WEIRDLAND: Buddy Holly: playing for the fans of the future

Monday, December 19, 2016

Buddy Holly: playing for the fans of the future

It wasn’t just Decca’s continuing insensitivity to his talent and total mismanagement of his career. Buddy Holly was unable to pay his musicians. Sonny Curtis did not come to Nashville this time, nor did Jerry Allison. Only Don Guess accompanied him when he went into Bradley’s Barn on November 15, 1956, to record “Modern Don Juan” and “You Are My One Desire.” No hits emerged from this session, but both songs contained glimmers of Buddy’s genius. “Modern Don Juan” is the story of a virile teenager who is a victim of his own promiscuity. With half the girls in his neighborhood gossiping about what a stud he is, the one girl he really cares about is unimpressed when he says he’s fallen in love with her. 

Buddy Holly and Hutchinson Jr. High pal Bob Montgomery had done a Lubbock ‘Hayride’ live gig on KDAV radio at tender age 15 or so, with help from Amarillo DJ guru Hi-Pockets Duncan. Somehow Holly scored a contract with Decca, but they ditched Montgomery. Buddy and the Three Tunes cut his first Nashville record with country producer Owen Bradley—“Love Me” on January 26, 1956. It didn’t vault to the top, but did shimmer with hot licks of star guitar guys Sonny Curtis on lead and Grady Martin on rhythm. Famous session guy Martin sparks Elvis tunes, and picks Marty Robbins’ Tex-Mex riffs on #1, ‘59 “El Paso.” Buddy’s road to the big time, however, screeched to a dismal detour, for 1956 made Elvis, not Buddy, a superstar.

Sonny James, whose ballad “Young Love” hit #1 in 1956, and Hank Thompson knew young (19 years old) Buddy Holly had a one-in-a-million voice. They signed him up to open for country stars Faron Young and young George Jones. Buddy’s original session in Nashville, with great guitars and steady stand-up bass musings of Don Guess, omitted one key component—a drummer (Doug Kirkham is listed on ‘percussion’). By October ‘56, a mysterious Thompson tour coalesced somewhere—gig dates are lost in the swirls of yestergone bye-bye Miss American Pie.

In this magical mystery tour, they brought the 2nd genius, 16-year-old drumstick wizard and Lubbock High pal Jerry Allison, to boost the beat of Don Guess’s big bull fiddle, with Buddy’s hot licks on guitar. Thompson was so impressed with his opening band of kids juiced with sizzly Texan energy, that he signed them up for a January 1957 winter tour of Little Rock, Arkansas, plus 14 other dates at burgs like New Orleans, Jacksonville, Florida, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. 

The first, innovative stage of rock ’n’ roll approached its concluding days. The aftershocks of the police riot during Alan Freed's "Big Beat” show at the Boston Arena on May, 3, 1958 were extremely damaging to the way rock ’n’ roll was viewed around the world. According to the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover,  rock ’n’ roll was now subversive.  The establishment had reacted by branding rockers as subversives and revolutionaries and would set out to destroy the rock movement. The sensitive, usually well-behaved and law-abiding young rock singers were astonished that the music they’d invented for their own amusement in Texas garages and on Bronx street corners was now regarded as seditious or they could be prosecuted for treason.

Buddy Holly’s relations with the Crickets remained tenuous. The Crickets had lost all interest in performing. According to Jerry, they started “shucking it.” Buddy threatened to fire them if they persisted in goofing off. Anyone who expected to be in his band, he warned, had better demonstrate more enthusiasm and interest.  They did not perform with him during the October 21 Pythian Temple “string session” in New York that produced, in three and a half hours, what writer Mark Steuer has called “the most inventive music of 1950’s rock”: “True Love Ways” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” After recording “Raining in My Heart” and “Moondreams,” Buddy expressed his worries about how the rock market would greet his experiment with violins. Obviously Holly valued his integrity and sense of responsibility toward his talent and career above money.

Buddy Holly managed to have Maria Elena Santiago invited to a luncheon at Howard Johnson's, thanks to Murray Deutch's secretary at Peer-Southern, Jo Harper. Holly asked Maria Elena to have dinner with him at P. J. Clarke's. Holly proposed marriage to her that night. "While we were having dinner, he got up and came back with his hands behind his back. He brought out a red rose and said, 'This is for you. Would you marry me?' Within the beautiful red rose, there was a ring. I melted." Holly went to her house the next morning and Maria jumped into his arms, which was a sign to him that it was a "yes". They married in Lubbock on August 15, 1958, less than two months later, she told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal on what would have been their 50th wedding anniversary.

