Buddy Holly tragedy still leaves us wondering: 'What if?'


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Staff member
Apr 24, 2008
Buddy Holly tragedy still leaves us wondering: 'What if?'

By Jimmy Patterson
Online Editor MyWestTexas.com

Published: Saturday, January 31, 2009 10:07 PM CST

The singer's impact was felt around the world and begs the question: What if he hadn't died in that plane crash 50 years ago?

What if?

It boggles the mind to think of what might have been. What could have become reality had Buddy Holly not died in a plane crash in a cornfield 50 years ago on Tuesday.

What if? Considering what the Lubock born-and-raised singer did in such an incredibly short period of time — he was 22 when he died and was only able to enjoy 18 months of fame before he died on impact when his Beechcraft Bonanza plowed into farmland outside of Clearlake, Iowa, killing not only Holly, but Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and the plane’s pilot.

Bill Griggs thinks he knows what would have become of Holly, and that’s where the ‘What If’ part comes so much into play. Griggs, who has devoted much of his life to chronicling Holly’s time on earth, says it was possible that the recording industry, when it moved from New York to Hollywood in the 1960s, would have stopped in Lubbock. After all, Griggs notes, Holly had purchased property and obtained blueprints of an eight-bedroom recording studio to encourage young musicians to record at what could have become a major record label. (The bedrooms were to convince the musicians who would come to the studio that they could take their time; Holly’s studio would be on the musicians’ clock, not the label’s).

If only the plane hadn’t crashed and taken a brilliant musician with a keen ear for what made a good rock ‘n’ roll record. A man so innovative and important that when Beatle John Lennon walked on stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater for the Fab Four’s historic appearance, he asked the show’s producers, “Is this where Buddy Holly stood?”

The George Washington of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Elvis was a showman and the Beatles changed the course of rock music, but Buddy Holly paved the way for the Beatles. Author and Lubbock native Chris Oglesby goes so far as to say Holly’s greatest legacy was the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, both of whom consider the Lubbock musician a major influence. The Stones’ first record was “Not Fade Away,” a song that never saw its way onto the charts for Holly. The Beatles were named after Holly’s band, The Crickets.

Holly was the first artist to gain control over his musical creations in the recording studio. He not only sang, but he wrote what he sang and he played a mean Fender Stratoscaster. He was the consummate rock musician, and everywhere you turn, musicians then and now point to the inspiration they received from him for jump starting their careers.

“Elvis was a charismatic performer and will always be the King of Rock and Roll. Buddy Holly is most certainly its George Washington,” said Oglesby, author of “Fire in the Water, Earth in the Sky,” a book about the abundance of musicians who have come out of the Hub City. Buddy gave voice to all the outcasts, misfits, artists, dreamers, shakers, wailers and moaners of the world who said if goofy ol’ Buddy Holly could make it as a star, they could do it, too. As Paul McCartney of Liverpool, England, said, ‘Buddy Holly gave you confidence. He was the boy next door.’ ”

The Day the Music Died

Griggs remembers clearly driving in his father’s convertible in his Connecticut hometown that February 1959 afternoon.

“I had the top down and the radio on and the station was playing something I didn’t like so I twisted it over to WPOP,” Griggs said. “They were playing ‘That’ll Be The Day.’ The DJ came out of the song and said, ‘That is yet another song by the late, great Buddy Holly who died today in a plane crash.’”

Griggs said there were no tears. Just shock.

“Our heroes aren’t supposed to die,” he said. “And it was the first major music tragedy that we had. When I went back to school, the kids were all saying, ‘Did you hear what happened?’ We were just all in a state of shock.”

Holly’s British Invasion

Holly’s similarities with other teens helped propel him onto the music scene but he was even bigger — and remains bigger — in England. Amazingly, as innovative and inspirational as he was to musicians and teens alike, he had just one No. 1 hit (“That’ll be the Day”). “Peggy Sue” gave Holly only his second Top 10 hit in America, though he had three others — “Oh, Boy!” (No. 10), “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (No. 13) and “Maybe Baby” (No. 17) — that climbed into the Top 20. Only three addiitonal Holly songs would make the Billboard Top 40 in his brief career, but in England, Holly charted 22 songs in the Top 40. The list of songs that did not make it into the Top 40 — songs that many rock music fans have never even heard — is maybe even more impressive than the songs that did make it.

“We’re fickle about our entertainers,” Griggs said. “Remember when Michael Jackson came along? He was it for awhie, until Madonna came, and then she was it, until the next person came along. Brits have always loved Buddy Holly.”

And that’s no exaggeration. Just last week, Griggs took a busload of Britons on a 4 1/2 hour tour of Lubbock, visiting The Buddy Holly Center, the singer’s statue at the Lubbock Civic Center, the homes where he lived and the gravesite in the Lubbock Cemetery where he is buried.

“The Brits like him much more than we do,” Griggs said.

Buddy meets Elvis

Holly’s mark may be lost on fickle audiences but not on true students of the culture. Or even on today’s twentysomethings who heard the music coming out of their mom or dad’s stereo growing up, according to Jacquie Bober, director of The Buddy Holly Center on Lubbock’s East side.

“He was young and he did something that wasn’t popular with everyone — rock ‘n’ roll,” Bober said. “Once when Elvis was playing at the Coliseum in Lubbock, Buddy was able to talk to him and they shared a common interest and Buddy maybe thought ‘I could do that too.’ He had some really neat ideas, how to play the music and layer it. He was an innovator, a pioneer, and it’s neat to see how strong his influence was. He made a tour through Great Britain and people like Lennon and McCartney were influenced. On the Winter Dance Party in Minnesota Bob Dylan saw him. Waylon Jennings was influenced by him, and as long as he lived he credited Buddy as having a major influence in his lfe. The potential that was lost in that crash is really staggering.”

Griggs speculates that Valens would have gone on to be a major star — Holly felt he was an exceptional talent — and that The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) would have gone on to own a string of radio stations and who knows, continued to have novelty hits like “Chantilly Lace” and “White Lightning,” both of which he wrote.

Lubbock Holds Out for Buddy

It took a while for Lubbock to embrace Holly like Britain and the rest of America did. Reasons for that delayed acceptance vary. Some say it was because he played “the devil’s music” in the middle of the Bible Belt, but Peggy Sue Gerron, for whom the song “Peggy Sue” was named, said Lubbock and the Holley family always supported him. (Holly’s stage name was slightly different than his birth name due to the ‘e’ being dropped on the first record contract he signed).

Still, though, when “The Buddy Holly Story” was released in 1978, Gary Busey, who played the West Texas rocker and was in Dallas at the time, said he wanted to visit the Hub City the next day to see how they remembered Holly 20 years after his death. According to Griggs, at the time there was nothing. The Lubbock City Council, Griggs added, met in emergency session and designated an area of land as the Buddy Holly Recreation Area and a sign painter was literally woken up in the middle of the night to paint a sign. It was quickly stuck in the ground just before Busey’s plane landed.

Delayed affection or no by his hometown, it all comes back to Holly, what all he accomplished and changed in such a short time and the influence he had.

“Buddy Holly and the Crickets created the structure of the rock ‘n’ roll band as we know it,” Oglesby said. “a four-piece ensemble — two guitars, bass and drums, with a charismatic singer out front — writing and recording their own songs. This gave American popular music back to the people themselves. Before Buddy, the aritsts singing the songs were seldom the artists who wrote the songs, let alone the producers. Buddy Holly did it all and he showed young artists that it was possible and desirabe to do so. He’s a true American hero.”
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