Buddy Holly – Sunday Miscellany

by John Boland

Like Don McLean, I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but I do recall that my sister was inconsolable when news of Buddy Holly’s death came through on the wireless.

That was only to be expected, as Buddy Holly was Mary’s first hero. Being younger and belonging to a sterner sex, I was somewhat less devastated by the air crash which killed Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper on February 3, 1959. I wasn’t yet old enough to comprehend what such a death, indeed any death, meant, and I obviously didn’t share my sister’s adolescent yearnings for this bespectacled, brown-eyed handsome man.

Yet the sense of loss was considerable for me also because, if Holly wasn’t an object of longing for me he was certainly my first rock hero. I had never really cared for Presley or Fats Domino, but when I heard ‘That’ll Be the Day’ by the Crickets, I was hooked on this new music.

Our father, a devotee of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald and a man who scorned the new-fangled sound, was bemused by the musical tastes of my sister and myself, though he indulged us in a  roundabout kind of way. We had to be in bed by mid-to-late evening, but on Sunday nights at eleven o’clock he would tune in to Radio Luxembourg and put the volume at a high enough level to be heard by us from the upstairs landing, to which we crept from our beds, listening in rapture to our heroes. Sometimes we even dragged blankets and pillows out to keep us warm in our eavesdropping. My father never mentioned this selfless act of his to us, nor we to him, but I still feel an immediate rush of fondness towards him whenever I recall it.

It would be easy now to let a beguiling nostalgia cloud my judgment of what I heard then, but I think I can maintain a sufficient distance to say that Buddy Holly remains for me among the greatest and most influential of rock stars.

Presley came before him, of course, and has to be given pride of place for historical and sociological reasons – he created the climate in which it was possible for others to discover and nurture their talents. But I think that Holly’s influence has proved to be more pervasive and lasting. Certainly the music that followed on from him would have been subtly different if he hadn’t existed.

The influence lies, of course, partly in the songs he wrote, mostly in conjunction with manager-producer Norman Petty, and a listing of those of them that immediately became rock staples and have remained so makes for an astonishing achievement, considering that Holly was only twenty when he died – That’ll Be the Day, Peggy Sue, Every Day, Oh Boy, Maybe Baby, Listen to Me, It Doesn’t Matter Any More, Well All Right, Rave On, Raining in my Heart, True Love Ways, Peggy Sue Got Married, It’s So Easy. And bear in mind that few people in rock were writing their own songs at that time, so he was a pioneer in that regard, paving the way for Dylan and all the singer-songwriters who came after.

The influence is not just to do with the songs themselves but also with his singing of them, and his importance in this regard was summed up by Mick Jagger, who said: “Buddy Holly, as far as I’m concerned, was the only original white rock and roller. All the rest borrowed from the blacks, even Presley.” And indeed if you listen to Presley and Holly that becomes very clear. Presley was essentially putting a white man’s gloss on black music, but Holly created a white person’s rock music, less sexually aggressive than Presley, more playful, full of sophomoric yearnings that Presley’s style never encompassed.

Then there’s the voice. That’s more playful, too, lighter, more jaunty – though given depth by the drawling adenoidal style that stretches and bends the vowels and also by that characteristic hiccup of his. It’s a vocal style that has been much imitated, from the Beatles onwards.

Beyond that, there’s the guitar style, played very fast on a downstroke and placed very close to the microphone, so that the sound of the plectrum is picked up. Indeed, there’s a real awareness of the importance of the studio and what could be achieved there. That, too, has influenced a whole generation of musicians.

For all these reasons, Buddy Holly remains for me one of the most important and enduring figures in pop music, and I think my sister and myself had already got an inkling of his greatness as we listened to him by stealth all those years ago on that upstairs landing.

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