Authors: Ellis Amburn
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PART ONE: BEGINNINGS
Prologue: Young Man in a Hurry
1. The Cradle Will Rock
2. KDAV’s “Sunday Party”
3. A Girl Named Echo
4. Elvis Meets Buddy
5. The Hillbilly Backlash
6. The Clovis Sessions
7. On the Road
PART TWO: STARDOM
8. Ed Sullivan
9. Life Beyond the United States
10. The Decline of Early Rock
11. Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
12. Sunset and Evening Star
13. “There’s Nobody Else to Do It”
PART THREE: LEGEND
15. The Days After
16. American Pie
17. Buddy’s Legacy: Exploitation, Distortion, and an Enduring Love
Epilogue: The Last Dance
Also by Ellis Amburn
To Cy Egan
Kindest and wisest of mentors
Prologue: Young Man in a Hurry
Lubbock, Texas, Palm Sunday, 1992
—The Tabernacle Baptist Church, where Buddy Holly was baptized in adolescence and eulogized at age twenty-two, is one of those severe “modern” structures built in the 1950s—shedlike, functional, and without religious ornamentation of any kind, not even a steeple. It could easily pass for a Holiday Inn. The Holley family—Buddy dropped the “e” on his first Decca contract—has come to pray in force today. In the pulpit, the short, red-faced preacher angrily harangues the congregation, denouncing “pip-squeak modernists” and insisting on a literal interpretation of every word in the Bible. In a pew on the right side of the church, a couple of teenagers are making out. The boy, in a punk buzzcut and Bugle Boy denims, pretends to follow the sermon as his girl surreptitiously runs her hand up the inside of his thigh. Bristling with life and energy, they seem to mitigate the words of the fusty, out-of-touch minister. Nothing has changed since the days when Buddy Holly sat squirming in these pews in the 1950s. The struggle between piety and the lure of hot sex is still very much alive.
After the service, Buddy’s brother, Larry, now sixty-four, rises from his pew. He is a tall, lanky cowpoke with Buddy’s intense brown eyes and wiry physique. He is cautious at first but warms up when I tell him, truthfully, that he looks about forty. We meet the following day at Holley Tiles, a tile-installation company, which he owns and operates. “Forget about that movie completely,” he says, dismissing
The Buddy Holly Story,
the 1978 film in which Gary Busey portrayed Buddy. “Put it completely out of your mind. That movie was completely erroneous. We were very disappointed in it.… I would advise people not to even see it. I don’t look at it anymore.” For the next few hours he tries to be honest about Buddy. “He wasn’t no saint by any means,” Larry begins. “He certainly wasn’t a goody-goody. He was a saint in the fact that he was a saved Christian. He accepted Christ as his savior when he was younger.”
From my talk with Larry, a picture of Buddy emerges that is radically different from the books, movies, and stage shows that have formed our impression of him. The true portrait is etched out by Larry and in my interviews with Buddy’s widow Maria Elena, Crickets Sonny Curtis and Niki Sullivan, and other musicians with whom he worked. Classmates, teachers, former juvenile delinquents and churchgoers, DJs, record people, groupies, and ordinary folk who saw Buddy play at teen hops in the fifties tell me during my trips across the country he was far different from the likable “dork” he appeared to be.
He was exactly the opposite. On the most basic, physical level, he was hardly the awkward geek that his amateurish, poorly lit promotional photos suggest. Duane Eddy, the twangy guitar rocker who appeared with him in 1958, once described Buddy as a “well-built” six-footer who had “wavy hair” and was “very good looking.” And Buddy’s innocent public image, carried like a sacred torch for over three decades now, is far from the whole story. He was an impetuous, reckless youth in a perpetual rush, and couldn’t wait to grow up and earn money. His adolescence was dotted with incidents of what was then called juvenile delinquency. He got into fights. He hung out with—and was protected by—a fearless young man who carried a chain and beat up anyone who bothered Buddy. His first sexual foray was not with a proverbial gum-chewing sweetheart who seduced him in the back of a pickup truck. The circumstances were far more Rabelaisian. There are even reports, though they are still disputed by some Holly experts, that he fathered an illegitimate offspring with a Lubbock teenager who liked to dance in juke joints.
