Buddy Holly Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Buddy Holly 1936-1959

(Born Charles Hardin Holley) American musician and songwriter.

Holly was one of the most influential performers in the early development of rock music. In his brief career with the Crickets and as a solo performer from 1956 to his death in 1959, Holly gained wide attention for a unique vocal style in which he rendered the lyrics of such popular songs as "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be the Day." His impact on the subsequent generations of musicians, including the Beatles, who adopted their name in tribute to the Crickets, extended to guitar technique and such innovations as overdubbing recording tracks and utilizing symphonic backing instruments in rock recordings.

Biographical Information

Holly was born in Lubbock, Texas. Encouraged in his early musical pursuits by his parents, he learned to play the violin and piano in addition to guitar. Holly began performing country and western music with partner Bob Montgomery as "Buddy and Bob" for local audiences while he was still in high school. He gained the notice of a Decca talent scout during performances as a supporting act for concerts by Hank Snow, Bill Haley, and Marty Robbins, which led to his first recording sessions in Nashville in 1956. However, the record company soon lost interest in Holly, and he returned to Lubbock where he formed a new band, the Crickets, featuring Jerry Allison on drums, Niki Sullivan on guitar, and Joe Mauldin on bass guitar. The group traveled to Clovis, New Mexico, to work with producer Norman Petty, with whom Holly cowrote such songs as "Not Fade Away" and "It's So Easy"; Jerry Allison collaborated with Petty and Holly to compose "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be the Day." Through Petty, Holly found success in the form of a recording contract for the Crickets with Decca's Brunswick subsidiary and a separate contract for Holly as a solo performer on Decca's Coral Records label. Holly's top-selling releases in 1957 included "That'll Be the Day" and "Oh, Boy!" with The Crickets and "Peggy Sue" as a solo artist. In 1958 The Crickets mounted a highly successful concert tour of England, which extended the reach of their influence. In the summer of 1958 Holly married a record studio receptionist and moved to New York City. He subsequently severed his relationship with Petty and left the Crickets to concentrate on his solo career. He hired a new group of backing musicians, including the future country star Waylon Jennings. Holly was killed in a plane crash near Ames, Iowa, on February 3, 1959, while on a promotional concert tour with J. P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper") and Ritchie Valens, who were also killed in the crash.

Major Works

Holly's continuing fame as a songwriter and rock musician rests on recordings he made in the two years preceding his death, including the albums The Chirping Crickets (1957) and Buddy Holly (1958). The Chirping Crickets, which was re-released after his death as Buddy Holly and The Crickets, contains such works as "Oh Boy!" "Not Fade Away," "Maybe Baby," and "That'll Be the Day," the song that launched Holly's enormous popularity in 1957. Recorded under the direction of producer Norman Petty, the album fused Holly's background in country music with blues and rockabilly, creating what has been termed a "Tex-Mex" sound unique to the southwestern United States. Holly had previously recorded "That'll Be the Day" in Nashville, but with Petty's guidance the tempo was heightened, and it became one of the most characteristic of Holly's hits for the nervous energy and stretched syllables of his vocal delivery. Holly's solo album, Buddy Holly, includes "Rave On" and the well-known "Peggy Sue," among other recordings. Typifying Holly's "hiccuping" vocal style, "Peggy Sue" is notable for its subordination of lyric to vocal interpretation as Holly repeats a woman's name over and over in different ways. In the years immediately following Holly's death numerous tribute and compilation albums were issued, principally the two-volume The Buddy Holly Story (1959), which combined previous hits with material that had not been included on earlier albums, including "Raining in My Heart" and "It's So Easy." Subsequent compilations of Holly's recordings have served to maintain his popularity in the decades since his death, including The Complete Buddy Holly (1981) and the compact disc From the Original Master Tapes (1985).

Critical Reception

During his brief career Holly was second in popularity only to Elvis Presley as a rock and roll performer, and, like Presley, his influence has not diminished in the decades since his death. Among the tributes to Holly that have served to extend his fame into legend, Don McLean's popular song "American Pie" (1971) describes Holly's death as "the day the music died." Various rock and country artists, including Linda Ronstadt, have continued to record Holly's songs, and he has been the subject of both theatrical and film biographies. In 1986 Holly was among the charter inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Assessing Holly's appeal, biographers John Goldrosen and John Beecher have concluded that "Holly was not a giant, or a god—but he was a sort of hero. Though a star, he still sounded and looked like a friend. He was one with his listeners, with one important difference: he could successfully express through his music the feelings that those listeners could not express for themselves."