable, so human, so touching . . .
Damn. Now I’m in tears. Why did this man have to die so young?
“Tell Me How” is a solid little mover with some very nice high-hat work from Jerry Allison in the solo section. Next up is “Ready Teddy,” a cover song competently performed but not up to the standard set by Little Richard. “Listen to Me” sounds too similar to “Words of Love,” and pales in comparison. I notice that Buddy isn’t on the writing credits for this one, and that may have accounted for the relative lack of oomph here.
On “Oh Boy!” Buddy is listed as the lead writer, and you can feel his energy soaring in contrast. Now we’re cookin’ with gas! There are relatively few singers in rock history who can go sweet in one track and then turn around and growl it out with the best pure rockers, and Buddy Holly is one of them. There are also very few songs that express the sheer joy of rock ‘n’ roll as well as “Oh Boy!” The Crickets nail it again with the background vocals and I get the chills when Buddy lets out that scream at the start of the solo segment. Viva la revolución!
While Buddy does a nice vocal job with another cover ballad, “It’s Too Late” is morosely sandwiched between two classics: “Oh Boy!” and “Peggy Sue.” The unusual drum part on “Peggy Sue” is a combination of brilliant engineering by Norman Petty and nifty paradiddle drumming by Jerry Allison. The arrangement is striking in its use of dampening effects on the instruments, allowing Buddy’s vocalizations to take center stage. I could listen to that vocal forever, with its subtle changes in tone, its wavering between cuddly and masculine voicing and the unique Buddy Hollyisms (unique until Tommy Roe came along with the duplicate “Sheila”). “Peggy Sue” brings us to the end of Disc One in grand fashion.
Disk 2 opens with a spirited cover, “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” with good strong harmonies at the core. By now Buddy has mastered his dynamics and phrasing to the point where he’s brimming with good feeling and great confidence. He can claim partial composing credit for “Look at Me,” a mid-tempo piano-driven number with a slight Latin feel and an unusually long instrumental break that shows he’s not afraid to enhance the formula. It’s followed by blues in Buddy style, co-written with (among others) Willie Dixon. As one of the first white artists to dare to reach out to the black audience with his performances at the Apollo and other black neighborhood theaters, the collaboration may not be surprising, but it shows what the guy was made of.
“You’ve Got Love,” which appeared on The “Chirping” Crickets album, is unsurprisingly written by a team that included the young Roy Orbison, another Texas kid trying to break into the music business. It has an almost hug-and-snuggle feel to it, and the vocals are first-rate. It’s followed by the Holly-Petty collaboration “Maybe Baby,” one of the strongest Crickets numbers, where the band members take over the solo section with some snappy ra-ta-ta vocals. “Rock Me Baby” is a cover with an unusually strong bottom for the time, and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Dont’ Care” is a Leiber-Stoller composition that was probably designed for Elvis. I’m getting the feeling by now that while Buddy Holly does a more-than-professional job with other people’s songs, he really takes it to another level entirely with his own compositions.
That feeling lasts about three seconds, because he fucking nails “Rave On,” and is not listed as one of the songwriters. Still, Norman Petty, Bill Tilghman and Sonny West knew Buddy’s work as well as anyone, and they couldn’t have designed a more perfect song for him. Buddy takes this sucker by the throat with the weh-heh-uh-hella-hella opening and never lets go. A perfect combination of melody and groove enhanced by low-register harmonies and punctuated beats, “Rave On” is as good as it gets.
“Fool’s Paradise” is a curious little cover that sounds like it wants to create the genre of calypso rock but doesn’t quite get there. Continuing to vary the sound, “Take Your Time” opens with organ that could have made this song more of a Freddy Cannon number had it been more robust. I love the instrumental variation in this part of the collection, and it continues with “Well . . All Right,” dominated by acoustic strum. Right here are three tracks that indicate that Buddy Holly was not going to be satisfied by always doing the same songs in the same way, no matter how successful that formula had proven to be.
“Think It Over” is another collaboration with Jerry Allison and Norman Petty, and Buddy delivers a vocal bubbling with a breezy confidence in his ability to make a woman happy, even if she can’t quite seem to get there herself. Bobby Darin co-wrote “Early in the Morning,” which has too much of a spiritual feel in the mix to capitalize on Buddy’s native talents, but is saved by a seriously hot sax solo in the middle eight. Fortunately, “Heartbeat” comes next, a Petty-Montgomery tune that Buddy cradles in his arms with sincere affection . . . and they finally got the Latin groove down on this one.