As he moved further and further from the stifling strictures of his fundamentalist boyhood on the South Plains, he discovered—at the same time as did beat writer Jack Kerouac—the pleasures of New York. He became sexually adventurous, a moral outlaw in his time, not above mixing things up racially and bisexually. He romped in a little-known orgy with Little Richard—a no-no in the uptight, segregationist fifties. It was only a hint of things to come.
Buddy fit Norman Mailer’s description of “the white Negro,” which Mailer defined in his famous 1957
essay as a hipster poised on the boundaries of repression and freedom. While not avowedly political, fifties rock was revolutionary. It urged people to do whatever they wanted to do, even if it meant breaking the rules. The original rockers of the fifties and their relatively small following were on the cutting edge of their time, trailblazers not only of rock ’n’ roll but of the political and social revolutions of the sixties. Like so many of his generation, Buddy was transformed by rock ’n’ roll from a warbling C&W bluegrass country boy into an early Freedom Rider who went into a hostile South with a busload of black R&B stars. His relationship with black musicians became a powerful symbol of the fusion of R&B and rockabilly—the spark that ignited rock ’n’ roll as we know it today.
Discovering Buddy Holly at last as a flesh-and-blood human being, with all his flaws, does not make him any less attractive. Through all the drama of a short but eventful life, he remains one of the more appealing public figures of mid-century America. He was capable of heroically transcending his ingrained Texas prejudices, yet he remained loyal to family and friends. He was a tireless discoverer and supporter of then-new singers, like Waylon Jennings. As a friend he could be generous to a fault, yet crafty as a fox. In the music business, he was a gullible youth who was cheated out of a fortune. As a visionary, he established the basic rock-band lineup (two guitars, bass, and drums), expanded the parameters of rock to include string-drenched ballads, pioneered independent record deals, and started his own studio and publishing company. He was attracted to all sorts of women. He bedded his manager’s wife, whom some people considered a lesbian. He kept one of the Crickets waiting out on the street in New York while he “got it on” with a girl songwriter. He proposed to his wife, according to my 1993 interview with her, on their first date. The same spontaneity that made his life so tumultuous also infused his music with bursts of unbridled energy and invention, leading to a string of hit records and one of the seminal careers in rock.
As DJ Alan Freed said, Buddy was always in a hurry and wanted to be the first person to get anywhere. On the night of his death, his plane flew headlong into a snowstorm and crashed a few minutes later. Killed were Buddy, twenty-two, Ritchie Valens, seventeen, and the Big Bopper, twenty-eight. Popular culture has been fixated on that plane crash ever since. For those first introduced to rock in the fifties, Buddy’s death was a chilling experience. The death of a teenage legend was more shocking then than now, in the wake of the premature deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain, among many others. To millions, it will always feel as if Buddy was the first of their age group to die. Indeed, the crash of his Bonanza Beechcraft in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3, 1959, shocked a very naive generation into an awareness that it was not immortal. The event took on mythic proportions. It was a tragedy that came to personify the loss of innocence, just as Buddy’s music and fast-torqued falsetto captured that indescribable blend of joy, sweetness, and excitement that defined the end of the 1950s.
The early morning crash also marked the end of something else: the first extraordinary phase of rock ’n’ roll, the period from 1955 to 1959 during which the basic innovations were introduced by Buddy, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Death or misadventure claimed the founding fathers of rock, who were never to repeat the successes of those years. The Army drafted Elvis in his heyday, while religious fervor temporarily derailed Little Richard. The others fell rapidly too. Scandal damaged Jerry Lee’s reputation. The law unmercifully hounded Berry. A near-fatal car smashup sidetracked Perkins, and Buddy was forever silenced in a snowy cornfield.
