Today he’s even more popular than when he died 36 years ago—and yet, he’s still a stranger to his millions of fans. Who was the Lubbock rocker whose influence on pop music will not fade away?
Inside Lubbock’s Pancake House on Q Street, it’s breakfast all day long, and the patrons who file in at all hours fall heavily into the wooden chairs as if to take root there. The folks here are generally older, and they wear cotton shirts and jeans and blow steadily on their coffee while the steam rises to their jowls. No one here is on a fast track; no one here is in a rush, except for more coffee.
The Pancake House has been around for only a couple of decades, yet no one seems able to remember when it wasn’t here. It’s a throwback from birth, like Lubbock itself, which is the youngest of the state’s eight cities with populations exceeding 150,000, though the town feels much smaller and not very young at all. Sophisticates have always snickered at Lubbock, where six-packs of beer aren’t for sale and which, according to city officials, has more churches per capita than any other midsize city in America. But for a town that has had to endure life on the barren Llano Estacado, it’s by no means a spiteful place—nor half as backward as outsiders think. Evidence abounds that Lubbock has been made familial with the nineties: the rows of sleek three-year-old brick houses on the southwest side of the city, the brew-pub and the techno-dance venues in the “depot district” abutting downtown, the crack houses on the east side, and a first-term mayor named David Langston who, it is whispered, has progressive leanings. But the Pancake House is where one eases back into the traditional ways that have made Lubbock what it is—a hub city that generates no sudden movements.
The man at my table, 69-year-old Larry Holley, says to the waitress bringing the coffeepot, “Better go and fill mine all the way up. I’m gonna need every drop.” Larry has owned the Holley Tile Company for more than forty years, though in the sixties he nearly went bankrupt and had to go to work for his local competitor. Business is good now, he tells me. But it was never better, in a sense, than it was in the mid-fifties, when Larry laid tile while a Holley Tile employee—who happened to be his youngest brother, Charles, nicknamed Buddy—sat on the tile boxes and sang, strumming an acoustic guitar. “Nah, Buddy didn’t do a whole lot of work, but I didn’t mind,” Larry says, his eyes alight with fondness. “I just loved to hear him play.”
“After Buddy died,” Larry Holley tells me, his gaze steady and sad, “I didn’t listen to the radio for maybe ten years. I just couldn’t.”
Larry wasn’t the only one. And after Buddy (along with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper) went down in a plane crash after taking off from the Mason City, Iowa, airport on February 3,1959, at the age of 22, songwriter Don McLean depicted the tragedy twelve years later as “the day the music died.” For Larry Holley, who had always loved music, this was literally the case. “After Buddy died,” he tells me, his gaze steady and sad, “I didn’t listen to the radio for maybe ten years. I just couldn’t.”
But the music went on, and so did Larry, and so did Lubbock. In truth, Lubbock always went on with or without Buddy Holly, the city’s only world-famous native son. Two decades passed before city officials, in the wake of a Hollywood film depicting Buddy’s life, saw fit to erect a statue of the great musician. This seeming apathy has been a matter of considerable outrage among Holly fans, but one acquaintance of Buddy’s suggests that Buddy would have had no hard feelings. “There’s a stubbornness in Lubbock, which Buddy himself had,” says Peggy Sue Rackham, the woman immortalized in two Buddy Holly songs. “If they try to ram it down your throat here, you say no!”
Regardless, a sudden resurgence of Buddy-mania has taken place, and this time, Lubbock is in the center of it all. The city has purchased 156 pieces of Buddy’s personal effects—ranging from his first Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and his record collection to a notebook in which he crafted various lyrics—and will be exhibiting several of the pieces at the Museum of Texas Tech University until next May, when a permanent downtown space will house the entire collection. Though small, the exhibit is an affecting glimpse of the evolving genius of a small-town boy. In addition, a new Buddy Holly biography will be published by St. Martin’s Press this month. Written by transplanted Texas author Ellis Amburn, the book is intended to be the first readable history of Buddy, supplementing the exhaustive but turgid biography Remembering Buddy, by John Goldrosen and John Beecher. And finally, a compilation of Buddy Holly songs recorded this year by various popular artists, titled Not Fade Away will hit the record stores on December 19. The CD, which includes appearances by the Band, Los Lobos, Nanci Griffith, Graham Nash, and Buddy’s protégé Waylon Jennings, is an exhilarating tribute to Buddy. Ironically, Not Fade Away appears on Decca Records, the label that let Buddy fade away from a recording contract in 1956.
