I knew my dad had the original vinyl version of Dance Album in his collection, so my partner and I decided to drop by one evening to see if listening to Carl Perkins in analog format would motivate us to kick off our pumps and trip the light fantastic. We love to dance together, both sexually and asexually . . . but the asexual dancing frequently turns sexual . . . let’s get on with the story.
As we walked down the hill to my parents’ place, I gave her some background about the featured performer. I explained that Carl Perkins was one of the early progenitors of rock, approaching the emerging genre from the country side and helping to popularize a hybrid form called rockabilly. As she had grown up in Madrid and had spent only a few years in the States, she hadn’t delved much into American culture and music and had never heard of rockabilly. “I like that word,” she said, and repeated it over and over again with a trilled “r” that made us both shake with laughter.
We were still laughing when we arrived at our destination, but managed to pull ourselves together after some wine and cigarettes. My dad had already taken the album from the shelf, and between sips, I spent some time poring over the cover, a cut-and-paste job to die for. I marveled at Carl’s decapitated noggin suspended eerily within the head of an eighth note. I smirked at the napless blue suede shoes bearing his first and last name, one name per shoe. I wondered whether the cloth patterns that filled the notes and the right side of the cover were herringbone, twill or Glen plaid, like you see in Pee Wee Hermans’ suits. My partner leaned over and asked if Carl’s hands were as monstrous as pictured in the performance caricature (they were—he cradled a Les Paul like I would handle a ukulele). As we lingered over the shifting positions of the dance pairs with their the accompanying motion lines, my still-adolescent father interrupted my reverie.
“Hey! That girl in the upper right is shooting beaver!” Dad pointed out with glee.
My partner pulled the cover close to her eyes and saw nothing but a dancing girl whirling in a skirt. “You tricked me! She doesn’t have a gun!”
My dad laughed and said, “I guess you never heard of shooting beaver. It’s an American slang term.”
“Why don’t you explain it to her, dad?” I suggested, a touch of malevolent anticipation in my voice.
Even though he knew he was talking to two perpetually horny bi chicks with no sense of shame, my veteran-of-the-free-love-movement father actually blushed. “Uh, shooting beaver is when a girl accidentally spreads her legs so you can see her underwear,” mumbled my father, wringing his hands in agony.
“I don’t understand—was that something important enough to give it a name?” my partner asked in genuine puzzlement.
“Well, yeah. When I was a kid, girls couldn’t wear skirts above the knee, so it was hard to get a peek down there.”
“And why would you want to do that—see underwear?”
“I don’t know, it was kind of an achievement,” my dad said, sheepishly.
“I see. I think I understand,” replied my partner, starting to put it all together. “And how many beavers did you shoot?” she asked.
“No, the girl shot the beaver, not the guy.”
“Oh, now I see. In this case, ‘shot’ means ‘giving someone a look-see’,” she surmised.
“Bingo. Hey! Why don’t you look it up—it’s got to be on the Internet by now.”
I pulled my iPad out of my purse and googled “shooting beaver.” Of the first ten results, nine were tips for hunters on how to blast those industrious little cuties into oblivion. The Urban Dictionary had what I was looking for, but the answer opened the door to another line of questioning.
shoot beaverOf a girl or of a woman, to flash by spreading one’s thighs, while seated wearing a skirt or a dress, in such a way as to reveal one’s crotch or camel toe, whether on purpose or by accident.
If you really want to get a guy’s attention, shoot beaver.
That chick behind us is shooting beaver. Take a look.
“Dad, what the fuck is a camel toe?”
“Huh? Haven’t heard of that one.”
I googled “camel toe.”
camel toeWhen a woman’s pants are so tight, that the actually fabric comes into their beaver, creating the two-mounded image of a camel’s toe.Oh man, her pants were on so tight, that I could see her camel toe.
Wikipedia provided pictures to demonstrate the likeness:
“Shit, dad! You’ve ruined our sex life! Now every time we go down on each other we’re going to smell camels!”
My partner leaned over and semi-whispered for all to hear, “That’s why they make perfume—so we don’t smell the camels.”
We all had a good laugh, and by the time we got home that night she and I would forget all about the camels.
But that’s a whole ‘nother story. My dad played the album while we both waited for the music to tickle our camel toes to the point where we had to get up and dance. Using the Camel Toe Factor to evaluate Carl’s performance, I am pleased to report that Carl Perkins managed to inflate our camel toes 10 out of 12 times, a Camel Toe Rating of 83.3—a score that would easily win the “Rate-a-Record” segment on American Bandstand.