Thirteen years later, the poignant phrase “the day the music died” came to be associated with Buddy’s death in “American Pie,” Don McLean’s haunting melody that summarized the history of rock in eight and a half minutes. “American Pie” mourned the passing of pure, danceable fifties rock ’n’ roll and its plunge in the following decade into drugs, satanism, and witchcraft. But in an even deeper sense, early rock was stymied not only by the stark disaster at Clear Lake, but by forces that had been trying to destroy it from the beginning. Terrified by its message of freedom, the establishment marshaled formidable forces—the church, the police, and the press—to discourage the young musicians and their audiences. Even the music industry seemed to turn against rock ’n’ roll, attempting to bury it in the payola scandal that ended the decade.
Buddy’s life is a story of exploitation, betrayal, and distortion—by his manager, by insensitive record business entrepreneurs, by tour packagers who sent him into the frozen North Woods in harrowing travel conditions, and by a film biography after his death that trivialized the complex realities of the artist’s life. His fatal Mason City-to-Fargo flight has a frightening parallel in the present-day controversy over commuter planes, which are not regulated as strictly as commercial airlines. If I seem heartlessly graphic in my description of the catastrophic crushing wounds sustained by Buddy, Ritchie, the Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson in the crash of their small aircraft, it is to draw attention to the fact that safety reforms are still overdue.
* * *
While Elvis Presley was worshiped as a sex idol, people reserved a special love for Buddy Holly. He mirrored the ordinary teenager and symbolized both the guilelessness of the era and its repression and conformity. In his square suits and Slim Jim ties, he looked like an honor student who made A’s in algebra, but when he went onstage and blasted off with “Oh Boy,” the anchors of the past no longer held. His music marked a tumultuous end of the sedate Eisenhower years. From Buddy the burgeoning youth culture received rock’s message of freedom, which presaged the dawn of a decade of seismic change and liberation. Buddy was above all a product of the time—the decade of the Cold War, the H-bomb, and tragic anti-heroes such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe. He embodied as much as they did the central conflict of the fifties—conformity with establishment values versus individuality and rebellion. While he wore leather and rode a motorcycle, he was a devout fundamentalist Christian, hounded by a puritanical conscience that condemned rock as evil. Perhaps it was this innate contradiction that made him so great.
The songs Buddy wrote and sang are among the most original and ecstatic rock would ever know. They helped shape the new musical genre of rock ’n’ roll. He became the model for countless singer-songwriters, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan and Elton John. As Keith Richards pointed out, it was Buddy who first demonstrated that the most exciting rock comes from bands performing their own material. With songs like “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” Buddy influenced the music and lifestyles of generations to come. He put the hiccup in Bob Dylan’s singing style and the falsetto in the Beatles’ hits and made horn-rim glasses and Edwardian elegance hip. His use of echo chambers, overdubbing, syllable-shattering scats, and high-flying trills gave rock ’n’ roll many of its trademark sounds.
In Lubbock I heard people say that God killed Buddy Holly to prevent the spread of rock ’n’ roll. Their beliefs, of course, are formed by the hand of fundamentalism, for his music died only to be resurrected and played back to us a few years later by the Beatles, whose popularity spread the Buddy Holly sound to every corner of the globe. That some of the persons close to Buddy could make statements such as “Sometimes the Lord snuffs people out when He sees He’s not going to get any more good out of them. I have felt like that might have been the case with Buddy,” indicates the kind of conflict Buddy overcame in order to help establish rock ’n’ roll as the most dominant musical form of the last half of the twentieth century. It explains, too, the suffering that underlies his darker-hued ballads, such as “Learning the Game,” written only days before his death. Gigantic as his achievement was, we barely glimpsed the dawn of his talent.