While Linda Ronstadt certainly delivered a spirited cover of “It’s So Easy,” there’s nothing like Buddy Holly singing one of his own numbers (co-written with Norman Petty). His playful growl and tonal variation combined with his snappy picking make his version so much more authentic than Linda’s, and you can’t beat the background vocals on the Holly original. In a moment of serendipitous song placement, the lovely harmonies of “Wishing” come next, strengthened by a booming acoustic guitar strum and a fascinating lead guitar counterpoint in the bridges. I’m starting to tear up again, folks . . . the simple beauty of this number is quite moving.
“Love’s Made a Fool of You” starts as a variation of “Not Fade Away,” but the chord movement takes an unexpected direction from the A-D-A-E to a D to Bm and, even more surprisingly, to an A to F#m. I know those are relatively simple chords within acceptable limits, but they sound positively dissonant for the time. “Reminiscing” is a King Curtis/Sonny Curtis composition where the saxophone could have toned it down a bit on the verses to give Buddy some space . . . Miles Davis Rule #1—never step on the singer!
“True Love Ways” has tremendous sentimental value because Buddy (with help from Norman Petty) wrote it for his bride Elena and recorded it in her presence. His voice is soft and tender, and there’s no doubt these feelings came from the bottom of his heart. I would love to hear a version without the orchestra, however, as the lush Mantovani-like strings of the era (that same sound that struck terror into the heart of a young Paul McCartney when George Martin suggested strings for “Yesterday”) are a tad too sappy for me (and those harp diminuendi—ugh!). The regrettable strings continue in pizzicato with the Paul Anka number “It Doesn’t Matter Any More,” and again with “Raining in My Heart,” both of which make me long for Mr. Martin’s magic touch. It’s a tribute to Buddy’s voice that it still comes through with all its charm despite the orchestral wash.
The last four songs in the collection are the most important because they are all Buddy Holly solo compositions, giving us a hint of where he might have taken his music had he not climbed aboard that plane. I’ll say up front that I emphatically prefer the simpler acoustic versions from “The Apartment Tapes” to the too busy overdubbed renditions in this collection. “Peggy Sue Got Married” is still an exceptionally strong song in any form that once again demonstrates his rare grasp of melodic flow. The subdued film version is also a better arrangement than the one that appears here, but the purity of the “Apartment Tapes” version is heavenly. By the way, most of the chord tabs on the Internet completely miss the change to F that opens the bridge, a subtle but important change that gives the song added richness.
“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” does not offer much in the way of structural or melodic diversity, but Buddy varies the predictable pattern of the lines with long pauses between “crying” and “waiting,” again indicating an urge to shake things up. “Learning the Game” stretches the boundaries even further with an unusual stutter-stop rhythm, and while the verses of “What to Do” (the collection’s final track) echo “Words of Love,” the bridge has a very unusual chord structure, with the first line beginning with a C# chord and the second an F# chord before the music resolves back to A. My conclusion is that Buddy was starting to get restless with the limitations of the three-chord song and was beginning to look for new structures to increase melodic possibilities.
This hypothesis would seem to fit with other choices he made during the last year of his life. He’d moved from Lubbock to Greenwich Village with his new bride. He frequented the more diverse music hot spots in New York, visited his aunt’s home often to play her piano, expressed a desire to learn flamenco guitar and registered for acting classes at Lee Strasburg’s Acting Studio. Unfortunately, his old friend and songwriting partner Norman Petty was doing some funny stuff with Buddy’s royalties, so he had to go on tour to earn some cash.
And suddenly all those plans and possibilities died on a bitterly cold night in early 1959. Even though I was born over twenty-two years after that awful event, I consider the loss of Buddy Holly as one of incalculable magnitude . . . and one that truly breaks my heart.
Thanks ffor a great read
This review bubbled to the surface on your web site a couple months ago and encouraged me to take the plunge and buy this Buddy Holly compilation. I have rarely dabbled in music that was made before the mid-60s, as it has always sounded archaic to me, but Buddy Holly has floored me. After a couple of listens, I made a 20-track playlist of my favorites, which I’ve been listening to often, but I agree with you that the collection is strong all the way through. The only exceptions for me are those heavily orchestrated tracks toward the end.
