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 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 secondary considerations, though mistakes in both can ruin a good song.
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 ’60s 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 ’60s 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 1960s: “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 overcomes 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 in 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 immediately notice the difference. While the first fourteen tracks all make for a delightful listening experience, Buddy is in command in 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! The song 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 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, and 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 Don’t 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 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 an 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 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 his originals (this one 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.