This book completes my trilogy, begun in 1990 with
Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story
and continued in
Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin,
on the Texas roots of rock ’n’ roll. Holly, Orbison, and Joplin all grew up in Texas in the fifties—a scene every bit as steamy and sexual as Larry McMurtry portrayed in
The Last Picture Show.
Roy’s hometown, Wink, was a wild and woolly oil camp. Port Arthur, where Janis lived, was a sailor’s port known for its rollicking whorehouses. Lubbock, the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” where Buddy was born in 1936, has a Pentagon-sized church in the middle of town, testimony that religion is the overpowering fact of life here. But despite its pious façade, Lubbock’s population of 230,000 seems more hot and bothered than virtually anything I encountered in either Port Arthur or Wink. While their fundamentalist religion makes the good burghers of Lubbock at first appear to be straitlaced, beneath the veneer they’re as untamed and dangerous as the Lubbock weather. It’s easy to see why rock ’n’ roll as we know it started here. Perhaps repression breeds such things.
Tornadoes were zigzagging across the South Plains as I explored the city in the spring of 1992. Most of the downtown area had been leveled by a tornado on May 11, 1970, and when Lubbock was rebuilt, a statue of Buddy was erected in front of the new Civic Center. Bill Griggs, the amiable founder of the Buddy Holly Memorial Society, takes me on a tour of the inner city, now a bleak and desolate slum. We pause before 1911 Sixth Street, where Buddy was born in one of the worst years of the Great Depression. It’s now a vacant lot, full of rattlesnakes, the house having been condemned by the city in 1977 and hauled out beyond the city limits. No one seems to know where it is.
Three blocks down is the garage apartment where Jerry Allison, Buddy’s drummer, and Peggy Sue Gerron lived after they got married. Nearby, at University and Second, is the roller rink where the Crickets played; the art deco brick structure still stands but today houses Bell Dairy, an ice-cream warehouse. Across the railroad tracks is Tommy’s Burgers, where one of Lubbock’s three Hi-D-Ho Drive-ins once stood. The Hi-D-Ho was a favorite hangout of Buddy’s. One night in 1957, just after the release of “That’ll Be the Day,” Buddy and the Crickets climbed on top of the drive-in and serenaded dozens of kids in parked cars. The only Hi-D-Ho that survives today is located in a shabby strip mall at 6419 University Avenue. Buddy’s niece, Sherry Holley, greets me warmly and slaps a Hidy Burger on the grill for me. She serves it in a tight pocket of wax paper that keeps it piping hot. The incredibly fresh, soft bun is packed with a thin, pancake-sized patty of succulent ground beef, minced onions, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise—a classic Texas hamburger, one of the finest I’ve ever eaten.
“Uncle Buddy used to hold me and serenade me when I was little,” Sherry says. “He sang me my first lullabye.” Sherry’s a pretty woman in her thirties and she has those bright brown Holley eyes. She also has a melodic country singer’s voice, as I learn when I listen to her album
Don’t Say Hello; Say Hi-D-Ho.
She shows me a picture of Buddy and her sitting around a campfire in Colorado in 1955. He’s nothing like the familiar nerd in the Crickets’ publicity still—grinning and toying with his bow tie, looking like a cross between Archie, Henry Aldridge, and Dagwood Bumstead. In the campfire photo, he’s a handsome, broad-shouldered teenager whose face, in the orange glow of the fire, is luminous and serene.
In probing deeper into’s Buddy’s intimate life than previous writers have attempted, I have uncovered personal details that are the key to the man and his music. I have tried to portray Buddy as he truly was: bright, quick, visionary, torn by internal polarities—at once willful and submissive, impatient and long-suffering, independent yet always clinging to stronger personalities. Like Jack Kerouac he was a young man in a hurry. He was plagued by a fire in the belly, which he tried to quench, but only succeeded in tamping down with the fast times and high spirits of the rock ’n’ roll life.
