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Oh boy: Why Buddy Holly still matters today

How is it that a bespectacled youth from Texas, who died aged 22 in a plane crash, is still revered 50 years on? Just listen to the outpouring of perfect rock'n'roll Buddy Holly produced in a career that lasted only 18 months, says Spencer Leigh

Friday 23 January 2009 01:00 GMT

On Valentine's Day in 1959, just 11 days after the air crash that killed her son, Ella Holley wrote to the families of the other performers who had died, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. They are beautifully composed letters, expressing her bewilderment and grief, and they reveal her conviction that they will be reunited in Heaven.

However, what makes the correspondence extraordinary is that she wrote a similar letter to the widow of the pilot, Roger Peterson. She did not cast any blame, although the accident occurred largely owing to his inexperience, and she said: "We are crushed by this terrible tragedy and the loss of our son, and we know you are suffering the same. We have never known before the grief and suffering from the death of a loved one but we do know now, and our hearts go out to you because we know what you are going through. We will keep you in our prayers."

Fifty years on, this letter indicates how Buddy Holly had been raised and how his parents had shaped his personality. It is often said that rock'n'roll was the music of rebellion, a response to the dull, conventional lifestyle of the previous generation. There is none of that in the Buddy Holly story: his parents supported him all the way and he, in turn, loved them.

In the 1930s, Lawrence and Ella Holley had settled in Lubbock, Texas. When their fourth and final child, Charles Hardin, arrived on 7 September 1936, Lawrence was earning $12 a week as a tailor. Their house was a couple of rooms with no electricity or telephone. Ella considered Charles Hardin Holley a big name for a little boy and nicknamed him Buddy, the perfect, friendly name for him.

Lubbock, on the buckle of the Bible Belt, is in the Texas Panhandle, a huge and isolated region with vast, featureless plains. It is in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to see once you get there, and so flat that you wonder what driving instructors do for a hill start. At the time, it was dry, although there were drinking clubs outside the city limits. Joe Ely, who established himself as a singer/songwriter in the late 1970s, recalls: "Lubbock's a big city in the middle of a cotton field. There are a lot of people living there but it's like a small town because it's so spread out. The main things are just cotton and boredom. I spent most of my time in high school thinking how to get out. Lubbock is a musically creative area, and maybe that's because there's nothing else to do."

When Buddy and his first girlfriend, Echo McGuire, were at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, the preacher said: "What would you do if you had $10?" and Buddy muttered: "If I had $10, I wouldn't be here."

If Buddy had stayed, he would have been in the family tiling business with his brothers, Larry and Travis. They showed him the rudiments of the guitar, and a home recording of "My Two-Timin' Woman", from 1949, shows that he was already proficient, although his voice had yet to break.

Buddy performed bluegrass on the radio station KDAV, usually with his friend Bob Montgomery. Several recordings have survived and they resemble an adolescent Flatt and Scruggs. They played the roller rink and on station promotions, opening for Elvis Presley in 1955. Sonny Curtis comments: "It was Buddy and Bob's group, and I played fiddle. We played country music, but when Elvis came along, Buddy fell in love with Elvis and we began to change. The next day we became Elvis clones." Larry lent Buddy the money for a Fender Stratocaster.

Buddy's repertoire expanded as he listened to black R&B played on the Stan's Record Rack radio show from Shreveport, Louisiana, and he was badgering musicians and their managers for an opportunity to record. He was signed to Decca's Nashville division and recorded three sessions, produced by Owen Bradley, during 1956. He wasn't happy with the results, probably because he had little input and wasn't generally allowed to play guitar, and Decca did little promotion, but the results are appealing. "Blue Days – Black Nights" was an engaging single; Sonny Curtis's "Rock Around With Ollie Vee" benefits from an inspired rockabilly performance; and "Midnight Shift" (a song about a prostitute!) is the first of several eccentric vocals. Listen to how Holly drawls "car" and "far"; you can hear Bob Dylan doing the same thing 10 years later.