Holly’s parents, Lawrence and Ella, flew to New York to meet Maria Elena. They went out to dinner and later went to the cinema, watching Mr. Roberts starring Henry Fonda and Betsy Palmer. “Buddy’s parents liked me; they said I was like a little doll.” Music historians have reported that Holly was planning to build a new home and recording studio in his hometown, but Maria had told Buddy that she never would feel comfortable living in Lubbock. He assured her that the home would be occupied only by his parents, she said. Source:

Actually, Buddy Holly first took Maria Elena to lunch in Manhattan at Howard Johnson's. After lunch, Buddy & Maria Elena shopped awhile by Tiffany’s; he bought a few guitar picks and Maria some jewelry. Later he took her to P.J. Clarke’s Pub nearby. Then the impetuous and starry-eyed idol asked her if she’d like to spend the rest of her life with him. After catching her breath, requisite I-love-yous were exchanged, and they launched into their happily ever after. Sadly, their happily-ever-after only lasted a half year. Maria Elena was worldly, tempestuous, and not the slightest bit domestic. “My aunt and I always ate out,” Maria Elena said: “We never cooked!” That was okay: He wasn’t looking for his mother or another Echo McGuire. Buddy gave Maria Elena a check to buy a wedding dress in Lubbock. Another cheque drawn on the Buddy Holly and the Crickets account and signed by Norman Petty, reads, ‘To: Gift Mart Jlrs Inc. $515 For: Ring – engagement.’

Matt McClure as Buddy Holly with Ariella Corinne Pizarro as his wife Maria Elena, in the Venice Theatre's production of "The Buddy Holly Story" (2015), Sarasota, Florida.

The rock package shows of the fifties were largely Irvin Feld’s innovation; their all-rock-star rosters distinguished them from their British counterparts. In England, rock tours were made up of traditional music-hall variety acts with perhaps a single rock attraction on the bill. Nevertheless GAC would come in for severe criticism for its treatment of rock ’n’ roll performers. “The executives of the company didn’t like rock music,” Frank Barcelona, a former GAC agent, revealed in Robert Stephen Spitz’s Artists and Executives of the Rock Music Business: “The way the agency treated rock performers was a crime.… They didn’t like rock performers, knew nothing about the music, couldn’t relate to the audiences.” Shivering and miserable, the performers realized too late that the Winter Dance Party tour was a “third-class operation,” Dion recalled. Discredited by riots and controversy,  the artists were abandoned to abominable conditions in far-flung territories like the upper Midwest. 

The bus’s worn-out engine frequently stalled, usually when they were thirty miles from the closest service station. To ease the tension, Buddy and Dion played “dueling guitars,” wagering to see who could make his Fender Stratocaster ring the longest. Dion’s Fender was solid white, Buddy’s had a sunburst. Ritchie Valens joined the fun, strumming his acoustic and singing songs like “Mama Long,” which he’d made the rage of Pacoima Junior High. During the long ride over icy roads, Ritchie sat with Buddy and rapped about the notorious “girl” songs they’d both been having so much success with. Buddy had virtually invented the genre with “Peggy Sue,” while Ritchie was now scoring the hit of the year with “Donna.” Peggy Sue had already entered the vernacular; Ritchie had mentioned her in “Ooh My Head,” a song he performed in Alan Freed’s movie Go, Johnny, Go! (1959)

They began the 330-mile trip to Appleton, Wisconsin, rumbling along the shores of Lake Superior, where ice floes were colliding like battering rams, entering the North Woods. The heater was no match for icy blasts from the lake, but it was all that stood between them and cruel exposure. Somewhere around Ashland, Wisconsin, the heater heaved its last puny puffs and died. The loose, rattling windows let in the cold and frost. Fifteen miles out of Hurley, disaster struck. They were going up a hill when the engine froze and stopped. “The bus finally broke down, out there in the middle of the wilderness,” Carl Bunch later told Bill Griggs. They were stalled on the highway, in a bus with no heater. The tour party was on U.S. 51, a mile north of Pine Lake, Wisconsin, in the rugged North Woods, not a place where anyone would want to be stranded at one-thirty A.M. on February 1, 1959, during the coldest weather in memory. The bus driver peered into the woods beside the highway; he could “feel” bears out there, he reported in Voyageur: Northeast Wisconsin’s Historical Review. At least the musicians had the protection of the bus, but even that would soon be denied them. When they ran out of newspapers to burn and began to freeze, they were forced to go outside, hoping to hail down a car. They stood in the middle of the highway, where the wind keening down from the north was as sharp as splintered glass.