Translation: It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Carl Perkins is one of those guys who never got the credit he deserved. Although he wrote and introduced the world to “Blue Suede Shoes,” most people still identify the song with Elvis, ignoring the fact that Carl’s version outsold Elvis by a landslide. Three of his compositions—“Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t,” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby—are primarily associated with The Beatles, not Carl Perkins. Few people realize that when you listen to most of George Harrison’s solos during the Beatlemania phase from Please Please Me to Help!, you’re hearing someone doing his best to imitate Carl Perkins. He ran into some bad luck early in his career (a serious car accident removed him from the public eye just as he was ready to break out from the pack), and had some self-inflicted issues with booze that nearly took him out of action for good. Carl was a damned fine singer, and while his picking style wasn’t as melodic or fluid as a Chet Atkins, he knew how to make that guitar rock.
Just like its cover, the Dance Album of Carl Perkins was patched together in a hurry. Carl had decided to move from Sun to Columbia and Sam Phillips wanted to wring every last dollar out of the Carl Perkins material in his possession. Sam slapped together his favorite cuts from the vault and gave the collection a title that he hoped would resonate with the dance-crazy teens of the time. It didn’t, and the album languished in relative obscurity for decades until an expanded version hit the shelves in 2004. Although that deluxe edition adds “Pink Pedal Pushers,” one of my favorite Carl Perkins performances, I always prefer to review the original versions of albums to remain true to the historical record and to try to experience what listeners experienced during the original go-round.
I now ask you to join me and my gal, one dressed in pedal pushers and the other in capris, one with a pony tail and the other with a flip, our faces powdered with a Max Factor Creme Puff and our nails glowing in Revlon’s Frosted Pink Cloud, as the whole gang gathers around a 3-speed Majorette portable record player to rock out with Carl!
“Blue Suede Shoes”: We’re out of our chairs in seven seconds, as soon as Carl belts out “Now, go, cat, go!” The greatest rockabilly song of them all combines a butt-shaking boogie beat with the excitement of stop-time verses that end on a rising line with a blue note peak that lift you onto the dance floor and inspire you to show the gang what you’ve got. The pattern of freeze-shift-freeze-shift allows you to strike all sorts of inviting poses to give your adolescent lover the tingles in his torpedo and invoke deep feelings of envy from your gum-popping girlfriends. The decision to add an extra beat to the first few measures to increase the sense of anticipation makes the intro to “Blue Suede Shoes” the equivalent of perfectly-executed foreplay. God damn, what a great song!
Carl’s version combines rhythmic discipline with just the right amount of energy, and though “Blue Suede Shoes” gives a vocalist plenty of opportunities to overdo it, Carl gives his vocal just the right amount of gas. In contrast, Elvis’ version has always felt jittery to me, as if he let the song excite him too much. I don’t blame Elvis—if you’re a singer, “Blue Suede Shoes” is one of those songs you can’t wait to sing, and he probably felt like the guy who can’t wait for Saturday night and his hot date with the girl who’s been giving him wet dreams all week. By the time Saturday rolls around, all he’s got left is nervous energy and a whole lot of sticky underwear to explain to mom. I think the reason Carl’s version is so obviously superior is that the recording is essentially flash-frozen. He recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” two days after he wrote it, and nailed it on take two, giving the performance an astonishing immediacy and everlasting freshness.
“Blue Suede Shoes” not only rocks and rolls but offers keen insight into the fragile psychology of American youth. Carl wrote the song after witnessing a guy verbally abusing his date for accidentally planting a scuff mark on his prized blue suede shoes. According to his bio Go, Cat, Go!, he watched the scene with fascination: “Good gracious, a pretty little thing like that and all he can think about is his blue suede shoes.” “Blue Suede Shoes” mocks the distortion of identity in an other-directed, consumer-oriented society, pointing out the shallowness of a life obsessed with presentation. Back in the 50’s such behavior in teenagers would have been considered a passing phase that they would grow out of thanks to wise TV fathers like Jim Anderson and Ward Cleaver. Thirty or so years later, kids would start murdering other kids for their Air Jordans.
“Movie Magg”: Danceable, but only if you ignore the 2/4 beat and pretend it’s 4/4, allowing you to smooth out the rhythm so you can give your partner an elegant spin or two. The story is pure hillbilly, as Carl dreams all week of taking Maggie to the picture show if he can just get past her father and his double-barreled shotgun. Interestingly enough, he carries Maggie away on a horse instead of a DeSoto, narrowing the target demographic for this song to teenagers living in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. “Movie Magg” does feature some of Carl’s most fluid picking—his solos tend to be more like enhanced rhythm guitar than virtuoso leads.