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On 17 June 1956, Lubbock's newspaper, the Avalanche-Journal, started a series on the evils of rock'n'roll. They showed the dancers at the Bamboo Club when Holly was performing, and blacked out their eyes. The youngsters were dancing the "dirty bop". The newspaper said: "The guitarist hoarsely shouted the unintelligible words 'Hound Dog'." It said of the audience: "They are white teenagers from throughout the city, rich and poor, from good homes and bad." Mrs Holley wrote to the newspaper defend the teenagers, but her letter was not printed.

Also in June 1956, The Searchers, a western directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, opened in Lubbock. Holly's new drummer, Jerry Allison, was there. "Buddy and I went to see The Searchers and for a couple of days afterwards, we were mocking the way John Wayne said, 'That'll be the day.' Then we wrote the song. The first time we recorded it was in Nashville for Decca Records. It was the summer of 1956 and I had just gotten out of school. The producer said, 'That's the worst song I've ever heard in my life.' That hurt my feelings 'cause it was the first song I'd written!"

The country star Webb Pierce had advised Buddy to "sing high if you want a hit". That was terrible advice, but it does explain why Buddy sang "That'll Be the Day" as high as he could. He sounded uncomfortable and he was to record it much better later on. Still, Owen Bradley should have recognised the song's potential.

By 1957, Holly wanted to escape from his Decca contract. He knew about Norman Petty's studio 90 miles away in Clovis, New Mexico, as the 40-year-old Petty had produced a current million-seller, "Party Doll" by Buddy Knox. With the confidence of youth, Holly told Petty: "If you can get Buddy Knox a hit, you can get me one."

As their manager and producer, Petty is often portrayed as a villain, adding his name, for example, to the songwriting credits for "That'll Be the Day". But he appreciated Holly's talent and was no worse than other managers of the day.

Sonny West is philosophical about sharing his credit for "Oh Boy!" and "Rave On" with Norman Petty: "Norman gave me no choice. It was take that or get out. After I'd heard Buddy's version of 'Oh Boy!', there was no way I could turn it down. Norman had the power and he did that to so many guys. He took a half or a third of almost every song he could, plus the publishing rights. I wish things had been different but they're not and I can't change it." Unlike the Nashville producers, Petty didn't record by the clock, allowing each track to take as long as it took, a perfect environment for an experimental musician like Holly.

In a curious move, Petty signed Holly and his group, The Crickets, to a Decca subsidiary, Brunswick Records. "That'll Be the Day" topped both the British and American charts, incidentally topping the US chart when Holly only had 500 days left to live.

Frank Allen of the 1960s band The Searchers loved the record: "To be a star, you obviously need a desirable amount of talent, but the most important factor is individuality – and Buddy was distinctive and unmistakeable, both visually and aurally. While we were skiffling away, trying to find a fourth chord, Buddy was giving us the opening bars of 'That'll Be the Day' with unbelievable expertise and on an instrument that was the equivalent of a bullet-finned '59 Cadillac. He looked gangly and geekish with those glasses but that guitar made him unbelievably cool, and he knew how to play it. It was the revenge of the nerd. His records are almost without exception terrific. He got everything right."

Most top acts released four singles and an album a year, but Petty realised that Holly was productive and arranged for solo records, still backed by The Crickets, on Coral, another Decca subsidiary. Holly's hit-making career only lasted 18 months, but his output was double that of comparable musicians. It's unfortunate that Holly lost Sonny Curtis (who had joined Slim Whitman's band) and Bob Montgomery (who was studying), but The Crickets consisted of Allison, the double-bass player Joe B Mauldin and, for most of 1957, the guitarist Niki Sullivan, who wasn't up V C to the job. When Sullivan couldn't match his guitar on "Words of Love", Holly double-tracked his part.

Buddy Holly's first hit under his own name would have been "Cindy Lou", a nod to his young niece, but Allison persuaded him to rewrite it to impress the girl he wanted to marry, Peggy Sue Gerron. The "pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue" section retains its nursery-rhyme origin, as does the way Holly keeps singing her name differently.

I asked two leading songwriters why Holly's song doesn't tell me much about "Peggy Sue". Sir Tim Rice says: "Well, in 1957, few pop songs dug deep into emotional psychology and anyway, records were only two minutes long! However, the other aspects of the record, notably the different vocal timbres and gimmicks that Buddy adopted, that are almost comic at one point, were considered more important features to convey her character. Peggy Sue comes over as quirky and slightly unattainable, plus we discover that she is pretty. The singer is overwhelmed and reduced to showing off."

