Few entertainers have exerted such a powerful and long-lasting influence on popular culture as the bespectacled Buddy Holly, a rockabilly-influenced, rock-n-roll pioneer. With his band The Crickets and groundbreaking, era-defining songs such as "That'll Be the Day," "Everyday," "Oh Boy!" "Not Fade Away" and "Peggy Sue," Holly was cited as a vital musical influence on almost every rock great who followed, including John Lennon and especially Paul McCartney. Although the singer-songwriter enjoyed less than two years of success before his untimely death at age 22 in a plane crash alongside fellow performers Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson - collectively known as "The Day the Music Died" - his impact and tragic end captured the public imagination for years. A resurgence of interest continued to loom large, most eloquently immortalized in Don McLean's end-of-U.S.-innocence anthem, "American Pie." A true legend whose amazing potential could never be fully known, Holly represented many things to many people, but at the heart of the myth and the man was his music, a magical catalog that would live forever.
Born Sept. 7, 1936 in Lubbock, TX, Charles Hardin Holley was the son of Lawrence Odell and Ella Pauline Holley. The family bestowed upon him the nickname "Buddy," and "Holly" was a stage name he later adopted when Decca Records misspelled his last name on his record contract. Holly's older brothers taught him how to play the guitar, banjo and steel guitar, and he won a talent contest at five with his rendition of the then-hit "Have You Ever Gone Sailing (Down the River of Memories)." In junior high, he met fellow musician Bob Montgomery, and the two teamed up as "Buddy and Bob," singing bluegrass harmony duets and performing on a local radio station. As Holly moved from bluegrass to a more rockabilly style influenced by Chuck Berry, he received the opportunity to open for Elvis Presley and later Bill Haley & His Comets at local Lubbock shows, which brought him to the attention of a talent scout who helped him sign with Decca Records in February 1956.
Handling lead guitar and vocals, Holly formed his own band, The Crickets, with Niki Sullivan on guitar, Joe B. Mauldin on bass, and Jerry Allison on bass. The group spent three recording sessions in Nashville under producer Owen Bradley, but other than a rough version of the future hit "That'll Be the Day," the results were less than impressive, with the first two singles, "Blue Days, Black Nights" and "Modern Don Juan" flopping. In January 1957, Decca informed Holly that his contract would not be renewed. Energized by the freedom his situation offered, Holly hired Norman Petty as a manager and The Crickets began recording in Clovis, NM at Petty's studio. The band inked a record deal with Brunswick Records, a subsidiary of Decca, on March 19, 1957 and Holly himself landed a solo deal with Coral Records, another subsidiary, effectively giving the singer-songwriter simultaneous contracts.
A refined version of "That'll Be The Day" was released on May 27, 1957, and became a hit in both the United States and United Kingdom. Buddy Holly and The Crickets toured tirelessly to help the song achieve success, booking a national tour that included stops in black neighborhood theaters and at New York's legendary Apollo Theater. The only white act on the bill, Holly and his band eventually won over the audiences and helped blur the racial lines in rock and roll, appealing to all audiences. Holly's gawky appearance and iconic black horn-rimmed glasses belied his charisma as a performer, but helped establish his image. At the end of the year, the band played "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971). The debut album from the band, 1957's The "Chirping" Crickets and his solo disc, 1958's Buddy Holly also became hits, launching the era-defining classics "Everyday," "Oh Boy!" "Not Fade Away," "Rave On" and "Peggy Sue." The latter was originally titled "Cindy Lou," but changed to honor drummer Allison's then-girlfriend and future wife, Peggy Sue Gerron.
The band expanded their touring to include Australia and the U.K. and released their third and final album, 1958's That'll Be The Day. In June of the same year, Holly met Maria Elena Santiago, a receptionist for New York publisher Peer-Southern Music, and was instantly smitten. Santiago, who had never been on a date before, told Holly he needed to get her aunt's permission, and after successfully doing so, they went to dinner at P.J. Clarke's. Holly proposed that night, soon after securing Santiago's aunt's permission, and they wed in Lubbock on Aug. 15, 1958. Santiago's aunt was the head of Latin American music at Peer-Southern, and the more time Holly spent with her family, the more dissatisfied he found himself with his business arrangement with manager Petty.
Frustrated with Petty's inability or unwillingness to fully pay him royalties and inspired by the New York artistic community, Holly decided to stay in the Big Apple. His bandmates wished to return to Lubbock, and they parted ways for good. Living in Greenwich Village, Holly explored Latin American music through Santiago and her aunt, as well as registered for acting classes at Lee Strasburg's Actors' Studio. Strapped for cash despite his musical success and locked in a legal battle with Petty over royalties, Holly accepted a slot on the Winter Dance Party tour across the Midwest alongside Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson; the latter two enjoying a newfound fame with the hit records, "La Bamba" and "Chantilly Lace," respectively. Holly formed a new version of The Crickets, with Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass, and Carl Bunch on drums, and they set off on the tour. On a breakneck pace of 24 dates in three weeks, Holly and company endured subzero temperatures, traveling exhausting stretches on an undependable bus with a faulty heating system. Conditions were so miserable, the Crickets' drummer Carl Bunch had to be hospitalized from frostbitten feet after the bus broke down in Michigan.
After a performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA, Holly chartered a small plane to reach the next destination at the cost of $36 per passenger. Despite some misgivings over the weather, many in the party preferred to fly than suffer another night on the bus. Jennings was originally scheduled to fly, but gave up his seat to accommodate an ill "Big Bopper" Richardson, and Valens won his seat with a coin toss. Shortly after takeoff, on Feb. 3, 1959, the plane crashed, killing Holly, Valens, Richardson and the 21-year-old local pilot Roger Peterson. Later attributed to pilot error and poor weather conditions, the accident shocked the nation and, for many, marked the end of 1950s innocence. Decades later, the event would be immortalized as "The Day the Music Died" on the title track of Don McLean's 1971 album American Pie, dedicated to his idol, Buddy Holly.
Although Holly's career and life were cut short, his influence on music could not be overstated, and countless history-makers who followed credited him as their inspiration and all-time favorite artist, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and The Grateful Dead to name a few. Holly's prolific output kept Coral Records busy releasing new material for a decade after his death, and his songs continued to chart and delight audiences. The singer-songwriter assumed an almost mythic reputation as an endlessly fascinating representative of a bygone era, and inspired multiple pop cultural depictions, including the controversial "The Buddy Holly Story" (1978), which earned Gary Busey a Best Actor Oscar nomination as the titular star.
In response to inaccuracies in the film's portrayal of Holly, Paul McCartney produced and hosted his own 1985 tribute "The Real Buddy Holly Story." The singer appeared as a character in the successful Ritchie Valens biopic "La Bamba" (1987). His lush sequel-of-sorts to "Peggy Sue," the single "Peggy Sue Got Married" inspired Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-nominated 1986 time-travel valentine to the 1950s/1960s starring Kathleen Turner, and featured Holly's original, barebones version. The band Weezer enjoyed a massive success with their retro-inspired single "Buddy Holly" that used 1950s nostalgia in its award-winning, ultra-popular music video. The song was released on what would have been Holly's 58th birthday. As with every artist who died prematurely with the majority of their genius still left unexplored, Buddy Holly's musical journey, tragically, could never be fully charted, and the real person and his accomplishments were often overshadowed by his ensuing legend. Happily, however, the music that Buddy Holly did create in his too-brief career, continued to hold up decades after his death, a vibrant, world-shaping artistic legacy.