Some records are destined to outlive their creators. Buddy Holly’s 1956 single ‘That’ll Be The Day’ is one such record. In the decades since it was released, the track has taken on greater and greater cultural significance, to the extent that it is today regarded as the pebble tossed into the pond of pop music, causing ripples that continue to expand to this day.
Buddy Holly’s story is one of the most tragic in music history. The star was one of three musicians who lost their lives in a plane crash on February 3rd, 1959. Holly, along with Ritchie Valens and ‘The Big Bopper’ J. P. Richardson, crashed into a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with pilot Roger Peterson. Holly chose to charter the ill-fated plane after becoming frustrated by the conditions on his tour bus. Richardson wasn’t supposed to be on the flight but swapped places with Waylon Jennings after developing flu. Tommy Allsup, another member of Holly’s band, lost his seat to Valens on a simple coin toss, one that ended up saving his life.
Holly spent only 21 months in the public eye, and yet his impact on the landscape of pop music is jaw-dropping. It all began with his debut single, ‘That’ll Be The Day’. Originally written and recorded by Holly in 1956, the song’s title is taken from the catch-phrase of John Wayne in The Searchers, inspiration striking after Holly went to see the film with his drummer Jerry Allison. Wayne says the phrase every time another character says something he doesn’t believe will come to pass. When Buddy and Jerry were hanging out in the latter’s house in Lubbock, Texas, Holly turned to his friend and said it would be nice to write a hit record one day. Without missing a beat, Jerry replied: “That’ll be the day”.
Holly first recorded ‘That’ll be The Day’ with his band The Three Tunes in Nashville. However, Decca wasn’t impressed with the result and refused to release it. Determined to try again, Holly re-recorded the track with the Crickets in New Mexico. The song’s producer, Norman Petty, bought in backup vocalists to thicken-out Holly’s vocals, and Holly changed the key from D to A. The changes worked, and on release, the second version of ‘That’ll be The Day’ stormed to the top of the charts.
Underpinned by a simple blues progression, the track combines rich harmonies, clean guitar lines and an exuberant drum beat. The overall effect is utterly mesmerising, a perfect slice of radio-friendly pop music with universal appeal. The impact of ‘That’ll Be The Day’ was felt across the Atlantic too. At the time, Britain was caught up in the skiffle craze, and the track’s bouncy rhythm and simple production style made it perfectly suited to the various guitar-led groups springing up across the UK. One of these was The Quarrymen, which at that time featured John Lennon Paul McCartney and George Harrison. ‘That’ll be The Day’ was the first demo the group recorded in 1958.
The Quarrymen pulled together all money they’d earned from performing church fates around Liverpool to record at a local studio. They performed the track and pressed one copy on a 78rpm disc. In The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn, Paul McCartney recalls the experience: “I remember we all went down on the bus with our instruments – amps and guitars – and the drummer went separately. We waited in the little waiting room outside while somebody else made their demo and then it was our turn. We just went in the room, hardly saw the fella because he was next door in a little control booth. ‘OK, what are you going to do?’ We ran through it very quickly, quarter of an hour, and it was all over.”
The track served as an early blueprint of the hit singles The Beatles would release in the early 1960s, cementing Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s roles within the group. “George played the opening guitar notes and I harmonised with John singing lead,” McCartney said. The strength of the group’s dynamic is half of what made ‘She Loves You’, Please Please Me’ and ‘Love Me Do’ so successful. Like ‘That’ll Be The Day’, these singles caught on because they were simple and upbeat. In other words, they were perfectly suited to a society in which radio reigned supreme. The concision and accessibility of the Beatles’ early records is the very foundation of British pop music, and it can all be traced back to that first demo recording of ‘That’ll Be The Day’. Makes you think, doesn’t it?