Taken together, the museum, the biography, and the record remind us that a solitary figure from Lubbock remains one of the world’s most towering influences on popular music. Lacking Elvis Presley’s mythical persona, Buddy Holly “sounded and looked like a friend,” in the words of one writer. His unimposing presence was a source of inspiration for two bespectacled young men, Roy Orbison and John Lennon, and in 1977 it would culminate in the defiantly nerdy form of Elvis Costello. As Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards observed, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the world’s first “self-contained rock and roll band,” writing their own songs, performing their own music, recording and touring ceaselessly. The Beatles (whose name was inspired by the Crickets) and the Stones made no secret of Buddy’s influence on them; in fact, the former’s first single was “That’ll Be the Day,” while the latter’s was “Not Fade Away,” both Holly originals. Buddy’s hiccupping tenor twang, his peculiar guitar downstrokes, and above all, his amiable but insistent songwriting sensibility continue to dominate today’s pop music landscape. Even beyond the obvious examples of Linda Ronstadt, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, and Marshall Crenshaw, it is difficult to find a modern-day rocker whose look or sound does not ultimately amount to a celebration of Buddy Holly.
Buddy was not deliberately elusive; death made him that way. He was a star for fully eighteen months before the plane crash that made him forever young.
Understanding Buddy Holly is a different matter. With the exception of delta blues artist Robert Johnson, no popular American musician has influenced so many and revealed so little about himself. Buddy was not deliberately elusive; death made him that way. He was a star for fully eighteen months before the plane crash that made him forever young. Within that fleeting time span, he wrote several dozen songs, performed on average nearly once a night, was married, sired no children, bared his soul to no interviewer, appeared in no movies, left behind no will, and with Elvis Presley, ushered in the rock and roll era. Whether Buddy, past the age of 22, would have enjoyed another spurt of genius, as he did during the period between February 1957 and April 1958—when he recorded “That’ll Be the Day,” “Not Fade Away,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy!,” “Rave On,” “Well… All Right,” and “It’s So Easy”—or gone the way of Elvis is for fan clubbers to contemplate. The rest of us are left to consider a life that was as short and sweet as a Holly hit. Death spared him the burden of an encore.
Even in life, we barely knew Charles Hardin Holley. His widow, Maria, met him only eight months before he died. Larry says that he knew Buddy “better than anyone else,” but he acknowledges that “after Buddy became famous, I saw him only two or three times.” While his legacy is that of a trailblazer who steadfastly maintained his persona, Buddy obligingly wore the clothes that Crickets manager Norman Petty told him to wear and raised no objections when his first record company dropped the “e” in his last name, and he once confessed to a disk jockey that “I’d hop on the trend” if rock and roll were to give way to some other musical movement. A devout Baptist who believed in predestination, Buddy nonetheless did not proselytize or, despite Petty’s admonition that he do so, carry a Bible with him on the road. He could be numbingly shy or obnoxiously self-confident depending on whether he was holding a guitar at the time.
Even his musical genius is hard to nail down. As a lyricist, he was disarmingly cavalier. Buddy lifted the signature line to “That’ll Be the Day” from a John Wayne movie, The Searchers; “Maybe Baby” was a phrase his mother often used; the last verse of “I’m Looking for Someone to Love” (“Drunk man, streetcar, foot slip, there you are”) was an uncle’s saying that Larry suggested Buddy add to lengthen the song; and the passionate “Peggy Sue” was originally named “Cindy Lou” but later changed as a favor to Buddy’s drummer, Jerry Allison, whose sweetheart was named Peggy Sue. He just as readily borrowed riffs from black and hillbilly artists like Chuck Berry and Hank Williams.
