CLOVIS – Buddy Holly would have been 80 years old this month, had his plane not crashed in that icy Iowa cornfield in 1959.
The accident killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
If rock ‘n’ roll’s DNA spirals from Memphis to Muscle Shoals, then heads north to Chicago’s Chess Records, its cradle may lie in the dusty plains of Clovis.
Twelve of Holly’s Top 10 hits were recorded at Norman Petty Studio, including classics like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “It’s So Easy,” “Rave On,” “Every Day,” “Maybe Baby,” “Not Fade Away,” “Oh Boy” and “True Love Ways.”
“Rock & roll as we know it wouldn’t exist without Buddy Holly,” reads his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography. The museum foundation included him in its first group of inductees, in 1986, and his guitar, suits and high school report card are on permanent display at the Cleveland museum.
“The Clovis sound was vital,” Hall of Fame education manager Kathryn Metz said in a telephone interview from Cleveland. “Norm Petty created a very unusual sound that in some ways has that ethereal influence of the desert. There’s this distortion he used that is very unique and identifiable.
“I think (Holly) did amazing things with his voice,” she continued. Petty “gave it this echo-y feel. The chord structure appears uncomplicated, but it’s not.”
Clovis served as the incubator for Holly’s sound. You can almost hear his trademark hiccups bouncing through the old Norm Petty Studios speakers.
The gangly guy with the tousled hair and horned-rim glasses grew up across the border in Lubbock, Texas, a mere 96 miles from Clovis.
A Nashville scout helped him get a contract with Decca Records. But the label rejected his “rockabilly” style. A Lubbock DJ told Holly about Petty’s studio, and he headed west with upright bassist Larry Welborn, drummer Jerry Allison and bassist Joe Mauldin. The trio formed the nucleus of the Crickets, an alias created so Holly could avoid potential legal issues with Decca.
No one but Holly could fracture the word “well” into eight syllables.
To walk into Petty’s stucco Seventh Street studio is to be engulfed in the spirit of rock history. Roy Orbison recorded there ( “Ooby Dooby,” 1957). Waylon Jennings recorded “Jole Blon” and “When Sin Stops (Love Begins)” with Holly and famed saxophonist King Curtis in 1958. The contents sit frozen in a vinyl-and-chrome time warp, complete with fat dangling microphones.
Visitors come from across the British Isles, Germany, France, Australia and Japan. Jeff Bridges stopped by while he was making this year’s “Hell or High Water.”
Framed by walls of black 45-rpm records, the tiny reception area once served as an isolation booth. The vintage, rounded red and white Coke machine stands in the corner.
“When ‘Peggy Sue’ was recorded, the drums were right here,” said Kenneth Broad, the studio’s caretaker. Broad was the business manager for Petty’s widow, Vi. He inherited the studio in 1992.
Petty, who died in 1984, was an exacting perfectionist whose perfect pitch allowed him to identify notes by ear. As for Holly, Petty once told an interviewer, “He was the most stubborn a critter I ever met in my life.”
Working with Buddy
Buddy Holly backup singer David Bigham arrived in Clovis from Memphis with Roy Orbison.
“They were driven, and they knew what they wanted,” Bigham said of the two stars. “We never used sheet music. We heard the song, and we knew exactly what to do with it.”
Now 79, Bigham sang with the vocal trio the Roses.
Broad queued up Holly’s “Think It Over” as Bigham warbled the trademark “ba ba bas” to Holly’s lead vocal.
Bigham received $23 per song.
“I think Norm Petty had a lot to do with his success,” Bigham said. “When you listen to his records, you can hear everything.
“On ‘Everyday,’ there’s no drums on that song,” he continued. “The drummer was out in the foyer slapping his hands and knees. Norm came in and said, ‘What are you doing?’
“Norm had the ability to take what you had and do something with it.”
Singer Homer Tankersley, owner of a Clovis men’s clothing store, also provided backup.
“Norm Petty and I were just like brothers,” he said. “They spent Christmas at our home. Buddy Holly was the main artist at that time.
Tankersley and the other musicians would head to a restaurant for a post-session bite. “We would joke around a lot,” he said. “He was nice to work with. He didn’t holler. He didn’t talk loud.”
Bigham and the Roses went on to tour with Holly. They had just finished his fall circuit when they learned of the singer’s death at 22. Holly chartered the plane because he and the band were tired of freezing on long bus trips between gigs. The plane crashed moments after takeoff.
“It was very devastating,” Bigham said.
When the news reached Clovis, Petty called in the singers to help handle the avalanche of phone calls.
The Beatles recorded Holly’s “Words of Love” in 1964. The same year, the Rolling Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away” became their first British Top 10 hit.
Holly would go on to infect the Hollies (obviously), Tom Petty and even Black Sabbath. Bruce Springsteen still plays “Rave On” to warm up before concerts.
Holly’s influence spans the world, the Rock Hall’s Metz said.
“There’s even a band called the Raveonettes that take their name from ‘Rave On’,” she said. “They’re like punk rock. They’re Danish.”
“I think almost any rock music is Buddy Holly,” she continued. “If you listen to the Ramones and listen to the Crickets and just speed it up, they sound the same. I think Elvis Costello has drawn the spirit of Buddy Holly. He channeled that look. I think Neko Case – her songwriting style has echoes of Buddy Holly,” she added.