Buddy was a complex human being with a river of talent coursing through his veins. That is what comes home to me as I stand at his grave in the Lubbock cemetery, which is located between an automobile junkyard and a grain elevator, under a vast blue Texas sky. Musical notes and a guitar decorate his granite gravestone. Nearby stands a stone angel with cupped hands that are full of buzzing bees, a ready-made tableau of both the tranquillity and the manic impetuousness that made up Buddy’s character. It was his frenetic, hard-rocking songs as well as the late ballads that are so tough, mournful, and wise that transformed the agonies and joys of his brief days into lasting art.
The Cradle Will Rock
“We all sorta spoiled him, because he was so much younger than the rest of us,” says Larry Holley. When Buddy was born in 1936, Larry was already ten years old and the other Holley children, Travis and Patricia, were nine and seven, respectively. Sex was a forbidden subject in Baptist families, so Larry didn’t even suspect his parents, Ella, thirty-four and L.O., thirty-five, were expecting a baby until a friend told him. Hurt and bewildered by his parents’ silence, Larry was so confused that he began to cry. The Holleys were a poor, decent family of hard-shell Baptists; Buddy would be the first of them to graduate from high school. His father, L. O. Holley, was a laborer who sometimes earned as little as $12 a week, going from job to job, toiling as a cook, carpenter, construction worker, car salesman, and clerk in a men’s clothing store.
Buddy was born September 7, Labor Day, in the family’s white-frame house at 1911 Sixth Street in Lubbock. The day had dawned cloudy and overcast, but by the time Buddy arrived a gentle, southerly wind was blowing across the South Plains. Born at the end of an age when the bedroom still served as the delivery room, Charles Hardin Holley was named after both grandparents. Mostly of English and Welsh descent, Buddy also had Indian blood from a grandfather who was one-fourth Cherokee. The Cherokees, originally from North Carolina and Georgia, had been forced to resettle in Oklahoma after a brutal march along what came to be known as “The Trail of Tears.” Among their illustrious sons was the great humorist Will Rogers, who made America laugh during the Depression. Rogers died in the crash of a small airplane just a year before Buddy was born. He came from Claremore, Oklahoma, about four hundred miles from Lubbock. Of his Cherokee heritage he once quipped, “My ancestors didn’t come over in the
they met the boat.”
Lawrence Odell Holley, Buddy’s father, came from a farm near Honey Grove, a town in Fannin County near the Oklahoma border in northeast Texas. In his youth L.O. moved two hundred miles westward across the state to Vernon, a town situated on the Old Chisholm Trail, where he found work as a short-order cook. He met Ella Pauline Drake and they were married in 1924. Ella’s parents had decided to move to Lubbock, 150 miles west of Vernon, where the construction of Texas Tech had opened up new jobs. There was also the promise of work in the sprawling cotton fields of West Texas. In 1925 L.O. and Ella Holley moved to Lubbock, settling in a rented house and moving to a different place almost every year. Larry was born in 1925, Travis in 1927, and Patricia in 1929.
The family was still poor when Buddy arrived. The Great Depression, described by John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel
The Grapes of Wrath,
lingered much longer in the Southwest—well into the 1940s—than in the rest of the nation. When Buddy was still very small, his mother said his given name of Charles Hardin Holley was “too long for such a small boy.” So she nicknamed him Buddy. He grew into a smiling towheaded charmer, the pet of the family. The Holley home was intensely musical, one that resounded with country-and-western songs and Protestant hymns. As soon as Buddy was old enough to carry a tune, his mother taught him “Have You Ever Gone Sailing on the River of Memories.” In 1941, when he was five, he won a $5 contest singing the song at County Line, a rural school, accompanying himself on the violin.
Later the same year, on December 7, World War II began, robbing him of both his brothers, Larry and Travis, who joined the Marines and went off to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Buddy entered the first grade in 1943 at Roscoe Wilson Elementary and quickly found he didn’t like to study—nor did he need to. When he brought home his first report card, it was full of A’s. “He was the first of the Holley children to excel scholastically,” says Larry.
