Obituary: Buddy Knox

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALL PERFORMERS are influenced by those around them, and Buddy Holly was inspired by the success of his namesake and fellow Texan, Buddy Knox. Knox's career was eclipsed by Holly's, but he was a highly rated rockabilly performer.

Knox's parents ran a farm in Happy, Texas, and named their son, who was born in 1933, after a family friend, Buddy Wilson. "We didn't even have electricity or a radio," Knox told me in 1993, "I played guitar and harmonica to entertain myself. I wrote `Hula Love' in 1947 and `Party Doll' in 1948, which was eight years before rock 'n' roll came in."

Knox won an athletics scholarship to the West Texas State College, where he met Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier and together they formed a group, the Serenaders. Knox recalled, "I saw Elvis Presley in Amarillo, Texas, in June 1955 and he was playing the same stuff we were playing. He told me, `Man, if you've got a band and some good songs, get into a recording studio cause something is fixing to happen.'"

Another up-and-coming performer, Roy Orbison, told Knox about Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico. "Norman was an electrician who had built his own studio," said Knox, "His echo chamber was in the top of his dad's garage with a speaker at one end and a microphone at the other. Every time a truck passed by, it sounded like it was in the studio with us."

Despite the frugal conditions, Petty got an exciting rockabilly sound. He added the drummer, Dave Alldred, and first time out, in April 1956, the Serenaders recorded the cheerful "Party Doll" and the teen ballad, "I'm Stickin' With You", with Jimmy Bowen as lead vocal.

The session was sponsored by Chester Oliver, a Texas oil-man, who pressed 1,500 copies for local stores. One of the band's DJ friends was sacked for playing the record six times in one day, but it became a territorial hit.

Opportunity knocked when Morris Levy, the owner of Roulette Records in New York, wanted to issue the single nationally. Both songs had hit potential so he released them separately - Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids, so called because of their coloured stage suits, with "Party Doll", and Jimmy Bowen and the Rhythm Orchids with "I'm Stickin' With You", which Knox had co-written. One DJ, Dick Clark, refused to play "Party Doll" as he objected to the line, "I'll make love to you." Alan Freed had no such reservations and the single topped the US charts in March 1957, with "I'm Stickin' With You" also making the Top Twenty. "I was very green," said Knox. "One minute I was on a farm in Happy, Texas and the next on The Ed Sullivan Show. I'd never seen buildings over three storeys before."

But then Knox was drafted. "The week `Party Doll' hit No 1, the army decided that they needed me real bad, and it meant that we couldn't come to England where `Party Doll' was a hit," he said. "We had the London Palladium and European dates lined up. The contracts went into the garbage can and I got drunk for the first time in my life. It broke the band up."

Much to Knox's surprise, his second single, "Rock Your Little Baby To Sleep", was issued under the name Lieutenant Buddy Knox. A third single was issued during his six months in the army, "Hula Love", which he performed in the rock 'n' roll film Disc Jockey Jamboree (1957).

While Buddy Knox was in the army, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were topping the US charts with "That'll Be the Day", recorded at Norman Petty's studio, at Knox's recommendation. "Buddy had told me how he liked `Party Doll' and then he played me `That'll Be the Day'," said Knox. "I thought, `Boy, I like that, I like that a whole lot better than "Party Doll".' "

The instrumentation was similar and, like Knox, Holly blended country, and rhythm and blues with Mexican overtones to create "Tex-Mex". "Instead of single-note guitar leads like Bill Haley's records, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and myself played chords which gave us a similar sound," said Knox.

He was horrified when Holly was killed in an air crash in 1959: "I was snowed in 30 miles away. I couldn't drive in that weather, let alone fly. They should have said, `If we miss a date we miss a date, so what?'" In 1976, Knox recorded the evocative tribute record "I Named My Little Girl Holly".

Knox made several excellent records for Roulette including "Somebody Touched Me", "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself" and "The Girl with the Golden Hair". When royalties were not forthcoming, Knox, who had a degree in accountancy, knew something was wrong. "Morris Levy was a gangster and he died before he went to prison," said Knox. "Both Bobby Darin and Connie Francis warned me about him and I should have listened. As a result, Roulette ended up with all the recordings, all the publishing, all the songwriting royalties and we got nothing."

I asked Knox if he dared to ask for his money. "Yes, and I was told no in very forceful terms. I hired a lawyer to get some money for us, he got $8,000 but he said, `Don't ever call me again, I've got a wife and kids and I don't want to be involved.' I had to make my money on the road and I was hitting the road real hard."

When Knox moved to Liberty Records, his vocals became more mannered and he recorded the feeble novelty songs "Chi Hua Hua" and "Ling Ting Tong". His best Liberty recording were "Lovey Dovey" (1961) and "She's Gone" (1962), which was a minor UK hit. Jimmy Bowen moved into record production and worked with Knox for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label in 1964. Four years later, Knox was invited to join United Artists by Buddy Holly's original partner, Bob Montgomery, and they made "God Knows I Love You" and "Gypsy Man", which became a US country success.

In 1977 Knox found a new audience at a rockabilly show at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, which was recorded by EMI. In 1993 there was a concert for his 60th birthday with Tommy Sands and the Coasters, which was also recorded.

In January this year, Knox, who was about to be married for the fourth time, fell and broke his hip. The doctors discovered a terminal cancer and gave him three months to live. He planned to perform one last show in Seattle, but he died before it could take place.

Spencer Leigh

Buddy Wayne Knox, singer and songwriter: born Happy, Texas 20 July 1933; three times married; died Port Orchard, Washington 14 February 1999.