Gary Osborne, lyricist for The War of the Worlds, agrees: "'Peggy Sue' is the most basic and simple of love songs and when 'basic and simple' works, it really works. The treatment is also beautifully stripped down. It sounds like three guys driving along the highway in a big old American car with the driver singing and his mate in the passenger seat playing guitar, while the drummer is sitting behind them, keeping time on the back of the driver's seat. A classic!"

Bruce Welch of The Shadows is taken with Holly's guitar playing: "Buddy plays the bass pickup for most of the song and then it's switched to the treble and back again for verse. If you listen to the record on cans, you can hear Niki Sullivan turn the switch for him. It wouldn't have been any problem for Buddy to do it himself, and he must have done it himself in concert. There would be that fraction of a second delay but you wouldn't notice it."

Equally important is Jerry Allison's drumming. It had been so loud that it leaked into other microphones, so Petty had placed his drums in the reception area. From there, he ran the mic wires through the echo chamber and got the in-and-out echo effect by manually raising and lowering the volume and amount of echo in time with the music. This gave "Peggy Sue" a unique sound, and Allison's drumming propels the song along in the same way that Al Jackson pushed Otis Redding to a remarkable performance with "Respect".

Bobby Vee, who has recorded with The Crickets, appreciates Allison's talent: "Anyone who has ever played rock'n'roll drums has been influenced by Jerry Allison. He is an incredible stylist and very innovative, and he still plays great. There were no rules then so he could do what he liked, slapping his knees on 'Everyday' or playing a cardboard box on 'Not Fade Away'. He has great wrists – he plays lead drums."

It is wrong to assume that Holly's simple songs imply simplicity. Dominic Pedler, the author of The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, analyses the simplest of all, the B-side of "Peggy Sue", the whimsical "Everyday": "Among Buddy Holly's finest musical moments is the bridge to 'Everyday', which showcases his understanding of a classically derived, five-chord cycle which unfolds so irresistibly towards the song's musical and lyrical climax ('Do you ever long for true love from me?'). I don't know whether Holly had ever heard Marlene Dietrich's 'Falling In Love Again' but he manages a brilliant take on that concept in that bridge, descending in inevitable fifths but creating a clever effect that ends on that hanging imperfect cadence rather than a settled resolution on the tonic note as in the vast majority of cycles of fifths: for example, in 'Falling In Love Again', 'Can't help it' takes us to a feeling of closure."

As well as recording with The Crickets, Holly undertook session work, assisting small-time musicians who were recording at Petty's studio. He worked with the young folk singer Carolyn Hester. On their tour of Australia, he and Jerry Allison were taken with "Real Wild Child", performed by the local star Johnny O'Keefe. Allison recorded the song with a cool, laconic vocal, but Holly's enthusiastic background vocals stand out.

Through an agency mistake, The Crickets were teamed with R&B acts at black venues, including the Apollo in Harlem, but Holly's engaging personality won through. In March 1958, Holly had to adapt to playing a UK variety tour and was taught jokes by the compère, Des O'Connor. "I got £100 a week for being the compère and comic on the tour, which was big money," O'Connor says. "We were touring with the Ronnie Keene Orchestra, which had a lot of brass, and then out came The Crickets, just three of them, and I couldn't work out how they were making 10 times as much noise. It was so exciting and vibrant and I knew that something exciting was happening."

Many young British musicians were blinded by the light and came away wanting Fender Stratocasters, which had no marketing outlet in the UK. Brian Poole of The Tremeloes says: "Buddy Holly and The Crickets were the loudest thing we'd ever heard. It was a small band but they made such a crack when they came on and it was very, very exciting. We were doing Buddy Holly songs for the next five years. At one stage there was nothing in our act that wasn't a Buddy Holly song. We hadn't seen a Fender Strat before – this was like a flat plank, and now every guitar is like that. We were so much into Buddy Holly that I had hair and glasses exactly like him."