Even so, he preferred the outdoors, which are nowhere grander or more alluring than the wide-open spaces of West Texas. He spent the summer of 1944 horseback riding, hunting, and fishing on his Uncle Jud’s farm with his cousin from New Mexico, Sam Modrall, whose mother was Ella Holley’s twin sister. Nights he sat in front of the radio with his parents tensely listening to war news. Travis was with the Marine Corps’ 4th Division when it stormed ashore on Iwo Jima on February 18, 1945. “Right after Iwo Jima we were in Hawaii,” Travis later told writer William J. Bush. There a shipmate with a $15 Harmony guitar got Travis hooked on the instrument. Throughout the war, soldiers from Texas had been spreading C&W all over the globe. Everywhere from Piccadilly Circus to Pearl Harbor people were singing “You Are My Sunshine” and “San Antonio Rose,” wartime megahits that launched the crossover phenomenon that would vitalize the pop scene for decades to come. When the war ended later in 1945, Travis brought his guitar home and taught Buddy how to play.
Later Buddy got his own guitar, an acoustic Epiphone, and “made a clean sound,” says Larry, who had managed to make it home from the war safely. “I would have swore it was another instrument entirely—the way he pressed down on it,” adds Larry. Soon Buddy progressed to banjo and mandolin, applying a driving attack on any instrument he took up. His singing was equally spirited. One day the family heard him belting “Love Sick Blues,” a difficult tune full of vocal somersaults. Though his voice hadn’t changed yet, he managed every trick and turn of the 1949 No. 1 hit that heralded to Buddy the arrival of C&W’s greatest star, Hank Williams, Sr., who became Buddy’s musical model. Williams and Holly, by age only separated by thirteen years, by sound a great deal more, had in common a passion for breaking and twisting words into almost as many fragments as Handel, making them spin and loop to the delight of the listener. Before his thirtieth year, Hank Williams, Sr., would die, of alcoholism, on New Year’s Day 1953.
Buddy’s idol in every other respect was his brother Larry, whom Buddy seemed to cling to, perhaps because his mother and father were growing old and showed little understanding of the particularly treacherous adolescent years Buddy was entering. Larry let Buddy tag along, although Larry was far more interested in chasing girls and soon found and married the woman of his dreams, Maxine. When they went on a camping trip to the Red River, Buddy not only came along but insisted on sleeping between them when coyote howls alarmed him at night.
In the years just before adolescence, from ten to twelve, Buddy was the star of his class—a cute, lovable show-off. Lois Keeton, the playground director, adored his “infectious laugh. He just bubbled all over,” she remembers. “He was a good-lookin’ little fellow at ten, just as cute as he could be, but very small.” He was also clever, quick, and sly. Lois, who always wore huge dark sunglasses in the glaring Texas sun, taught him to play Canasta. After he won every game for a month, she inquired, “How is it you manage to beat me every time?”
“Because I can see your hand in your big black sunglasses,” he replied.
Still financially strapped, the Holleys experienced little of the prosperity that others enjoyed in the years following the Depression. To make ends meet, they moved outside the Lubbock city limits in 1946, to the less expensive Loftland Addition. Ineligible to attend city schools, Buddy transferred to suburban Roosevelt Elementary and had to ride the bus twenty miles daily. When he was twelve he could tell from the way girls flirted with him that he was the most popular kid in class. At one point, he peroxided his hair, and looked a little like Marlon Brando in
The Young Lions.
At an age awkward for most kids, he turned out to be at the peak of his physical attractiveness. So much so that in 1948, his classmates voted him and a girl named Barbara Denning “King and Queen of the Sixth Grade.” On the school bus, everyone gathered around when he played his Epiphone guitar and sang Bill Monroe’s “Gotta Travel On.” One day classmate Wayne Maines brought his guitar and they performed duets on the bus, singing C&W hits such as “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and “Born to Lose.” Wayne was more advanced in his guitar playing but Buddy quickly soaked up everything he knew and left his classmate far behind.