I also read a Buddy Holly biography, Philip Norman’s Rave On, which is highly informative and heartfelt although Norman can be a little annoying at times, as you probably know if you’ve read some of his other biographies. One thing I learned is that Norman Petty did less of the songwriting than is suggested by the credits. Sometimes he took credit just for adding a line or two in the lyrics and sometimes just because he was the producer and was in a position of power. (One correction for your review: Buddy did not write “Oh Boy!” It is credited to Sonny West, Bill Tilghman, and Norman Petty, and was mostly written by West. But Buddy recorded it first and certainly made it his own.) Another thing I learned from the book was that after three big hits (“That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue,” and “Oh Boy”), Buddy went cold on the charts. He kept making great songs, but they all stiffed as singles, at least in America. In England, some of them were more successful, though not to the extent of those earlier songs. Still, it’s hard to believe that Buddy would not have returned to the top of the charts had he lived longer.
I strongly agree with what JonathanCR wrote above about “Well…All Right.” This is the song that has intrigued me more than any other song in the collection. Buddy had an obvious huge influence on the Beatles of the first four albums, but “Well…All Right” points more toward Help! or maybe even Rubber Soul. Jonathan’s comparison to Cat Stevens is probably even more on point, though. I think it was unusual for a rockabilly-type artist like Buddy to record such a folky song, although it’s not exactly folk either. It has too much of a driving rhythm for a folk song.
Anyway, thank you so much for this review and for turning me on to Buddy Holly. Yes, it is his gift for melody, more than anything, that makes him special. And you are right about his wonderful singing as well. I’ve done so well with Buddy that I’ve now ordered a two-disc compilation by Chuck Berry. This is a musical adventure for me–one that was long overdue.
Sorry for the late response—I’ve been pretty busy exploring new paths and haven’t checked the site in a while!
Glad to hear I helped you re-discover Buddy Holly! I went back and checked the charts from the period before his death and yes, there was a decline on the American pop charts as 1958 progressed, but out of the blue I saw that the “Heartbeat/Well . . . All Right” single hit #4 on the R&B charts. I’d have to look into the Billboard methodology to try to explain how that happened, but there were a lot of non-R&B songs that hit the top of the R&B charts (“All I Have to Do Is Dream,” for example). “Well . . . All Right” doesn’t have the chordal complexity of Rubber Soul but its folksy sound definitely fits with the American release (or side two of Help!). Buddy was far more curious about music than most of his contemporaries, so perhaps he became too cutting-edge for the times.
Very glad to hear you’re exploring Chuck Berry; when I reviewed The Great Twenty-Eight, the experience reminded me of what a great lyricist/storyteller he was in his prime. Right before I stopped I was planning a review of a Rick Nelson collection, but sadly, he didn’t come close to Holly or Berry (had a great backing band, though).
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I have a two-year-old who is obsessed with Buddy Holly and wants to listen to him constantly. I put on “Yellow Submarine” for him the other day as I thought he might like it. A couple of songs in: “No Beatles. I want Buddy Holly. Well All Right.”
“Well All Right” is his favourite song and after listening to it a million times I’m convinced it’s a work of unappreciated genius. It is so timeless – it could be from the 60s or later, it could be a Cat Stevens song. Only the phrase “going steady” dates it. A beautiful, dreamy, thoughtful song that for some reason one toddler loves even more than “Let It Go”, and that’s saying something.
I agree with you that the acoustic originals of his final songs are far superior to the overdubbed released versions. But what really gets me about Buddy Holly is this: people talk about the happiness and joy of his recordings. But have you listened to the lyrics? Either they’re horribly sad (e.g. all of the apartment tracks) or they’re rather horrible (e.g. That’ll Be The Day: “You’re threatening to leave me? Yeah, right. I’m so awesome I can do what I like and you’ll never leave unless I decide I’m sick of you.”). There’s a lot more depth to this stuff than first meets the ear.
He did have more edge to his writing than the average rocker of the era (with the exception of Chuck Berry), which is why I think his songs stand up better than most. The challenge in interpreting his perspective is his early death, which denied us the full-length interview reflecting back on his motivations and approach to writing a particular song. Also, most of his songs were collaboratively written, so we’re not sure where the edge came from in a particular song. Whatever—the results are fantastic and I’m delighted to hear that your two-year old is hooked on Holly!
Well when he was a baby his favourite was John Lee Hooker – would always quieten him down and I wondered if he’d grow up to be a blues singer! I always told him that “I’m In The Mood” was just about feeling very sleepy, of course. So Buddy Holly is disappointingly mainstream by comparison!