“Sure to Fall”: What the fuck happened to my dance party? What’s this White Christian People music doing on my dance album? Far more billy than rock-a, “Sure to Fall” falls firmly into the country category—so much so that The Beatles’ version on Live at the BBC doesn’t sound at all like The Beatles but like the first warm-up act on an off-night at the Grand Ole Opry. “That’s a real nice song you got there, Otis,” somehow seems like an appropriate response.
“Gone, Gone, Gone”: This song has been ransacked like an Egyptian tomb. Gene Vincent would borrow the opening “We-lllll” for “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” You can hear fragments of the guitar solo in several early George Harrison contributions. The feel and the subject matter—fat broads—are very reminiscent of Ray Davies’ “Skin and Bone.” “Gone, Gone, Gone” is a catchy blues based rocker with definite danceability, but it would not reach its potential for another thirty years when Carl Perkins performed it live with a couple of itinerant musicians named Clapton and Harrison. Watch this video and then try to tell me that old guys can’t get it up!
“Honey Don’t”: The Beatles’ version is pretty faithful to the original other than a few lyrical variations. The big difference is in the vocal—Carl’s voice is clearly more expressive than Ringo’s. In Carl’s version, you can visualize him, hands-on-hips, occasionally smacking his forehead in confused frustration as his wayward girl refuses to play by the rules. That’s right, baby! You get your ass out on a Saturday night and shake it ’till the cows come home! I love how Carl manages the guitar in this one, focusing his energies on the rocking rhythm instead of trying to pattern something after the melody.
“Only You”: The Platters’ version is the gold standard, but I think Carl’s version has more raw passion, making his expression of devotion more credible than Tony Williams’. My only criticism is that he plays it a bit too fast to make it a credible slow dance number. Whether you’re going tit-to-tit or pecker to camel toe, you need a slow, oozing rhythm so you can ease into those warm nooks and crannies.
“Tennessee”: Listen—I have no problem with a song that honors the musical offerings of the Volunteer State, for Tennessee has made significant contributions to music in several genres: country, rock, jazz, blues and bluegrass. Both Nashville and Memphis have been music meccas for decades (though this is less true with Memphis today). I do have two issues with “Tennessee,” though. First, Carl only sings about country music played in that “old hillbilly way,” entirely ignoring the Memphis side of the story. The second issue is a verse that is so out of place that it’s the musical equivalent of spreading your legs for an eye exam. Prior to the appearance of this ghastly stanza, the lyrics are entirely focused on the musical wonders of the great state of Tennessee. There is nothing about the Great Smoky Mountains, nothing about Civil War battle sites, nothing about Andy Jackson’s Hermitage—nothing to indicate that the song is about the many delights awaiting the tourist who’s thinking about spending their next vacation in Tennessee. So it comes as a tremendous shock to the listener when Carl slips in the following verse:
They make bombs they say that can blow up our world dear
Well a country boy like me I will agree
But if all you folks out there will remember
They made the first atomic bomb in Tennessee
What the fuck? I can see the travel brochure now: “Come for our music but stay for the radiation!” As weird as this may seem, the mid-1950’s were a period of “nuclear optimism” when people believed that the atomic bomb would make all other weapons obsolete, that everything would be nuclear-powered and electricity for the home would be cost-free, that we could nuke our food to make it last longer, we could irrigate the deserts, drive nuclear-powered cars . . . holy fucking Jesus and Jemima, what were these people thinking? I’ll give Carl credit for capitalizing on a fad, but subtract 10 points for a complete lack of foresight.
“Right String Baby, But the Wrong Yo Yo”: Okay, read the title of this song and try to guess what it inspired me to do. Oh, shoot, you got it on the first guess! I researched the history of yo-yos! I learned all about translational and rotational kinetic energy, studied the different shapes and read about all the tricks you can do with a yo-yo. But the most fascinating tidbit I came across was that yo-yos were quite fashionable accessories for ladies in 18th century France! Just the thing I need to complete my look! An emerald green Duncan Imperial would highlight my emerald green eyes and make me completely irresistible! I mean, who on earth hasn’t been totally turned on by the sight of a woman doing “walk the dog” and “around the world?” Hubba hubba!
Back to the music, “Right String Baby, But the Wrong Yo-Yo” is a lively little number with long instrumental sections featuring some nice guitar work by Carl and a superb contribution from the stand-up bass. The arrangement is country-tinged and snappy, giving you lots of opportunity to strut your stuff on the dance floor or in the barn, as the case may be.