Alvin Stardust, who had a hit with "I Feel Like Buddy Holly" in 1984, met Holly on that tour. "I was 13 or 14 and I had gone on the bus to see Buddy Holly and The Crickets in Doncaster and I took my guitar on which I was trying to learn chords. I had never been to a music concert before and I managed to get backstage. The Crickets were all so polite and quiet. They asked me how many chords I knew and I said, 'I know three,' and Buddy said, 'You can play all my songs then.' They made me get it out and we were singing 'Peggy Sue' together, then Buddy signed it for me."

Back in Clovis, Holly befriended the guitarist Tommy Allsup, who played on his recordings of "Heartbeat" (the only Holly record to justify a "Tex-Mex" tag), "It's So Easy", "Love's Made a Fool of You" and "Wishing", the last two compositions being intended for The Everly Brothers. Their manager, the thorny Wesley Rose, wouldn't permit this as he couldn't have the publishing. Tommy Allsup: "Buddy was a good guitarist but he couldn't play the solo he wanted on 'It's So Easy', so that's called job security. He asked me to tour with him."

In New York, Buddy befriended Maria Elena Santiago, who lived with her aunt and worked for Southern Music, the company that administered Petty's catalogue in New York. She was five years older and he proposed on their first date. They were married in Lubbock on 15 August 1958, and shared a joint honeymoon in Acapulco with Jerry and Peggy Sue.

Buddy's final recording session in Clovis featured "Reminiscing", a sad song, but as so often with Holly, he doesn't sound cut up about it: his vocal acrobatics include a great "bayee-ayee-bee" and semi-yodelling. He was supported by the saxophonist King Curtis, who also recorded "When Sin Stops" with Waylon Jennings. This was intended as the first release on a label formed by Holly and Phil Everly. Holly was also keen to set up his own recording and publishing companies in Lubbock with the intention of working with Allsup and Montgomery.

Considering the quality of "Heartbeat" and "It's So Easy", it is surprising that his singles were not making the charts, but Decca had confidence in him and organised an orchestral session in New York in October 1958. It produced "It Doesn't Matter Anymore", "Raining In My Heart" (written by The Everly Brothers' writers, the Bryants), "Moondreams" (a delightful middle-of-the-road song from Norman Petty) and Holly's own tribute to Maria Elena, "True Love Ways".

Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" had been submitted on the day of the session, and Dick Jacobs only had time to score it for pizzicato strings, which was an innovation for popular music, although Tchaikovsky had been there first.

The singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith comments: "My mum had a great collection of 45s and I used to put them on when I was about five. I loved 'It Doesn't Matter Anymore' as I liked the way he'd go from a low voice to that hiccup. The music is at odds with the theme of the song as the guy is trying to get over his broken heart by saying that the person doesn't matter anymore, but maybe he's really saying that it matters a lot. I like that contradiction although I didn't understand the depth of the song when I was young."

Maria Elena, who had been privy to Petty's dealings, encouraged Buddy to break away. As The Crickets stayed with Petty, he had to work with new musicians. Maria Elena Holly says: "Buddy didn't have any money because his manager didn't want to let the money go. That's why he went on the Winter Dance Party."

It was a bad winter in New York and Buddy worked on new songs, now known as the Apartment Tapes. His father had suggested a follow-up to "Peggy Sue", so he recorded an answer song, "Peggy Sue Got Married". The secrecy in the lyric was Holly's comment on the fact that pop stars weren't supposed to get married. Isn't it odd, though, that Buddy Holly, recently married and setting up home, should write about love going wrong ("Learning the Game", "Crying, Waiting, Hoping") and the marriage of his best friend?

Gary Osborne says: "I love the way he confides in you in 'Peggy Sue Got Married'; it's as though he's buttonholed you in a pub for a bit of gossip. If this was the direction his songwriting was heading, then his death was an even bigger loss than most people think. It's a marvellous tune, too."

Billy Bragg adds: "After Chuck Berry's initial burst of songs, there had been a bit of a relapse but Buddy Holly cut through that with his vision of what songs could be. 'True Love Ways' is incredible – just a two-and-a-half-minute song, but it is the work of a visionary. I'd love to have written 'Peggy Sue Got Married' as I am very fond of that song, and I also love 'Raining In My Heart', although I know he didn't write it."