Yet Buddy Holly conveyed words and sounds in a manner all his own. He was a stealth rocker, that hayseed grin and those impossibly daft glasses making the world safe for the audacious overtures suggested in “Rave On,” “Oh Boy!” and especially “Not Fade Away”: “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be/You’re gonna give your love to me.” While Elvis’ gyrations were inducing panic in the world, Buddy was slipping hedonism through the front door like a bouquet proffered by a happy-faced delivery boy. His was a triumph of subversion; but how such a feat grew out of a perfectly ordinary boyhood in Lubbock is an astounding mystery, one that no one has ever come close to solving.
Buddy Holly: A Biography, by Ellis Amburn, fails to deliver the goods. The new book is almost criminally lame, not to mention dishonest.
It is all the more regrettable, then, that the soon-to-be-released Buddy Holly: A Biography, by Ellis Amburn, fails to deliver the goods. The new book is almost criminally lame, not to mention dishonest. As with his previous biographies of Texas musicians Roy Orbison and Janis Joplin, Amburn casts his protagonist as a hero who rose, albeit wounded, above the pettiness of the Texas town that begat him. To Amburn, Buddy was a civil rights “freedom fighter” who “found himself at odds with the mores of West Texas,” though at the same time, Buddy was obsessed with the hope that “his hometown would at last come through with the recognition and love they’d so long withheld.” The four “primary sources” cited in the biography—bandmates Niki Sullivan and Sonny Curtis, brother Larry, and widow Maria— told me that each of these claims is preposterous. Similarly, several of Amburn’s sources, including his four main ones, scoff at the author’s theory that Buddy had a drinking problem (“He wasn’t even a moderate drinker,” Curtis told me). Amburn’s primary source for Buddy’s teenage antics is a Lubbock musician named Tinker Carlen, who apparently informed the author that Buddy lost his virginity in a group sex encounter and thereafter had his way with as many Lubbock girls as he could. If only there had been loose Lubbock women in the fifties to have had one’s way with, several of Buddy’s male pals lamented to me, adding that Buddy was every bit as unlucky as they were. As for Tinker Carlen, he lost a bit of credibility when he told me that he “formed the Crickets originally” and “did their bookings”—much to the amusement of the original surviving Crickets when I brought his essential role to their attention.
Leaden with, errors, Buddy Holly: A Biography would be merely an embarrass-ment if it weren’t fundamentally mean-spirited. Amburn bashes Lubbock with malicious glee, even suggesting to readers that the town’s Buddy Holly statue is situated in a “Dali-esque wasteland,” when in fact it resides in a charming grassy park in the center of town, just where one would expect to find such a tribute. The book’s most sensational claim—that Buddy was “not above mixing things up racially or bi-sexually”—relies on a single anecdote, published in a biography of Little Richard, in which Richard and Buddy were said to have had sex with Richard’s girlfriend backstage in a New York concert hall. An eyewitness insists that Buddy wasn’t involved in the episode, but more importantly, the Little Richard biography in no way suggests that Buddy and Richard were having sex with each other. And despite the claim in Amburn’s book that “it was only a hint of things to come,” his biography offers no further evidence of Buddy’s bisexual proclivities. When I asked Amburn in a recent phone interview if he had uncovered any other such trysts, the author unabashedly replied, “He had sex with Little Richard! What more could you possibly want?”
The truth would be a good start. Buddy Holly was never at odds with Lubbock: He was ofLubbock, and his brand of genius—good-natured, unthreateningly prankish, even respectful, but also surefooted and stubborn as hell—was literally homespun. Buddy could identify with the city that would for decades resist memorializing its most famous son. He didn’t like outsiders telling him what to do either. Raised from hardworking stock in a hardworking town, Buddy had his own preoccupation but never once expected Lubbock to drop what it was doing on his account. Everyone in town knew who Buddy Holly was, and that was good enough for him.