Buddy’s guitar playing progressed with such remarkable speed that his family was astonished at his proficiency and individual style, and by the fact that he’d memorized the words to all the traditional Texas cowboy songs, such as “Home on the Range” and “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” Like Williams, he was deeply influenced by the spiritual sound of the old country church. He loved Mahalia Jackson’s “Move On Up a Little Higher.” The Baptist gospel singer with the deep, emotion-drenched voice, astonishing control, and awesome inflections was Buddy’s introduction to the glories of black music. Adapting both Jackson’s and Hank Williams’s bizarre vocal feats, Buddy learned to mimic Williams’s yodel-like falsetto and the elaborate jazz spins Mahalia had picked up while marching in New Orleans funeral parades as a child. He blended in his own vocal tricks, which included hiccuping or stuttering in the middle of a word or stretching it until he shattered it to pieces. The word “Well,” for example, became the multisyllabic “Weh-eh-eh-eh-el.”
In 1949, when Buddy was thirteen, the Holley family moved back to Lubbock, renting a house at 3315 Thirty-sixth Street. The move provided him with an introduction into a faster, more socially aggressive world. He entered J. T. Hutchinson Junior High School and met Bob Montgomery, Don Guess, and Jerry Allison, precocious musicians who played important roles in his life for years to come. A multitalented youth just a year Buddy’s junior, Don Guess could play stand-up bass and steel guitar and was beginning to write songs. From Lampasas, Texas, dark-haired Bob Montgomery could play guitar and sing C&W and rhythm and blues.
R&B, the precursor of rock ’n’ roll, was the creation of black musicians and was known as “race records” or—in Texas in the late forties—“nigger music.” Buddy Holley was racially prejudiced in his youth but overcame it, his brother Larry revealed in a 1992 interview. This family secret, heretofore unknown, emerged as Larry recounted Buddy’s falling out with a famous bluegrass singing star in 1958. The star had “a bigoted attitude, like Buddy used to be,” Larry said. It was in Buddy’s adolescence, as he listened to R&B on Gatemouth Page’s radio program on KWKH from Shreveport, Louisiana, that he began to question his racial intolerance. How could he be better than anyone who left him so far behind musically, in the dust of simplistic hillbilly and bluegrass? Blacks were cool. Their music was dirtier than sin, with titles like “It’s Not the Meat, It’s the Motion,” “Sixty Minute Man,” and “Big Long Slidin’ Thing.” Unlike the segregated whites at Tabernacle Baptist, blacks knew the score. He wanted to be like them. So he shed those bigoted Texas ways.
Bluegrass has been called C&W in overdrive, and Buddy and Bob cooked up a sensational act around it—a combustible mix of R&B and bluegrass that sometimes shocked the staid Protestants of the prairie. Buddy’s mother later told Bill Griggs that Buddy and Bob were “big hams … [W]here there are two, there is more enthusiasm and push.” By 1949 they were making home recordings such as a cover of Hank Snow’s “My Two Timin’ Woman,” using equipment that a friend who worked in a local electronics store temporarily “borrowed.”
In 1950 when they were in the eighth grade, Buddy and Bob scandalized half of Lubbock by singing a notorious C&W novelty song, “Too Old to Cut the Mustard,” at a PTA open-house program. Jerry Allison, a transfer student from Plainview, Texas, who was a grade below Buddy, heard them sing the suggestive Jumping Bill Carlisle tune and was “really impressed,” he later recalled, by Buddy’s gutsy singing and guitar playing. Jerry had been playing drums since the fifth grade. One day he asked Buddy to come home with him after school and played Fats Domino’s record “Goin’ to the River.” When Buddy heard rock ’n’ roll, he saw his future; it was as if the heavens had opened. But it was more than just the music. From that moment on, Buddy identified closely with blacks. At first Buddy just wanted to be uninhibited, black from the waist down—hip, cool, sexy, and rhythmic. Later this would become the essence of his whole being and culminate in the most important relationship of his life—an interracial marriage. Fortunately, Buddy’s moral development out of prejudice started early, freeing him for personal and artistic growth. Ultimately, all Americans are defined by the attitude they take toward race; until that is right, nothing can be right.