“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”: Carl reworked a song from the 30’s to create this gem about a guy who is riding high with the ladies. Enjoy it while you can, brother! We shall overcome! Carl uses the delayed stop-time technique he used in the opening verse of “Blue Suede Shoes,” and it works like a charm. He really gets things going with some vibrato bends in the second solo, clearly demonstrating the virtue of those big, beautiful hands. Again, the Beatles’ version is quite faithful to the original, and though George sings it with verve and excitement, Carl makes it sound like the broads are pounding on the window to the recording studio trying to get their hands on a piece of Perkins.
“Matchbox”: I’ve always felt that “Matchbox” was the best of the Beatles’ Carl Perkins covers because they performed it with ferocious intensity. The original is somewhat smoother but hardly lacking in intensity—shit, when you’ve got Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, your song is going to fucking rock! “Matchbox” has an unusual history, with fragments of similar lyrics found in songs by Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Billie Holiday. The story behind the Carl Perkins version is that he’d never heard the alternative versions before and that his father supplied him with some stray lyrics from those older songs to get his creative juices flowing. Since the greatest poet in the English language ripped off most of his material from Petrarch, we can give Carl Perkins the same consideration we give Slick Willie Shakespeare. As a dance song, “Matchbox” is an absolute boiler, two minutes of nonstop intensity as close to climax as you can get.
“Your True Love”: “Matchbox” is a killer song, but my partner and I picked this track as our favorite dance number on the album. The combination of the steady boogie beat (Jerry Lee on the 88’s!), the tight call-and-response vocals, the nice-and-easy harmonies and one of Carl’s most expressive and sexy vocals put “Your True Love” at the top of our list. The song also has more chord movement than the other songs on the album, making it a nice pick-me-up number. Incredibly, “Your True Love” was paired with “Matchbox” in one of the greatest 45’s in history . . . and only made it to #67. I guess all that radioactivity from those a-bomb tests must have fried a few brains.
“Boppin’ the Blues”: I was totally blown away when I watched an episode of Tex Ritter’s Dance Ranch Party and heard Tex introduce Carl by telling the audience “We’d like to vary from our western songs and bring the youngsters a little bit of be-boppin’ music.” Carl Perkins did be-bop? Huh? For me, “bop” and “be-bop” are jazz terms describing the anti-swing revolution driven by Charlie Parker—music that was purposely designed to discourage dancing. I had no idea that “boppin'” also meant “dancing to popular music.” So, to “bop the blues” means “to dance to blues music,” or at least blues-influenced music like rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly.
My partner and I bopped the hell out of this one! It’s a 12-bar blues number with a kick, and Carl’s in full command of voice, Les Paul and his supporting cast, urging the boys on with “Bop, cats, bop!” The song features one of the early interventions from the medical profession, and in this song, just like in the Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” and many others, the doctor is as useless as tits on a nun:
Well, the doctor told me, Carl you need no pills.
Yes, the doctor told me, boy, you don’t need no pills.
Just a handful of nickels, the juke box will cure your ills.
But my favorite line in the whole song is “I must be rhythm-bound.” I’m thinking tattoo, folks . . . something with a guitar in bondage. I already have a tattoo on my ass, and while that may inspire my love interests, I don’t have anything on my body that inspires me. I am the essence of rhythm-bound!
Carl Perkins caught a lot of bad breaks in his life, but somehow the man kept rocking all the way up to his death. When you listen to Carl Perkins, you hear clearly how the music of different racial and cultural traditions can all come together—a hybrid form of music that turns simple chord patterns into magic. I don’t know if it’s psychologically possible to miss things that disappeared decades before you were born, but I miss the jukebox, the dance party and the primitive technology that could turn wax into sound. There is something about that less-complicated time that is terribly appealing when compared to the high-tech, high-stress, high-speed world of today. I’m quite aware that the 50’s were no picnic—America was a land of segregation and deep-seated racism, a powerful empire afflicted with communist paranoia, and completely dismissive of women who wanted to do anything but make babies and cakes. But beneath all that ugliness were some beautifully simple moments that centered around music—having your friends bring their 45’s over to share at an impromptu dance party, kids and parents trying to master the latest dance craze, or spending a whole afternoon at the record store because it was the coolest place in town. I only know about these things from stories handed down from my elders and from the historical record of the era, but I yearn for a life full of beautifully simple moments that I could take time to treasure.
The Dance Album of Carl Perkins is full of those moments—beautiful, simple and an absolute gas. Go, cats, go!
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.