Buddy and Maria Elena went to Lubbock for Christmas. He finalised the personnel for his new band on the Winter Dance Party (Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings, Carl Bunch) and left Lubbock on New Year's Eve. Maria Elena says: "I wanted to go on tour with Buddy, but I was pregnant and had morning sickness. Buddy wanted to make some money as he felt bad that my aunt was taking care of us. He had been to England and he wanted to take me there. He even thought of opening a studio in London. He said, 'You'll see how much talent there is in England.' He would have established studios in London, New York and Lubbock."

The Winter Dance Party was a badly run tour of the American Midwest, in below freezing conditions. On 2 February 1959, Buddy, sick of the broken-down coaches and wanting time to do his laundry, chartered a plane to take him from Clear Lake, Iowa to the next venue. It crashed, shortly after midnight and within minutes of leaving the ground, killing the three musicians (Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper) on board as well as the pilot.

On 7 February, Buddy Holly's funeral took place at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, Lubbock with the service conducted by Ben Johnson and more than 1,000 people present. Maria Elena was too upset to attend as she had also suffered a miscarriage. Buddy's favourite gospel record, "I'll Be Alright" by the Angelic Gospel Singers, was played. Very few of the congregation would have heard "True Love Ways" and wouldn't connect the two songs, but Holly had borrowed its opening notes.

As Buddy Holly was the first rock'n'roll star to die, various questions of ethics and taste were explored for the first time: should a record company continue his legacy, and what is the merit of tribute singles? Don McLean may have called Holly's death "the day the music died", but in effect his death ensured it was the day the music lived.

A week after his death, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" was released in the UK and went to No 1. This is the first instance of a record becoming a hit after an artist's death. In addition, the compilation, The Buddy Holly Story, was a huge success in Britain and America, remaining on the US charts for more than three years. With the release of unissued material, often with overdubbed backings, Holly had a steady stream of releases throughout the 1960s. Both "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" and "Bo Diddley" were Top 10 singles during the British beat era.

There have been the chart-topping compilations Buddy Holly Lives (1978) and Words of Love (1993), but because of disputes between Maria Elena and the various owners of his recordings, there has not, until now, been a comprehensive CD box set. They had no choice on this: as of 1 January 2009, all recordings prior to 1959 have fallen into the public domain and reissue labels can issue packages without licence but hopefully with flair and merit.

Almost immediately after his death, there were artists who followed on from Holly – Adam Faith and Mike Berry in the UK: Bobby Vee and Tommy Roe in the US. Numerous artists have had hits with Holly's songs, including Linda Ronstadt, Leo Sayer, Mud and Cliff Richard, and he was one of Ian Dury's reasons to be cheerful. The actor Nick Berry reached No 2 with his version of the title song of the TV series Heartbeat. The Rolling Stones had their first Top 10 single with "Not Fade Away" in 1964, and the song has become a mainstay for rock jams. You can catch workouts on YouTube from Springsteen, Dylan (who saw Holly on his final tour), Status Quo and the Grateful Dead.

More significantly, Buddy Holly was a springboard for The Beatles' creativity – they chose an insect name as homage to The Crickets and Paul McCartney was to purchase his publishing rights. Philip Norman, a biographer of Holly and John Lennon, says: "John and Paul used to do a pastiche of Buddy Holly, but then everybody used to imitate Buddy; that was the whole point. Buddy's voice invited you to imitate him and if you did that, you could see how the songs were put together."

The songwriter Tony Macaulay says: "Most people in the late Fifties were into Elvis Presley, but Holly was the nerd's hero. He wasn't very sexual or particularly good-looking but he had great warmth and he invented the two guitars, bass, drums line-up as we understand it now. He got more spotty, pre-pubescent boys writing songs and playing the guitar than anybody else, and I was one of them. His death had such an impact on young boys, more so I think than if Elvis Presley had died."

