Tuesday, February 8, 2011


February 3, 1959. The Day The Music Died. At least according to Don McLean. I guess he forgot about the great records that came out after 1959. In any case, that was the morning that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper boarded a plane after that night's concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, and never made it to their next destination (Moorhead, Minnesota).

This is not only the story of the great Buddy Holly, but of the business machinations (aka greed) that drove poor Buddy, Ritchie and Big onto that plane. It is also the story of how a country was so taken with the sound of the young man from Lubbock, Texas that it almost singlehandedly based its entire rock and roll music industry on him (and, of course, it wasn't the good old USA). There's also a creepy side of the story, which will also be told here.

We all know Buddy's story. Born in Lubbock, Texas on September 7, 1936, he and his group, The Crickets, became a sensation with their Brunswick single "That'll Be The Day" (which, by the way, was the first record played by Dick Clark on "American Bandstand" when the show went national). Hit after hit folllowed, not only under the Crickets' name, but also under Buddy Holly's own name (I've still never found an explanation of why or how this happened), but by mid-1958 The Crickets had broken up due to Buddy's desire to move to New York (and get away from producer Norman Petty). In early 1959 Buddy decided to go on tour with General Artists' Corporation's "Winter Dance Party" to make some extra money (since he and his new wife had a baby on the way). Unfortunately, after a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy chartered a plane so he wouldn't have to take the long, 435 mile bus ride to Moorhead, Minn. for the next date. The plane was originally for just Buddy and his group, but The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens wanted in, so the members of Buddy's group gave up their seats (Ritchie Valens got the seat by winning a coin toss; The Big Bopper got his because he was nursing a head cold and, being a big guy, couldn't get comfortable in the bus seats). The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, and the rest is history.

Unfortunately, though, the story isn't that simple. Buddy's move to New York was precipitated by a falling out with Norman Petty. Petty was not only Buddy's producer, but also the Crickets' manager. Petty kept Buddy and the boys on a tight allowance, to say the least, while constantly promising that everyone would get their fair share "when things settled down". The excellent book "Remembering Buddy" by John Goldrosen and John Beecher (Omnibus Press, 1996) explains a lot of the details of the relationship between Petty and Buddy. On a more personal note, Buddy's new wife, Maria Elena Santiago, was Puerto Rican, and in Lubbock, Texas in 1958, a white man marrying a Puerto Rican just didn't happen. Additionally, Maria knew a LOT about the music business - her aunt was head of the Latin music division of Peer-Southern Music, one of the largest publishing companies in the US. In fact, Maria was working there as a receptionist when she met Buddy. Maria saw that Buddy wasn't exactly getting the greatest deal from Norman Petty, and encouraged Buddy to ask for an accounting. Petty (of course) got very insulted, and that played a major part in the Crickets' breakup.

Unfortunately, the tussle with Petty left Buddy Holly in a very bad position - a lot of his royalties were being held up, and by December, 1958, the move to New York, Buddy's dwindling stature in the industry (his latest records weren't the huge hits his earlier ones had been), and his now-pregnant wife all contributed to the decision to go on that last, fateful tour in early 1959. He needed the money. He shouldn't have had to do the tour, but he did.

Things got worse from there. The organization of the tour was, to say the least, lacking in professionalism. General Artists Corporation's Irving Feld was a greedy bastard (aren't all promoters?) who wanted to maximize his profit margin, so he sent Buddy, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, Dion and The Belmonts, and Frankie Sardo on a grueling 24-city tour - for three weeks. That's eight cities a week. Today most groups tour 24 cities in three months. Feld also compounded the tour's problems by providing the transportation - an old, rickety bus with an intermittently working heater. In the North Midwest. In January. Shame on you, Irving Feld. Needless to say, the haphazard schedule and the constantly-breaking-down bus took its toll - by the second week, the performers' clothes were desperately in need of a cleaning, the Big Bopper had gotten sick, and nothing could be done about it because there was no time before the shows to GET anything done. Buddy Holly was a take-charge type of guy. He knew this couldn't go on. So he chartered a private plane to get him to the next city earlier than the bus would have gotten him there - not because he was THE STAR, but because he wanted time to get some desperately needed sleep, to get some laundry done, and to take care of other tour business that Irving Feld couldn't possibly care less about.

And three stars ended up dead.

The news hit the American public like a ton of bricks. But, like most American news, it was quickly forgotten about. A new crop of teen idols soon popped up, most of them named Bobby (in fact, one of them, Bobby Vee, got his start by playing at the concert in Moorhead on February 4, 1959), and Buddy Holly was quickly forgotten, for the most part, in the USA. His record label, Coral, continued to release singles, but they all died a quick death. Buddy Holly was a has-been in the USA.

In Great Britain, however, it was a different story. Holly actually charted more singles in England after his death than before the plane crash. British singers such as Brian Poole and Freddie Garrity began to model their stage appearance on Holly's, complete with glasses. Adam Faith was one of many Holly sound-alikes to hit the British charts. A young group named themselves The Beatles in honor of The Crickets. Another group named themselves The Hollies. Buddy Holly fan clubs in Britain numbered in the hundreds. He became as well-known across the pond as Elvis was in America!

Now, the creepy part. Shortly after Holly's death, a record producer started his own studio and label at his flat in London. His name was Joe Meek. Meek became a sought-after producer during the mid-60s because of his otherworldly production style; his biggest hits include "Have I The Right" by The Honeycombs and "Telstar" by The Tornadoes. Meek was a genius; he was also a loony. He had an unhealthy obsession with Buddy Holly, telling friends that Buddy spoke to him from beyond the grave. When Meek's business partner, Geoff Goddard, wrote a song called "Tribute To Buddy Holly", Meek recorded it with a singer he knew, Mike Berry, and released it in England in November, 1961. It became a sizeable hit, and Meek was on his way. But Meek's obsession continued on, and on the 8th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death - February 3, 1967 - Meek celebrated by killing his landlady with a shotgun and then blowing his own brains out. Makes Phil Spector seem like a dream date, doesn't he?

So, to conclude, a year and a half (December, 1962, to be exact) after "Tribute To Buddy Holly" became a hit in England, the folks at US Coral woke up and decided to release the record in the US. It flopped, of course, but it stands as a fascinating monument to a fascinating performer....and a REALLY weird producer.

Mike Berry - Tribute To Buddy Holly (Coral 62341) - 1962


  1. Great post! The U.S. Coral label had a slew of mondo obscuro releases of off the wall British acts, like the Joe Meek produced "You're Holding Me Down" by The Buzz and the ultra scare mod mover "Go go children" by The Richard Kent Style.

    PS:Have you seen "Telstar",the Joe Meek movie yet? If not I highly reccomend it.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! No, I haven't seen "Telstar" yet, but I plan on it, since the whole Joe Meek story is fascinating to me.

    Yeah, the Buzz single on Coral is super rare - I've never even seen one! I've also never even HEARD the Richard Kent single. But that's why I blog - comments like yours point me in new and interesting directions. Thanks!

  3. No thanks necessary, keep up the great work! Have a listen sir:(The Richard Kent Style)


  4. The Richard Kent single is cool! Thanks wilthomer! Of course, now I'll see it somewhere for 100 or so dollars and HAVE to have it!! If I go broke, it's your fault!