Monday, February 02, 2009

The Day the Music Died

Technically, Buddy Holly died Feb. 3, 1959, because the plane crashed after midnight, but it was the night of Feb. 2, and so today really marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

Buddy Holly is such a seminal figure in American pop culture that many, many authors over the years have figuratively stood at his grave and paid him homage. I think he's probably the youngest person ever to leave such a mark - he was only 22 years old when he died.

Here is Texas, it's easy to find people who knew him and had some connection to him. Unlike Elvis, he never grew old, bloated and distant.

Two years ago I stumbled across a connection when in the course of my newspaper job I did one of those nondescript stories we so often have to do, a feature story on a local business. In this case, it was a monument company in Avery, Texas.

A family-run business, it's currently run by the daughter-in-law of the founder, now deceased. He was a Lubbock native and got his start in the business working at a monument company there in the 1950s.

He was the best monument carver there at the time, and in 1959 he got a request unusual for the time. A family wanted art engraved on the stone - a guitar and some bars of music.

Today we see such touches all the time, but in 1959 it was very uncommon. But there was no question Buddy Holly would get the monument the family wanted. He engraved a picture of Buddy's old acoustic guitar, the one with his hand-tooled leather case (which I once saw on display 20 years ago at the Hard Rock Cafe in Dallas) along with a few bars of the first song he ever wrote.

Buddy's name in accurately spelled "Holley" on the stone; "Holly" was officially his stage name, due to a typo on a contract when he was starting out. The difference has led to the urban myth that his name is misspelled on his grave.

The manager of the Avery monument company noted that the first grave stone was stolen very quickly; her father-in-law duplicated the design for the second, which was anchored on a cement block, and it has been there ever since.

Like so many Texas authors, I have also stood at Buddy Holly's grave; he was an off-stage presence in "The Witch of Waxahachie" published in Jim Baen's Universe last April. I extrapolated that, like Ronald Reagan, he might have gone into politics after his entertainment career petered out (he was a very personable guy) and given in the story that Texas remained an independent republic, I had him there as the president. That little of piece of business led to a drawing of a 60-ish President Holley being used as one of the story's illustrations. Terry Wisenant did the artwork for the story, and I've used it with this posting.

The alternate history possibilities of Buddy Holly are endless, and I'm sure I will have opportunities in the future to revisit alternate versions of Buddy Holly's life.

In conclusion, you may know that my real job is as a newspaper editor, and I always write a personal column on Mondays to start the week off. Here is my column for today:


It was a Monday, just like today – Feb. 2, 1959 – and the only laundromat in Clear Lake, Iowa, was closed on Mondays. That was a problem for a 22-year old young man from Lubbock, born Charles Hardin Holley, who was set to play with his band at the Surf Ballroom that night.
Everyone had called him “Buddy” ever since he was a kid – he was always friendly and cheerful.
Together with friends at Lubbock High School – Jerry Allison, Sonny Curtis, Larry Welborn and Niki Sullivan – he had played the new “rock and roll” music, with a particular twang that was called rockabilly. They had picked up some local gigs, and in 1956 the group signed a record deal with Coral Records. Someone spelled his name wrong on the contract, spelled it like the red-berried plant, dropping the “e”, and he stuck with the spelling.
In 1957 the band – which went by “Buddy Holly and the Crickets” - broke into the big time with song originally written with a calypso beat, named “Cindy Lou” for a niece of Buddy’s. Allison asked the name be changed to “Peggy Sue” to sweeten up his girlfriend by the same name – they were not speaking to each other at the time, as teenagers will do – but the song still didn’t click. During a break, while Holly pondered what needed to be tweaked, Allison started doing a drumming exercise, called paradiddles. Holly perked up, and asked Allison if he could play that beat for the whole song. That’s how it all began, in July 1957.
By the time he was walking around in Clear Lake, Iowa, that winter’s day exactly 50 years ago, Holly and the Crickets had an incredible string of hits: “That’ll be the Day”, “Oh, Boy”, “True Love Ways”, “Not Fade Away”, “Rave On”, “Think It Over”, “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” are some of the best-known ones.
Holly had become interested in the New York record scene. What was left of the Crickets – Allison and Mauldin – wanted to go back to Lubbock, and so they had split a few months earlier. The tour he was on, dubbed the Winter Dance Party, was a logistical nightmare, with the freezing bus zigging and zagging and backtracking across the Mid-west. By the time they were in Clear Lake, Buddy was exhausted and out of clean underwear.
He realized that the next day they would be playing in Moorhead, Minnesota, and the time it would take to get there on the bus would mean he would get neither a good night’s sleep nor any laundry done – since the laundromat in Clear Lake was closed on Mondays.
So he arranged a private plane to fly himself to the next gig, and it took off just after midnight that night. The pilot, who wasn’t rated to fly at night, ploughed the aircraft into the ground at 170 mph fives miles north of the airport. Holly and two performers on the tour - Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper – died in the crash.
It’s been 50 years. God only knows how the world would have been different,

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