We can say that Buddy Holly created a series of firsts, although most of them need qualification – the first singer/songwriter of the rock'n'roll era; the first to have the lead/rhythm/bass/drums line-up; the first to use studio trickery such as double-tracking; the first to have strings on a rock'n'roll record; the first to use the Fender Stratocaster; and the first rock'n'roll star to wear glasses. Not that retrogazing means much – by general acknowledgment, Bill Haley and his Comets made the first rock'n'roll record, certainly the first truly successful one – but what Haley did was totally surpassed by Elvis Presley a few months later.

Does it even matter that Buddy Holly was the first geek star? Bill Haley, Bo Diddley and Gene Vincent hardly traded on their looks, and in that department, it was really Elvis versus everybody else.

Although the bio-pic The Buddy Holly Story and the stage musical Buddy have their faults, they do show the joie de vivre of being Buddy Holly, and show that he was a maverick in the best sense – an independent-minded person who knew how to get others on his side.

Taking everything together, Buddy should be acknowledged as rock's first great all-rounder, the Ian Botham of rock'n'roll. He should be recognised for all his talents: singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, bandleader, arranger and producer. And he could perform ballads, country and rock'n'roll with a winning personality – he was good at everything. No other rock'n'roll star possessed all these attributes, although Eddie Cochran, who died in 1960, was coming up fast. Chuck Berry ticked most of the boxes but possessed no team spirit.

As Buddy Holly died young, we can only guess at what he would have achieved. If Brian Wilson had died when he was 22, we would not have known of his potential to make Pet Sounds. Buddy might have become a middle-of-the-road entertainer, and my guess is that he would have transformed country music along the lines of Willie Nelson, and would have collaborated with everyone he met.

As it is, his music is frozen in time. It is impossible to hear his recordings without thinking of his end, so they acquire an additional resonance. His legacy is certain to endure.

Spencer Leigh is the author of 'Everyday: Getting Closer to Buddy Holly', to be published by SAF in March. 'The Very Best of Buddy Holly and The Crickets' is released on Universal

The crash that changed music history

Buddy Holly woke up on Monday morning, 2 February 1959, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with his whole body aching. For the past fortnight, he had been sleeping either on the tour bus or in fleabag hotels as he played an appallingly organised tour of the American Midwest, travelling on treacherous roads in near-Arctic conditions. His run of hits was over – he hoped only temporarily – but he was free from his dishonest manager and he would be rebuilding his career in New York. The fans' reaction at each venue gave him encouragement, the only bright moments on this ungodly tour.

The touring party had had a succession of buses with broken heaters. It was impossible to socialise with the other musicians as their prime concern was keeping warm. The previous day, the drummer had been admitted to hospital with frostbite, and they had to work out who would replace him. Holly agreed to drum for 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, who was making his way up the charts with "La Bamba".

At around 9am, the tour bus – their sixth in 10 days – set off on a 350-mile journey from Green Lake to the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa. It was gruelling and, with breakdowns, would take nine hours. By then, 21-year-old Roger Peterson had reported for work at Dwyer's Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa. During his short career, he had flown 700 hours, but he had failed an examination for flying by instruments alone. As no flights were scheduled, he spent the day welding.

The manager of the Surf Ballroom, Carroll Anderson, was keen to quash reports that rock'n'roll was equated with juvenile delinquency and he would admit adults to the dance for only 10 cents. When the bus arrived, Holly told Anderson that he wanted to charter a plane to take himself and his guitarists, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, to the next venue – the Armoury, Moorhead, Minnesota, some 500 miles away. Anderson called Jerry Dwyer who told him that the flight would cost $108. Peterson was told to report back for a flight at 12.30am to Fargo airport, North Dakota.

Buddy found time to call his new wife, Maria Elena, but he wasn't totally forthcoming. "It was the tour from hell," says Maria Elena. "Everybody got sick; the buses were breaking down; it was bad weather and very cold. Buddy called me in Clear Lake but he never told me about the plane. That was Buddy, though: he was always taking over."

At around 10.30pm, another tour member, the Big Bopper, who had flu, asked Waylon Jennings for his seat and, in compensation, he offered Waylon his new sleeping-bag. Waylon said: "If it's all right with Buddy, it's all right with me."

At 11.20pm, the other performers joined Holly on stage for the final songs of the evening, "La Bamba" and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man". Since his first hit, "That'll Be the Day", Buddy Holly had performed in 200 venues in 18 months.

