Today in the Wall Street Journal (go here) I review Rave On Buddy Holly, an album that will be released this coming Tuesday. It pairs 19 contemporary and established rock artists with songs associated with rock's least-known and most misunderstood founder. The result is expressionistic and interpretive, much in the way that If I Were a Carpenter (A&M) was when the CD was released in 1994. On that album, artists like the Cranberries, Sheryl Crow and Cracker took a shot at Richard and Karen's early '70s catalog.
While researching the Holly tribute album, it was fascinating to revisit the singer-songwriter's original hits and rarities. What I rediscovered along the way was just how dynamic and moody his music was and remains. Holly was from Lubbock, Texas, and was somewhere between Western Swing and cowboy. After seeing Elvis Presley in concert, Holly decided to adapt his style to rock 'n' roll, forming the Crickets in 1957. That'll Be the Day was the group's first hit, and it went to No. 1.
Holly registered 40 original songs with ASCAP and BMI, and his voice could swing easily from rockabilly (Maybe Baby) to pop (True Love Ways) without ever sounding forced or gooey.
Yet Holly is still unfamiliar to most people. Much of this distance is the result of a scarcity of Holly footage, his brief career, and his geeky image, which was less overtly sexual than the brands developed by Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley.
For the short two-year period Holly was around, he was a major mover and shaker. Much of his material is clean, focused on romance rather than barbed double entendres. He also pioneered the setup that most rock groups later adapted—two electric guitars, bass and drums. His songs—both melodies and lyrics—were remarkably Spartan and well crafted. They were at once sophisticated and simple. Consider Take Your Time and Fool's Paradise.
As an artist, Holly's twangy guitar playing was both hill and hip, and his voice was warm and stretched, adding a restless component to his music. And while his look was geeky—with oversized black glasses and hayride suit jackets—there was something contemporary and everyman about him. While most rockers were take-chargers who called the shots with women, Holly came across as a vulnerable soul who women naturally wanted to take care of.
He's the inspiration for the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, the Hollies and so many other bands and artists who came after Holly was already gone.
As most people know, Holly died in an air crash in the early morning hours of February 3, 1959. Rather than take the tour bus booked by the rock 'n' roll show he had signed on with, Holly chartered a plane to fly from Iowa to the tour's next stop in Minnesota. Performers Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) hitched a ride. The plane lifted off in bitter-cold weather and crashed minutes after lift off, killing all on board.
While rock's other originators went off in different flamboyant directions, leveraging their rambunctiousness and independence as a commercial asset, Holly's golly-gee purity remains frozen in time, untouched by the shifting sands of rock and pop that followed in the '60s. What you have in Holly is rock's core—youthful exuberance, uncertain innocence and songs about what teens still care about most: love.
JazzWax tracks: Rave On Buddy Holly (by Fantasy/Concord) features 19 artists interpreting Holly's songs. The list includes Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe, Graham Nash, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and a range of newer artists with whom you may not be familiar. You'll find it at iTunes and here.
If Buddy Holly's music grabs you, there are two collections that are must owns. The first is Down the Line: The Rarities (Geffen), which features 59 tracks starting when Holly was a teen singing on the radio in Texas. You'll find the collection here. The other is Buddy Holly: The Definitive Collection (Geffen). You'll find it here. Both have been remastered.
JazzWax clips: Here's Buddy Holly and the Crickets on the Arthur Murray Dance Party in December 1957...
Here's home movie footage of Holly...
And here's footage and stills from the crash site on February 3, 1959...