Buddy’s environs shaped him from the start. “Daddy couldn’t carry a tune,” says Larry, “but he loved music, and he wanted each of us boys to learn an instrument.” Buddy went from violin to piano to steel guitar before switching to the standard acoustic model at age eleven. As he entered his teens, Buddy and fellow guitarist Bob Montgomery began performing wherever they could—at car lots, outside of grocery stores, in school auditoriums. If Lubbock was not a music town, it was certainly a place where relief from the all-encompassing flatness was welcome. There was never a shortage of places to play, and Panhandle folks came from miles around seeking whatever entertainment the Hub City had to offer. For that matter, the sameness for which Lubbock has long been ridiculed offered a kind of creative blank slate upon which Buddy and his musical peers could impose their visions. As Sonny Curtis, one of Buddy’s earliest bandmates, would tell me, “I used to drive the tractor on my dad’s farm in Meadow, thirty miles down the road from Lubbock. You can think long thoughts sitting on top of that tractor, and dream long dreams.”
What Buddy dreamed up was an amalgam of the hillbilly music he grew up with and the black music he tuned in to in his parents’ car most nights. Like every other kid in Lubbock, Buddy didn’t know much about blacks because they weren’t part of his world. Lubbock was then and is now a segregated town, a by-product of a 1928 ordinance that prohibited persons with more than one-tenth Negro blood from living west of Avenue D. Amburn’s assertion that Buddy “at heart wanted to be a Negro” is ridiculous, according to Buddy’s best friend, Jerry Allison, who told me, “When you grow up in Lubbock, Texas, you grow up with a little bit of prejudice.” But Buddy sure wanted to play the way the black musicians played on Shreveport’s KWKH rhythm and blues radio program. And if Lubbock did not thrust Buddy into the world of blacks, it certainly didn’t stop him from ambling over to the eastside clubs, where he and other young white musicians could waltz right in and lay eyes on the likes of Chuck Berry, Charles Brown, and Little Richard. Somewhere in Tupelo, Mississippi, a boy named Elvis Presley was listening to the same R&B artists—imagining, like the Lubbock boy, a distinctly Southern musical hybrid that would come to be known as rockabilly.
What his family, his hometown, and the radio didn’t supply, Buddy found within himself. In effect, he set his own politely maverick personality to music. Lubbock would not have applauded an outright rebel, and Buddy wasn’t one. He went to church and was respectful to adults. He wasn’t going to intimidate anyone with his noodly six-foot, 145-pound frame and the geeky glasses required by his 20/800 vision. But Buddy had a wild hair to complement his talent. He smoked (though never when his mother was around), drank bootleg beer, acquired more than his share of traffic tickets, and had a smartass disposition that set off the jocks whose girlfriends found Buddy attractive in a noodly, geeky kind of way. Once in a while, Larry (along with a chain-wielding friend of Buddy’s) would show up to keep his brother from getting ambushed by jealous boyfriends after performances.
As the town’s hottest kid musician, Buddy was somehow perfect for the part. Inexplicably, he harbored the born entertainer’s combination of native gift and pure gall that no upbringing can give or take away. “Before I ever became a member of the Crickets, I was a Buddy Holly fan,” says guitarist Niki Sullivan. “In high school, when he performed, he imitated Little Richard, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters—all the people we were listening to on the radio stations. I don’t know how to say it other than this way: He led us to believe in the music he was performing. He was into it. And before Elvis ever came to Lubbock, Buddy was playing electric guitar lying on his back with his legs underneath him and then swinging back up to the microphone and continuing singing. Buddy had stage presence before he ever made it. Offstage, he was the shy next-door neighbor type, a good ol’ boy. But he was totally explosive onstage.”
Bob Montgomery says, “Meeting Elvis was what really inspired Buddy to get things going.”