The surrounding forest and the Great Lake beyond the trees seemed full of menace. In the early morning hours, traffic in these North Woods was all but nonexistent. The tour party was far less prepared to survive this wilderness than the French explorers who’d discovered it in the 1600s. “We didn’t know enough to be afraid, or what a mid-winter night by the side of the road really meant,” Dion wrote in The Wanderer. It was an hour, Tommy Allsup later told, before a big semi-truck came thundering through the snow. They all started waving frantically. Obviously the driver had no intention of stopping “and tried to get around us,” Tommy added. As the truck disappeared into the enveloping snow, they trudged back to the bus. “We just sat there and froze,” Tommy recalled. Freezing is indeed one of the more gruesome ways to die. Human tissue deteriorates at temperatures below 32 degrees. By now the temperature in the bus was 40 below. The Riverside Ballroom’s dance floor was packed with two thousand teenagers boogying under a gigantic sunburst ceiling.

Some of the girls wore ballet slippers and skintight “stem” skirts; others had on balloon layers of petticoats. Bouffant hair stylings were popular, though many girls looked pert in ponytails and Peter Pan collars. The boys wore their hair crew-cut and preferred dirty white bucks or Florsheim loafers. One fan, Sandy Stone Blaney of Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin, later told writer Mark Steuer how she edged her way to the front of the stage and reached up to Buddy, who “held my hand and sang a song to me,” she said. “And Dion held Sharon Larscheid’s hand and sang a song to her.” When Buddy discovered that GAC had greedily filled their one open date, he was distraught. As the tour manager Carroll Anderson would later observe, Buddy by this point was “just a high-class bum being kicked around on the road.” Buddy felt responsible for the morale of his band, which was at an all-time low after its ordeal in the North Woods. Bob Hale, a radio DJ who emceed the Winter Dance Party at the Surf that night, recalls Holly asked if he could touch Hale's pregnant wife's belly. They talked about Iowa's tough winters, and Holly promised he'd come back in the spring.

In “Not Fade Away” Holly asks his girl to make love to him, promising she’ll get something bigger than a Cadillac. The relationship of the couple in the song follows the same up-and-down, off-and-on course: the singer chastizes his girl for rejecting him, but by the final verse, he’s regained his confidence and is able to assert that the only love that doesn’t die is one grounded in honesty and trust. In rock critic Jonathan Cott’s words, “Holly’s deepest, wisest, and seemingly least complicated songs express the unadorned confrontation of beauty and love with time.” Even though the Big Bopper was six years his senior, Buddy seemed the elder statesmen of the tour in his chunky new Faiosa spectacle-frames and fur-collared coat. He was a self-controlled, abstemious figure who preferred to be alone in his hotel-room (when there was an hotel-room) rather than joining the others to ‘shoot the bull’ down in the bar or coffee-shop. His brother Larry Holley: "My feelings about Buddy: His desire was to be the best. I personally think he would have reached the very pinnacle of the music world if he had got to live longer. Norman Petty cheated Buddy out of millions of dollars by putting his name on every song that Buddy wrote. Also, it's my opinion that The Crickets (Jerry Allison and Joe B.) both deserted Buddy, but they keep riding on his shirttail. They can't write good songs, but just like Norman, they have got their name on songs they could never have written." Sources: —"This'll Be the Day: The Life and Legacy of Buddy Holly" (2009) by Maury Dean, —"Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly" (2011) by Philip Norman

"Damn Cold in February: Buddy Holly, View-Master, and the Atomic Bomb" (2015) by Joni Tevis: Buddy Holly giving it everything he's got... If you knew Peggy Sue, then you'd know why I feel blue, and as he moves into the second verse, the camera on Stage Right goes live, and he pivots smoothly. His fingers are a blur, but he doesn't make mistakes, and that tamped-down sex—how had I missed it?—burns in his eyes. And there's something about the way he stares at the camera that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Elvis, the Big Bopper, Johnny Cash, all play to the audiences at the time mugging for the camera. But watching Buddy, he's playing to the fans of the future. Maybe Holly savors these giddy minutes of getting ready in a strange place, cement-floored dressing rooms with chipped green paint, hand-me-down dressers, and mirrors fastened to the wall with daisy-shaped rivets. He carries with him guitar strings, fuses, safety pins, nail file... And outside, the scurf of people talking, waiting for the show. Waiting for him, Maria Elena, back in their little apartment, lighting the pilot on the stove. The honeymoon in Acapulco. The property in Bobalet Heights: all of these cost money. He's playing the first chords of "Peggy Sue" without even realizing it, diving deep into a pool. Feels the crowd stomping through the soles of his feet, and between songs he has to take off his glasses and wipe the sweat from his eyes. Slides the glasses on. Looks back. When you're with me, the world can see. That you were meant for me. "A studious-looking young man who totes his electric guitar like a sawn-off shot-gun." —Review of Buddy Holly performance, Birmingham, England, March 11, 1958.

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