In the early morning of Feb 3, 1959, in a hurry to reach their next gig and against all advice, three monuments to 50s music were killed in a small plane shortly after takeoff in a snowstorm.
Buddy Holly’s star was rising as the new exponent of what would come to be called “pop rock”, melodic and listenable. Holly had recently dismissed his previous band, “The Crickets” and was striking out as a solo artist and a new band featuring an emerging Waylon Jennings on backup guitar. The timing was right, as it was for his colleagues Ritchie Valens and The J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, both of whom were carving out an audience as well.
Holly in particular was on his way to becoming an icon:
(From Wikipedia): “Holly is described by critic Bruce Eder as “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.” His works and innovations inspired and influenced contemporary and later musicians, notably The Beatles, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones, Don McLean, Bob Dylan, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton, and exerted a profound influence on popular music. Holly was among the first group of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Holly #13 among “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time”.
The tour was to play 24 mid-western cities in three weeks, many far apart from each other and represented a hardship for tour busses. Due to cold weather conditions, Holly decided to charter a small Beechcraft single engine, four place aircraft in Clear Lake, Iowa to quickly reach the next venue in Moorehead, Minnesota.
J.P. Richardson, suffering fro flu symptoms, coerced Waylon Jennings into giving up his seat. Ritchie Valens beat out guitarist Tommy Allsup on the toss of a coin. Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts fame decided not to pay the US$36.00 fee and didn’t board the aircraft said to have “American Pie” painted on it’s cowl.
In a combination of poor weather and pilot error, the plane quickly crashed in a cornfield killing all on board. Jennings lamented his decision and is said to have suffered major depression the rest of his life because of it. Holly’s pregnant wife of 6 months miscarried the day after the crash. A band of high school kids in Fargo, North Dakota calling themselves “The Shadows” was offered a replacement slot in Moorehead. Their performance was a breakthrough and directly led to their lead singer Bobby Vee’s success as a solo artist (Blue Velvet, 1963).
When Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, over 20,000 Mourners gathered outside the Graceland gate. Shortly after John Lennon was killed on December 8, 1980, literally millions of people filled Central Park for a vigil. But when Holly/Valens/Richardson died, no one attended them. They never had a vigil. Their homes did not become pilgrimage sites and there was never a centralized memorial service. Yet with each passing year, the legend of (especially) Buddy Holly continues to grow.
Fast forward to Don McLean’s introspective tribute to the events of February 3, 1959.
McLean was at the time a struggling folkie performer who had put out a previous album (Tapestry, 1969) that sank like the Lusitania. Overall, his work was rejected 72 times by record labels. In the spring of 1971, Mclean released his magnum opus “American Pie”. The song got it’s first radio exposure on a New York FM station coincident with the closing of The Fillmore East in New York City and was thought to be destined to the fate of his earlier work. “American Pie” exploded, reached number one on the U.S. Billboard magazine charts for four weeks. With a running time of 8:36 minutes, it is the longest song to reach No. 1 and one of the few.
The literal interpretation of McLean’s lyrics has been a source of continuing controversy for many years. When asked what his song meant, McLean famously replied, “It means I’ll never have to work again”.
One of the most insightful and interesting interpretations follows if anyone has an interest:
McLean went on to become a major artist elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002 but although nominated for multiple Grammies, never won for “American Pie”. McLean has been eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1995 but has yet to be inducted. American Pie is listed by the RIAA as the No. 5 song on “Songs of the Century”.
On 4 Feb 2013, at 3:19, Farhad N Kapadia wrote:
“Rolling Stone ranked Holly #13 among “The 100 Greatest Artists is stupid beyond belief. Holly is good, no question, but not great. Rolling Stones needs to reclassify, it’s greatest artist in the rock era, or 2nd half of the century. As just one example, Art Tatum. Buddy would be outclassed completely & totally. Wonder where Rolling Stones ranks Tatum. All his contemporary musicians called him God”.
Everyone has a complaint about who should have or not should have achieved a place in music history. Giving Jethro Tull a Grammy for best metal artists in 1989 and ignoring Metallica is considered one of the biggest gaffes ever. When Metallica finally did get a Grammy in 1992, Lars Ulrich thanked Jethro Tull for not putting out an album that year.
I never heard of Art Tatum but he’s not alone in lack of recognition. Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Queen, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, the Who and Bob Marley never won Grammies. Linda Ronstadt, Steppenwolf, Johnny Rivers, Chicago, The Doobie Brothers, The Guess Who, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Deep Purple, Joe Cocker, KISS, The Electric Light Orchestra, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Rush, Heart, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, The Zombies, The B-52’s, Cheap Trick, Peter Frampton, Bon Jovi, Todd Rundgren, Bad Company, Yes, The Cars, Heart, Kool and the Gang, John Mayall, Procol Harem and Rare Earth are nowhere to be found in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame.
Buddy Holly must be appreciated for his place in the evolution of Rock as an art form. It’s all a huge tangle of connections, people moving from one group to another and bringing fresh and innovative ideas with them, then building on those ideas that others pick up and so ad infinitum. Just following the trail of Eric Clapton makes you dizzy.
Back in the 50s, Rock was in its infancy. Most listenable pop music was variations of do-wop, performed mostly by black artists portrayed on album covers in sepia to soften the blow to white audiences. Do-Wop is multi-part voicing of very melodic R & B. A lot of it originated in Philadelphia extending to the suburbs of New York City. Punks standing on street corners harmonizing a cappella, including nonsense syllables known as scat. Early exponents of the style in the 50s were the “Bird groups”: The Orioles, The Penguins, The Crows, The Flamingos and The Larks. Also groups named for cars: “The Edsels, The Cadillacs, The Fleetwoods, The Impalas, and Little Anthony & The Imperials). Occasional City groups: “The Manhattans” and the “Hollywoods”. Then in the early 60s, white groups, usually Italian-Americans, got in on the action. The Four Seasons, Dion & the Belmonts.
The next iteration in this evolution came with Buddy Holly, who converted 50’s popular music performed with stand up slap bass, saxophone, piano and clunky acoustic guitars with glued-on electric pickups to a more specialized form of “Rockabilly” using what remains today the classic basic mode of Rock, two electric guitars, electric bass and drums. He was one of the first artists to write, produce, and perform his own songs. For the first time, Holly popularized the classic Fender Stratocaster’s unique tone and vibe combined with the Fender Precision electric bass.
This arrangement became the classic standard of the 60s and was made permanent with the Beatles. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis (for want of a better term) “legitimized” music with black roots to white audiences that Little Richard couldn’t access. Holly introduced Rock/Rockabilly to black listeners previously steeped in blues and R & B. Lennon and McCartney have cited Holly as a primary influence. The band name Beatles is said to have been chosen in homage to Holly’s band, The Crickets.
So, Holly is more revered for his groundbreaking influence than his absolute talent as a singer/songwriter, and that’s fair enough.