His talent was matched only by his restless ambition, which went into overdrive following Presley’s first appearance in Lubbock in 1954. Following that performance, Buddy’s band at the time, the Three Tunes, “became an Elvis clone,” says Sonny Curtis. “I tried to pick like Scotty Moore, Don Guess played slap-bass like Bill Black, and Buddy sang like Elvis.” Buddy made a point of befriending the Tupelo star whenever he returned to Lubbock. “Meeting Elvis was what really inspired Buddy to get things going,” says Bob Montgomery. “Every time he’d come through, we’d talk to him. We saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with him one afternoon at the theater and Elvis got bored after thirty minutes and we left with him.”
With charming insistence, Buddy ingratiated himself with Elvis. Later, he coaxed business advice out of Western swing artist Hank Thompson, handmade a leather wallet for country musician Marty Robbins (but blanched when Robbins’ agent requested that Buddy make him three hundred more wallets), and wheedled an invitation to KRLD’s Big D Jamboree in Dallas after having a Jamboree regular, Sid King, over to his folks’ house for dinner. The Little Richard biography also makes the claim that Buddy invited Richard to break bread at the Holley residence—an act that biographer Amburn interprets as “his most defiant statement yet against the vicious, narrow-minded dogmas of his church,” though brownnosing seems the more likely motive. Buddy wasn’t going to let an opportunity slide by. When a Columbia Records salesman happened upon one of Buddy’s gigs and said he was impressed, Buddy didn’t hesitate: He and a few bandmates hopped in a car and drove 206 miles east to a recording studio in Wichita Falls, where they cut a demo tape and shipped it off to Columbia. (Buddy never heard back. Recalling the episode, Montgomery remarks dryly, “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”) Similarly, when Elvis allowed as to how he could get Buddy a gig on the popular Louisiana Hayride radio show. Buddy and his bandmates drove more than six hundred miles to Shreveport—only to find out that Elvis wasn’t in town that weekend.
“Buddy was very determined and confident,” says Curtis. “When I was seriously considering joining another band, he told me, ‘Don’t do it. We’re gonna make it really big. As big as Elvis.’ I asked, ‘Well, how much time is it gonna take?’ He said, ‘About as long as it took Elvis.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, sure.”’
So hungry was Buddy that when Decca Records beckoned him to Nashville in January 1956, he capitulated to the label’s demand that he also play with country session musicians. (The scene in the entertaining but rather fanciful Gary Busey movie, The Buddy Holly Story, in which Buddy punches out a Decca engineer, is “ridiculous,” according to drummer Jerry Allison, who adds that Buddy was thrilled to be recording in Nashville.) He also didn’t bat an eye when Decca correspondence—including his contract—routinely, misspelled his last name. But after the label failed to release or promote most of the songs before unceremoniously dumping him at the end of the year, Buddy resolved to quit pleasing others. With or without a contract, he was a star in his own right. No one had to tell him that he was good—though between his touring and the few singles Decca had released, Buddy was getting fan letters not only from small Texas towns like Nazareth, Sundown, and Whiteface but also from Brooklyn, Chicago, Tampa Bay, and San Francisco: “We all think your singing is tops,” “Man, you can sing like Elvis,” “Don’t forget to send me your picture, you handsome kat.”
Two months later, in February 1957, Buddy and his new band, the Crickets (consisting of Buddy, Allison on drums, Niki Sullivan on rhythm guitar, and bassist Larry Welborn, who was later replaced by Joe B. Mauldin), drove a hundred miles northwest to Clovis, New Mexico. There, in the recording studio of well-known songwriter and producer Norman Petty, the Crickets recorded “That’ll Be the Day.” Six months after that, the single hit the charts, and Buddy Holly was on his way.
[On tour, s]oon a kinship developed: The white musicians stayed at the black hotels, and Buddy became an adroit back-of-the-bus craps player.
Where he was going was uncharted territory. Petty dispatched the Crickets northeast, where they found themselves playing in black music venues to audiences who did not expect to see a quartet of Texas crackers onstage. Boos rang in Buddy’s ears, and if that did not unsettle him—after all, back home in Texas he had heard a member of the audience refer to him as “turkey neck”—he knew an adjustment was in order. On the third night at New York’s Apollo Theater, Buddy cranked up “Bo Diddley” and the crowd went berserk.
