10 Fascinating Facts About Buddy Holly
On February 3, 1959, musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (along with pilot Roger Peterson) were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The date became known as "The Day the Music Died." Holly was only 22 years old at the time, but he has had a lasting impact on music history. Here are a few things you might not know about Holly and his music on the 60th anniversary of his death.
1. He opened for Elvis Presley.
By the time he hit high school, Buddy Holly was playing guitar; by 1953, when he was only 17, he was playing regularly on radio in the country-and-western duo Buddy and Bob (Bob was Bob Montgomery, a friend from elementary school). On February 13, 1955, at the Fair Park Coliseum in Lubbock, Buddy and Bob opened for Elvis—with Holly borrowing Presley’s Martin guitar for the occasion. The pair would open for Presley twice more that year.
2. "Peggy Sue" was originally "Cindy Lou."
The single, released on September 20, 1957, first carried the moniker of Holly’s niece, Cindy Lou Kaiter. But Jerry Allison, The Crickets’s drummer who co-wrote the song (with Holly and Norman Petty), prevailed upon the others to name it after his girlfriend, Peggy Sue Gerron. Happy ending: Allison and Peggy Sue got married. Unhappy: they divorced in 1965.
“Peggy Sue” hit number three on the Billboard singles chart, and in 2011 Rolling Stone ranked it 197th on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
3. "Rock & roll as we know it wouldn't exist without Buddy Holly."
The source of the above quote is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which should know. But their opinion is widely shared. Bruce Eder, writing at AllMusic.com, called Holly “the single most influential creative force in early rock & roll.” In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked him 13th on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”—extraordinary, especially when you consider that he died at age 22, after a recording career that lasted less than two years.
4. He had just one number one hit.
It’s hard to imagine, because so many Buddy Holly singles are classics, but only one topped the U.S. charts: “That’ll Be The Day,” in 1957. It also hit the top spot in England, and not long after, The Quarrymen covered it, in their first recording. You can hear it on The Beatles Anthology.
5. If not for Holly's band, The Crickets, there would be no Beatles.
John, Paul, George, and Stu Sutcliffe (who played bass for the band during the Hamburg days) were all huge Buddy Holly fans. When trying to come up with a new name for their band (The Quarrymen, their original name after the school they went to, was growing long in the tooth), they thought of the Crickets. Then insects. Then beetles. Then eventually, after several variations, as a pun … Beatles.
"It was beat and beetles, and when you said it people thought of crawly things, and when you read it, it was beat music,” John Lennon explained in 1964.
6. He turned down Ed Sullivan.
Well, the third time, at least. In 1957 and 1958, Holly and the Crickets were workaholics on the fast track, touring constantly and recording whenever they had a chance. They played on Ed Sullivan’s popular variety show twice, but, before the latter appearance, had a disagreement with Sullivan, who said they shouldn't play “Oh Boy!” (he thought it was too rowdy). They played it anyway, with great success. When they were invited back to play the TV marquee again, “Buddy told Sullivan’s people to forget it. The Lubbock boys didn’t need him anymore,” Robert Draper wrote in Texas Monthly.
Holly and Sullivan had clashed during the show’s rehearsal. Holly’s band went AWOL, temporarily. “I guess the Crickets are not too excited to be on The Ed Sullivan Show,” the host said. “I hope they’re damn more excited than I am,” Holly replied.
7. His glasses made him a fashion trendsetter.
When Holly started out, he wore nondescript plastic and wire-framed glasses, but his eye doctor—inspired by Phil Silvers’s character, “Sergeant Bilko”—convinced him to switch to horn-rimmed models. These would soon become popularized as “Buddy Holly Glasses.” “It was Buddy’s perception that the glasses helped make him,” his optometrist, Dr. J. Davis Armistead, said. “He was really pleased.”
He needed the glasses, because he had 20/800 vision.
If you’re ever in Lubbock and want to find the Buddy Holly Center, just look for a giant pair of horn-rimmed glasses: A 5-foot tall, 13-foot wide, 750-pound sculpture of the glasses, created by Lubbock artist Steve Teeters, was installed there in 2002.
8. He was the prototypical singer-songwriter.
Before Holly came along, pop music performance and songwriting were, for the most part, separate businesses; composers crafted tunes in places like New York’s Brill Building, and performers picked from among those songs to record and sing in concert. But Holly and the Crickets wrote most of their own material, which didn’t go unnoticed by the next generation of rock and rollers. “The fact that the group relied on originals for their singles made them unique and put them years ahead of their time,” Bruce Eder wrote at Billboard.com, noting that the group’s first three big hits—"That’ll Be The Day," "Oh Boy!," and "Peggy Sue"—were originals, a stark contrast to Elvis Presley, who didn't write his own tunes.
9. He "discovered" Waylon Jennings.
Holly and Jennings had met in Lubbock, Texas, their hometown, and Holly took Jennings under his wing. Among other things, Holly set up Jennings’s first recording session—and played guitar on two songs laid down that day, "Jole Blon" and "When Sin Stops (Love Begins)."
After the Crickets broke up in late 1958, Holly recruited guitarist Tommy Allsup, drummer Carl Bunch, and Jennings to form his new band. (Jennings played electric bass.) The four would be the headline act on the “Winter Dance Party” tour of the Midwest, which began on January 23, 1959. The acts traveled the 24-city route by bus, but the brutally cold weather and long distances between nightly gigs proved to be such a problem that Holly chartered a plane from a tour date in Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo, North Dakota, which was close to the next scheduled venue.
It was a small plane, and Jennings originally had one of the seats, but gave his spot to J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper).
The plane crashed in a windy snowstorm shortly after takeoff, killing Holly, Richardson, and Ritchie Valens, along with the pilot. The “Winter Dance Party” tour continued, without its headliners—with Jennings singing Holly’s vocals.
Jennings felt guilty about the accident for the rest of his life. As he told the story in Waylon: An Autobiography, before the plane took off, he and Holly had bantered: "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up,” Holly said, to which Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes.
10. The "widowed bride" referenced in Don McLean's "American Pie" was Holly's wife.
Don McLean’s 1971 classic is all about that fateful plane crash. In the third verse, he sings, “I can't remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride.”
The bride was María Elena Holly (née Santiago), who Buddy wed just two weeks after meeting her at a music publisher in New York, where she worked. She was pregnant when he died, but suffered a miscarriage a few days later. Santiago-Holly still controls much of the continuing business related to Holly’s music, but doesn’t own the songs—they’re held by Paul McCartney.
In 2009, Santiago-Holly told MassLive.com that she liked “American Pie” but disagreed with its central premise. "Buddy may not be here, but the music has not died," she said. "It is still alive and well."
This article originally ran in 2016.