On 16th January at the Esse Café in Moscow, our monthly tribute concert focused this time on a legend known not just within the rock’n’roll community but world-wide. His legend was magnified all the more by his untimely tragic death in 1959.

The group I booked to perform for us on 16/01/16 were Lex and Team. They’re a great Russian rock’n’roll band. I’ve written about them in a previous article, in particular their leader the great Lex Blokhin. Suffice to say they put a brilliant show for us, as well as a fitting tribute to the legend in question. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert.

The legend in question was Buddy Holly. He wrote and composed some of the greatest songs in rock’n’roll history, which is remarkable considering his early death at the age of 22. His own compositions represent a huge number in terms of quantity. Here are just a few of some of the greatest numbers of all time, all written and performed by Holly: Rave On, Peggy Sue, Oh Boy, Maybe Baby, That’ll Be the Day, I’m Looking For Someone To Love. Tracks such as these are not just great, they are iconic.

Am sure there must be some of you out there, who went to see the West End musical “Buddy” a few years ago. I did, more than once. It was a very idealised account of Holly’s life. The music accompanying the play was terrific, with plenty of opportunity to jive dance in the aisles !
Holly was born and raised in Lubbock, Texas. The direction of his life was changed forever in 1954, when Elvis Presley came to perform at a concert in Lubbock. Holly was blown away by the King’s performance and resolved then and there what he wanted to be in life. He was always a very ambitious man and believed that if Elvis could do it, so could he. He helped to form a band, the Crickets, who were also local Texas boys and it was not long before he caught the attention of major record companies. His first contract was with Decca. Now for those of you of my generation, that name will resonate: I bet there’s a good chance that like me, the first vinyl records you ever bought as a young teenager were those released on Decca. It was possibly the most famous label at that time for pop music in general. As it turned out, Buddy felt that Decca wasn’t giving him enough freedom to produce the kind of records he wanted to do and he moved on to other labels. The move was a good one for him, as his mega-hits came after he left Decca.

In 1958 he made a big career change. Recently married, he moved permanently to New York City. The Crickets did not go with him and their partnership ended. Holly’s version is that there was no acrimonious split and that he tried to persuade two of the band members to move to New York with him, but that they had been touring with the band for so long they were homesick for Texas. Whatever the truth was, Buddy continued to be hugely successful.

And then the tragedy. His final USA tour was in 1959. Holly’s backing band included the future legendary country singer Waylon Jennings. After a gig in Clear Lake, Iowa, they were due to travel the next day to the next town on the tour. Instead of taking their coach, Holly chartered a small plane to arrive there quicker, in order to catch up on some much needed sleep and provide time to do some personal laundry. He arranged for a small number of the team to travel with him, including Jennings. But one of the other performers on the tour, the legendary Big Bopper J. P. Richardson, had contracted pneumonia so Jennings agreed to let him take his seat on the plane, rather than Richardson having to travel on the long and less comfortable coach journey. Shortly after take-off the plane crashed in the poor snowy weather, killing all on board, including not only Holly and the Big Bopper, but another famous rock’n’roll artist Richie Valens.

It was the biggest tragedy in rock history and the impact was immense, especially in the music world. Given his incredible achievements in the world of music and being only 22 years old, his fame only magnified in death. Future music stars, for example John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Elton John, all acknowledged Holly’s influence on their musical careers. Buddy’s great friend, the legendary Eddie Cochran, wrote a song commemorating the tragedy, “Three Stars”, referring to the deaths of Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper. It became a very famous number.

And what of Holly the man ? Well, I’ve chosen 2 celebrities who have both written about their contacts with him or with people who were close to him. One most of you should know and the other is a great character in the world of rock’n’roll. Their anecdotes about him give an idea of the kind of person Buddy was.

The first is the very well-known entertainer, especially from a generation ago, Des O’Connor. O’Connor got to know him, as he was the resident comic act on the tour of the UK that Holly and the Crickets made in 1958. Buddy wanted to buy a new acoustic guitar while on the tour, so Des took him to Soho in London: “When we walked around Soho, he went into a music shop and tried about 17 guitars. They all sounded the same to me but he picked up a Gibson, said it had a good tone and bought it. He’d play it on the bus and he showed me how to play guitar. He taught me C, F and G but I wasn’t meant to be a guitar player. When he left, he gave it to me. He said, ‘You use this, Des, I’ve got too many of them anyway.’ There are in-built memories with that guitar but as I’m still on C, F and G, I don’t think he’d be too thrilled with his pupil.” And here’s another from O’Connor: “Someone published a letter that Buddy wrote home in which he said his jokes were going down better than mine, the little stinker ! What he didn’t say was that I was giving him the jokes. He had a real Southern drawl and I helped him to modify it so that the English would understand him. The audiences loved his accent and jokes that I wouldn’t get laughs with would be downright funny when he delivered them.”

The second celebrity is Charles (Chas) White, known as Dr Rock. For those of you that don’t recognise the name, he’s one of the greatest characters in UK rock’n’roll; a radio and sometime TV presenter whose lifelong passion has been rock’n’roll. I remember first hearing him on London radio quite a few years ago, when he used to guest on Stuart Colman’s rock’n’roll mid-day programme on Sundays. I still remember him from those shows – he was absolutely hilarious. Here is his evidence about Holly, based on interviewing and doing research from witnesses that knew Buddy personally: “I can relate to Buddy Holly’s music and it is like a good wine as it gets better with age. Songs like ‘Reminiscing’ have a great quality and simplicity about them and they are just marvellous. It’s hard to believe that Owen Bradley thought that ‘That’ll Be The Day’ was the worst song he’d ever heard, but maybe he’d just had a bad day.” And here’s another from Charles White: “As Little Richard’s biographer, I asked him a lot about Buddy Holly. He mentioned an incident in the Paramount Theatre in New York where Buddy got involved with Larry Williams and a girl called Angel in a naughty orgy. It was shock therapy to me because Buddy Holly had this bank clerk image, Mr Nice Guy with the glasses and he didn’t seem the sort who would be getting involved with wild women and wild orgies. My job as an author was to find out the facts and I checked it out with Angel and it turned out to be true. Buddy Holly’s image as the nice, shy Texan with the glasses went out of the window – he was as wild as a coot.”

For those of you who saw the famous film “American Graffiti” (as I did several times) which was released in the 1970s, there is a great quote from one of the teenage characters in the movie describing the state of pop music in the early 1960s, which is the period that the film is set in. The character John Milner says, “music’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died”. It’s another indication of the huge legacy he left with us.

Here’s to Buddy Holly: To quote the title words from one of his iconic numbers, will we ever forget his music and his legend ? “That’ll be the day !”

Richard Hume