From New York, Buddy Holly and the Crickets set out on an eighty-day cross-country tour by bus with some of the biggest names in popular music, including Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, and Eddie Cochran. It happened that 96 of the 116 persons on the “Biggest Show of Stars for ’57” tour were black. And though, as Sullivan puts it, “we were in awe of the people we toured with,” tensions were noticeable at the outset. One day on the bus, Allison remembers, LaVern Baker derided the Crickets as a “one-hit act,” prompting Buddy to get in her face and inform her that his outfit was going to be around for a hell of a lot longer than one hit. On another occasion, a few black musicians collared Paul Anka (who went on to write “My Way,” but who at the time was all of sixteen and a bit of a brat), smeared him with petroleum jelly, and stuck feathers all over his body. Finally, as a means of easing the interracial strain, the Drifters offered up a female member of their entourage for a certain Cricket’s bedtime pleasure. (“And you know what?” that Cricket told me. “It really helped.”) Soon a kinship developed: The white musicians stayed at the black hotels, and Buddy became an adroit back-of-the-bus craps player. When the tour crossed the Mason-Dixon line in September 1957, the musicians were informed that local ordinances prohibited whites and blacks from performing on the same stage. “We thought it was sick,” remembers Sullivan, “but we didn’t dwell on it.” Instead the Crickets took five days off, flew to a studio in Oklahoma, and recorded four more songs.
“Things were going by so fast,” says Allison, “that I don’t think any of us had time to take stock.” By the time the tour ended in November, “That’ll Be the Day” had topped the charts, “Peggy Sue” was ascending to number three, and “Oh Boy!” was well on its way to cracking the top ten. In December the Crickets appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The following month, Sullivan brought the band back but refused to let them play the raucous “Oh Boy!” Buddy told Sullivan that his friends back home in Lubbock wanted to hear the new hit. Sullivan grumbled his assent, and the version the Crickets played on the air that night was as wild and as insolent as anything television audiences had seen outside of Elvis. Swallowing his considerable pride, Sullivan later asked the band to play a third time at double the usual rate. Buddy told Sullivan’s people to forget it. The Lubbock boys didn’t need him anymore.
But Buddy still needed Lubbock. He and the band returned home for the 1957 Christmas season—arriving from the airport in a limousine and vaguely disappointed that his folks weren’t home to greet him. (“As if it had undergone a mass lobotomy,” Amburn wrote, “Lubbock took no official notice of their homecoming…” Jerry Allison laughed after being read that passage. “Hell,” he said, “everyone was at work.”) Now a self-conscious star, Buddy had had his teeth capped to cover the gray traces caused by Lubbock’s heavily fluorinated water. His haircut was less unruly; his wardrobe included Ivy League-style suits purchased at Phil’s Mens Shop in New York at the direction of Phil Everly, and he had discarded his wire eyeglasses in favor of the heavy black frames that would become a Holly trademark. Still, Buddy found in Lubbock a place where “he could be himself,” maintains Larry. Around town he wore his T-shirts, motorcycle boots, and jeans—tapered tightly from crotch to ankle, courtesy of his mother. That the locals didn’t mob him was in fact a comfort; as Peggy Sue Rackham recalls, “He could walk downtown and no one would intrude on his privacy. Creative people need that.” That season Buddy went fishing with his father and brothers near Ballinger. One evening around midnight, the Holleys drove up to a coffee shop where “That’ll Be the Day” was playing on the jukebox. Mr. Holley proudly announced to the waitress, “The fellow who’s singing that song is sleeping outside in our pickup.” When the waitress didn’t believe him, the father walked outside and dragged his bleary-eyed youngest son back in with him. The waitress gave Buddy the once-over. Then she shook her head skeptically and walked away.
