How the tragic death of Buddy Holly led to a crucial government law change
Buddy Holly blazed many a trail: he created the archetype for the four-piece rock band with drums, bass and two guitars; the blue-print for the pop singer-songwriter and it was a very early example of a self-producing pop star. He was in effect rock and roll music’s first auteur.
In his short recording career, which lasted just 18 months, Buddy changed what it meant to be—and look like—a rock star before prematurely exiting stage left by steamrollering headfirst into a field. By doing so, and you may not know this, he also changed the law.
Holly’s musical style and output was subject to as much change in his short career as top-shelf mega artists like the Beatles and Nirvana. In a very brief period, he went from being recorded by Owen Bradley, a figure deemed to be an old fashioned country and western producer whose dislike for rock and roll determined the making of a watered down rock and roll-lite, to quite literally orchestrating full arrangements of his own material in between touring, penning and recording iconic hits like ‘Oh, Boy!’, ‘Rave On’, ‘Not Fade Away’ and all your other favourites.
Not liking his producer’s direction, Holly railed against the softened sound he was being forced to make with his first single, ‘Blue Days, Black Nights’. Buddy was quickly proved right as his early releases were relative flops and he was subsequently released by Decca—a music publishing giant with a history of dropping some of rock music’s biggest clangers—and told that he couldn’t re-record any of the material that he’d been working on for another five years. He was back to square one.
Desperate to make his own success, he sought out Norman Petty, a producer whose records Buddy had heard and liked before approaching him. At a recording try-out, alongside new hand-picked band members, Holly recorded a run through of a new song.
“The worst song I’ve ever heard”
Owen Bradley’s take on ‘That’ll Be The Day’
The demo was so good, electricity bottled, that this one take wonder is still the version we hear today. Petty added his name as co-writer, a deal which may have been part of the recording agreement and was a common event in the pre-George Martin era of music production.
Brunswick Records swiftly offered The Crickets (the band name a way to negotiate the exclusivity contract Decca had secured) a contract and released the single to massive success. Interestingly, what nobody seemed to have noticed was that Brunswick was a subsidiary of Decca, so he was making hits by sneaking right under the noses of this accident-prone publishing house. Decca/Brunswick would release the Crickets material and a further subsidiary of Brunswick, Coral Records would release Buddy’s work. He now had, technically, three recording contracts.
At some point after a meeting in August 1958, his new wife Maria Elena and her aunt, an entertainment industry type, convinced Buddy that Norman Petty was letting the band’s royalties ‘rest’ for rather too long in his own bank account, so Maria began holding the payments for all band members for herself…er, Buddy. Holly hired some lawyers with a view to getting what he thought was missing back and planned to bin off Petty as his manager. Vultures circled and Buddy’s finances became so confused that there came a point where he had no income at all. The Crickets remained with the producer, leaving the singer out on his own.
It was at this point that Holly started to reach for a new voice and began to experiment with approach and arrangement. The jump from ‘That’ll Be The Day’ to ‘True Love Ways’ in a little over a year remains an astounding feat 61 years later.
So, Buddy Holly, the star and writer of iconic hits in the US and UK charts, a national TV and rock star with international tours under his belt, a New York City-based producer of orchestral rock and roll, freshly married with a child on the way, was completely skint with no sign of his own cash reserves being made available to him. His only option was to get out on the road.
The Winter Dance Party was a poorly organised logistical shit-show. Travelling by coach in the dead of the American mid-western winter, the band and support acts, including the Big Bopper and ‘La Bamba’ singer, Richie Valens near froze to death on gruelling between gig commutes. After nine blue days and black nights of this, the show pulled into Clear Lake, Iowa. Buddy’d had enough. Missing home comforts and bemoaning the dreadful conditions, he put his tour earnings on the line and chartered a four-seater plane to take him and two lucky tour members to the following night’s arrangements, intending to get some kip whilst the coach rambled on behind.
After a barnstorming show at the Surf Ballroom, Richie Valens won a coin toss with guitarist Tommy Allsup.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever won anything in my life”
Valens is heard to have said this before getting on board with the Big Bopper, who’d caught a cold and had his seat given to him by kindly bass player and future country badass, Waylon Jennings, who’d already paid for his seat (approximately $300 in today’s money). With Buddy, they took off into the snow-fucked night and disappeared.
Assumed to have arrived safely, the remaining tour members expected to be greeted by a smiling, rested Holly in Minnesota. Instead, Buddy had been in the air for less than five minutes, the pilot not certified to fly ‘instrument only’, had gotten into trouble at the first opportunity and stacked the plane into a frozen field. The passengers were thrown from the plane as it cartwheeled across the terrain, with reports of caved in heads and grotesque chest, limb and back injuries to all concerned. They were all killed instantly.
Maria never received the ‘knock on the door’. She heard from her husband by way of a television news bulletin in lieu of the daily call as she waited by the telephone. Brutal and desperately sad. The news administered such a desperate shock that the newly widowed Maria suffered a near-instantaneous miscarriage. Holly’s mother heard the news from a radio speaker and collapsed in screaming horror. This, almost prehistoric insensitivity, caused such debilitating trauma from those who knew and loved Buddy, that a new law was passed in the US where no news announcements were allowed of such events until the nearest and dearest of victims were personally informed of what had happened. Buddy’s Law.
Maria has never visited the gravesite of her husband and later told the Avalanche Journal: “In a way, I blame myself. I was not feeling well when he left. I was two weeks pregnant and I wanted Buddy to stay with me….If only I’d gone along, Buddy never would have gotten into that aeroplane.”
There are many who dispute Maria was pregnant at all, there are some who claim that Buddy’s financial complications entered into the artist’s life in the immediate aftermath of Maria’s appearance. It was certainly in part thanks to her meddling that Buddy went on tour at all, and her claimed pregnancy may well have been a ploy to keep him close. But this isn’t for me to confirm or deny, I wasn’t there. You can make your own mind up, but I will add this: could wild horses drag you away from your partners resting place?
Buddy, I believe, was destined to be the big break out rock star of the pre-Beatle era. We’ll never know now of course, but his influence still reverberates through every bunch of kids that pick up guitars wanting to write some great tunes. We missed out on some incredible music, but I’m thankful for that manically productive 18 months that he gave us.