I totally agree about the edge, though I do think Chuck Berry still greatly outclasses Holly (and more or less everyone of the era) as a wordsmith. Still, Buddy’s saddest songs (I think) are the apartment ones, which presumably were his sole work. “Peggy Sue” is particularly genius as it re-interprets his previous hit from an optimistic love song into a tale of what will become failed, unrequited love, even though the singer doesn’t known it at the time. How dark is that?
But as you say, how can we judge the abilities, limitations, and intentions of an artist who died at 22? Imagine if the Beatles had died at that age, or Elvis. It’s amazing Buddy managed to be so prolific and so consistently good in such a short time.
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[…] Classic Music Review: The Buddy Holly Collection | altrockchick I can certainly do groove-emphasis music, but I have a much harder time with lyrical emphasis when the singers can't fucking sing. Buddy Holly was wonderful at melody, more than competent with groove, lyrically adequate […]
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Another great and thoughtful review… I haven’t listened to Buddy in years, but I think I’ll dust off some vinyl. Thanks.
My goodness – looking at these clips, I never realized how much Jonathan Richman has channeled Buddy Holly in his long solo career! No solace at all for such a loss, but a decent antidote to life’s unfairness. Buddy Holly died some months before I was born, but his music made it’s way into our house as I was growing up. My dad had 4 kids by the time I came along and didn’t allow himself the time to enjoy frivolities such as rock and roll. His idea of 60’s music was Al Hirt, The Clancy Brothers, Trini Lopez, and the Tijuana Brass (not bad music, really). I only learned later in life that he was a Buddy fan and used to serenade my older siblings with Peggy Sue. There’s something very personal about Buddy that few artists can achieve. An openness and vulnerability that makes you think you knew him, makes him a friend. Thanks for bringing back up those memories and reminding me of the staggering number of great songs he sang in such a short time.
Thank you! I remember at one time I actually thought of reviewing Whipped Cream and Other Delights as it’s in my dad’s collection, but fortunately it was a fleeting thought. Love the cover, though!
A heartfelt thought provoking appraisal of a man taken away way too early. There really isn’t much I can add to what you’ve said (always the sign of a good review!) so will say a couple of other things.
Buddy was deeply loved in Britain… after his death we kept buying the records in larger numbers and most of our rock stars who came out in the 60’s were clearly influenced by him. Paul McCartney and John Lennon pointed out that Buddy stood out clearly for two reasons – 1 : his songwriting and 2 : his look. Buddy was a rather ordinary looking guy but he wore those spectacles which until then, were a big no no in popular music. To John and Paul this was a revelation saying “anyone can make it regardless of how they look!” Here in the UK that was a big thing because the young budding rockers knew that Elvis was untouchable in terms of image, sex appeal etc plus he was too shielded and more a fantasy figure, whereas anyone could relate to Buddy.
My own personal faves have to be “Everyday” because of it’s charm and simplicity along with “Well All Right” and “Not Fade Away” which are both rather odder moments but ones I adore because… well… they’re very different from each other, proof of the man’s versatility. I do like the infamous orchestral session… true, the arrangements are a bit syrupy but the warmth and sincerity in Buddy’s voice is captivating… especially on headphones since it was the last of only two sessions he recorded in stereo… sadly, the stereo tapes of the first session were wiped or destroyed many years ago.
Buddy being cut off so early makes his work all the more staggering because he was so darn young… how many other young talents were as prolific as him with turning in so many memorable tunes in such a short time?
There are countless Buddy collections out there but I would like to offer a major word of warning for anyone thinking of buying one. Do NOT, I repeat do NOT buy any cheaper compilations credited to “Buddy Holly and The Picks” – The Picks were a vocal ensemble who appeared on some of Buddy’s recordings who fell under the delusion that Buddy would had wanted them on ALL his recordings, hence starting in the 1980’s they took many vintage Buddy recordings they never sang on and added totally new vocal overdubs on them. You need not guess how horrible they are and sadly these desecrations are way too easy and cheap to pick up.
Thank you for the support and the additional insight. This was a tough review to write, though I didn’t realize it would be until I started writing it. This was a person with so much potential, possessed with so much enthusiasm for music and life that I find it very difficult to accept that he could be taken away from us. I always do a quick review of the period before I write a review and stumbled upon a JFK quote: “Life is unfair.” That is so true with Buddy Holly.
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