To northwest Texas, 1958 may have looked pretty much like 1957, but that year changes swept through Buddy Holly’s life. The Crickets toured Australia and England, the second white rock and roll band (after Billy Haley and the Comets) those continents had yet seen. Among the thousands of British youngsters to get a glimpse of the band in concert were two young Liverpool musicians named John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Niki Sullivan had quit the group over the holidays, leaving the Crickets as a trio. But when Buddy’s band toured the Northeast and Midwest during the spring of 1958, they were brought back for more encores than Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, and the ten other acts on the tour. Buddy bought a Cadillac and an Ariel Cyclone motorcycle. Two new singles, “Maybe Baby” and “Rave On,” were entering the charts.
Buddy Holly was on a roll. In June, while visiting his music publisher in New York, he laid eyes on the company’s ravishing Puerto Rican secretary, Maria Elena Santiago, asked her out that night, and proposed to her over dinner. Buddy flew his parents up to New York to meet his fiancée. In August the couple were married in the Holley home. While in Lubbock, Buddy and Maria walked into a local store, where she ordered an ice-cream cone. The waitress pretended not to hear her. Maria turned to Buddy and asked, “What’s going on here?” Embarrassed, Buddy walked up to the counter and said politely, “I’d like an ice-cream cone.” The waitress served him at once. He handed it to Maria, explaining quietly, “It’s just the way things are around here.” From that moment on, it was in the cards that Buddy and his wife would not be making their home in Lubbock. They returned to Manhattan and moved into a Greenwich Village apartment. Despite his multitude of hit singles, Buddy was broke: The royalty money was tied up in the account of his manager, Norman Petty. Buddy convinced the Crickets that they needed to wash their hands of Petty and move permanently to New York, where they could get better representation. After a tour in late October, they converged on Petty’s studio in Clovis. But Buddy and Maria arrived to find that the Crickets were already there, and that Petty had talked the boys into staying with him. Buddy refused to do the same. “I want my money,” he said. According to Maria, Petty replied, “I’d rather see you starve to death first.”
On the drive back to Lubbock with his wife, Buddy thought about life without the Crickets and broke down crying in the car.
On the drive back to Lubbock with his wife, Buddy thought about life without the Crickets and broke down crying in the car. “He really loved those boys,” Maria says today.
A little more than three months later, Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin got together and decided that things weren’t working out as planned. The Crickets hadn’t released any singles, weren’t making any money, and were sick of Petty. It was time to set things right. The boys called Maria in New York and asked her where they could reach Buddy. She looked on her schedule. “Clear Lake, Iowa,” she said. It was February 3,1959.
They made the call to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, but the show was over. Buddy was unreachable now. He was headed north, away from Lubbock, and from anything else.
And where might Buddy Holly have gone next, given the opportunity? We are left to ponder his burgeoning interests in jazz, flamenco, record producing, and acting, and to speculate whether Buddy would have been that much bigger or just another American for whom there would be no second act. His last five singles had failed to crack the top twenty. Was the end already in sight?
Buddy didn’t think so. “This one’s gonna be my best yet,” he told Larry the last time they saw each other. Then he picked up his guitar and began to play “Raining in My Heart,” which entered the charts a month after Buddy died.
And while Maria maintains that the two of them would never have returned to Texas (though she herself now lives outside of Dallas in Colleyville), there is the matter of the plot of land Buddy bought in Lubbock not long before he died. He talked of building a studio there, of setting up a permanent studio band consisting of the area’s finest talent, of recording his longtime pal Waylon Jennings and Ritchie Valens and other up-and-comers. The mind reels to consider the prospect of Buddy Holly in his forties, producing the first records of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, David Halley, Jesse Taylor, the Maines Brothers, Jo Carol Pierce, and other young Lubbock musicians. If Buddy had stayed home, would the others have stayed as well, rather than pursuing fame elsewhere? Would Buddy Holly have transformed Lubbock into a rock and roll town in the end?
In any event, it is left for Lubbock to transform itself, or not to. But, Larry tells me firmly, “Buddy would’ve come back home.” And as the waitress at the Pancake House comes by to freshen Larry’s cup of coffee, I’m reminded that stubbornness is a native trait, so I don’t argue. Buddy would’ve come back home.