After the show, the Big Bopper asked Buddy if he could take Waylon's place. "I hope your ol' bus freezes up again," joked Holly as Waylon chuckled back: "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes."

At midnight, Ritchie Valens, who was signing autographs, saw Allsup and pleaded for a seat on the plane. Reluctantly, Allsup tossed a coin. Ritchie Valens called "heads" and won, saying: "Gee, that's the first time I've won anything in my life." Allsup asked Holly to collect a registered letter from the post office in Moorhead, and gave Buddy his wallet for ID.

It was snowing, with 35mph gusts of wind, when they reached the airport. Peterson had not been told he might have to fly by instruments. Once airborne, Peterson was forced to depend on them and, in all probability, he misread the gyroscope, believing the plane was climbing when it was descending.

The crash, at about 170mph, was on to farmland. The right wing hit the ground and was ripped off. The plane bounced 50ft and skidded another 500ft before crashing into a fence. Peterson's body remained inside, while the fuselage split open and the others were thrown out. The Big Bopper's body was in an adjoining cornfield. Jerry Dwyer found the wreckage at 9am.

Back in Buddy's hometown of Lubbock, Larry Corbin read out the report from Associated Press on the 11 o'clock news, believing that the families had been notified. He subsequently went to Buddy's parents' home to apologise. The station had to fight to keep its licence after this error.

Buddy's brother, Travis, out on a tiling job, had a coffee break. The waitress said: "Shouldn't you go home as your brother's been killed?" He thought his other brother, Larry, had had an accident and dashed to his house. He then went to his parents' house. Larry had gone to tell Travis and then also went to his parents'.

At noon, the tour bus reached Moorhead – on time. Tommy Allsup went into Hotel Comstock while the others were sleeping, and the receptionist told him what had happened. He rang his mother and learnt that he had been presumed dead as his wallet had been found. The promoters talked the musicians into continuing the tour and the Armoury management reduced the fee as the main performers weren't there. "Real nice people," Waylon Jennings commented.

The next morning, a 13-year-old in New Rochelle, Don McLean, got up early to deliver newspapers before he went to school...

'Buddy was way ahead of the pack'

By Richard hawley

I can't remember being alive without hearing Buddy Holly. For me, it's not music, it's oxygen. My dad in Sheffield had all Holly's albums and I used to listen to them as a kid. "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues" was one of the first songs I learnt to sing or play, at six years old, along with "Words of Love", "Everyday" and "That'll Be the Day".

For a young musician, all the Buddy Holly classics are a brilliant place to start. He played rhythmic chords in a lot of his solos, instead of over-flashy pyrotechnic guitar playing. There's no doubt that he was innovative and ahead of his time. The recording technique that he used – multitracking – had only just been invented by Les Paul. Most people in those days would just record live, using justone microphone.

My favourite track is "It Doesn't Matter Anymore". It is a very beautiful and sad song – but the chord structure is quite uplifting, and it has an amazing string section on it as well.

Right at the end of his life, Holly was moving away from simple rock'n'roll music to something far more complex, such as in the songs "Moondreams", "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" and "Raining In My Heart".

There's an attitude towards things that Buddy Holly had, along with a lot of other artists who influenced me, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Fats Domino. This was to keep things simple, and not to over-egg the pudding. There was no messing around with them, as they went straight for the jugular.

The thing about Buddy Holly that was unique was that, because of the original name of the band, The Crickets, and the way they sounded in the song 'That'll Be the Day", everybody thought they were black. He was the first white artist to play the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and nobody could believe the band was white. There was a lot of racial and cultural cross-fertilisation happening at this time, and Buddy Holly was way ahead of the pack.

Before him, artists didn't write their own songs, and he was a complete holistic entity. He produced his own music, he performed it and he also wrote it. He was a brilliant songwriter; really simple, to the point, beautifully constructed two- or three-minute pop songs. That was a benchmark for bands such as The Beatles.

My kids enjoy the music as much as I do, and I am sure something in that music will appeal to the human race for ever, because its subject matter and delivery are so soulful. It's something we all need to help us along.

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