Though he was coming of age in a segregated town before the beginning of the civil rights movement, Buddy identified with blacks so much that when he acquired his first cat, he named it after Booker T. Washington, the founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and the first published black author. The small black kitten began life as “Booker T” but eventually became known simply as “Booker.”
When Buddy’s first sexual urges hit during his junior high school years, he was thrown into confusion. Tabernacle Baptist had taught him that sexual desire without marriage was evil. His parents, typically reticent Baptists, were no help. “I was ten years older than Buddy, and he looked to me for a lot of his fathering,” Larry says. “He had his ornery side and his good side.” When asked in a 1992 interview how Buddy learned the facts of life, Larry responds, “I just talked to him a little bit about it. I was more wild myself than I should have been at that time.”
Buddy broke out of his Baptist shell in his teens when he began to disobey his parents and stay out late, hanging out with his gang in front of the Tech Café, smoking, and drinking. Friends from that period say they “stole, cussed, and chased little ol’ girls.” Around the time his drinking began, Buddy sprouted an ulcer. Since he and his friends were underage, they depended on the older boys in the group to acquire the beer, and they’d split a quart between five or six people. A quart of bootleg cost about three dollars.
Buddy smoked Winstons. A photograph taken of him at the time shows a pack of Salems clearly visible through the transparent material of his shirt pocket, but he only smoked menthols when he had a cold. Occasionally he bummed unfiltered Camels from his boyhood friend Tinker Carlen, but “choked to death on them,” Tinker remembers. The older boys had cars and often drove to Mexico in groups looking for a good time. They returned from Acuña or Ojinaga complaining of “crotch crickets”—crabs—and the clap. “I went down and got fucked for
” one of them remembers in 1992. “She got the pesos and I got the dose.”
Buddy’s first sexual encounter was a “gang bang.” For many young men growing up in West Texas in the fifties, this was a common rite of passage to sexual maturity. For Buddy Holley, it was a significant turning point, marking his transformation from God-fearing Baptist boy into prototypical fifties teen rebel. Tinker Carlen described the gang bang in a 1992 interview in Lubbock. He and Buddy were with several other boys one night when they spotted a girl standing in front of Tom Halsey’s Pharmacy on the corner of Broadway and Avenue K. “She just had on a little halter top and a pair of Levi britches,” Tinker recalls.
In the fifties, at least in West Texas, such girls were not prostitutes. They were just rebellious, and they sometimes came from the families of the clergy, high school teachers, doctors, or other prominent local citizens. When they became pregnant, as they frequently did, they had to drop out of school and were often sent into permanent exile by their parents, to live with relatives in distant cities such as Galveston or Houston.
“We drove by in a car and there was six boys of us in there,” Tinker remembers. “We was out lookin’, because Buddy hadn’t been to bed with anybody and wondered what it was like.… Back then they called it gang bangin’. There was very few little ol’ gals who’d put out and the ones that did, you could really bang ’em.
“One guy was on the rough side. He’d been used to all this wild and reckless stuff. Back then we didn’t call it ‘gettin’ laid’; we said, ‘We’re going to get him bred.’ We stopped at the Hi-D-Ho to get a Coke or something. Over here by Fourth Street, there’s this little underpass and all of us old boys got out and in underneath a little bridge there.”
The more experienced boys took the girl one by one. Tinker remembers that Buddy was uncircumcized and “had to skin it back to pee.” When the other boys had finished and it was Buddy’s turn, he said, “How do I do it?” Tinker says. Evidently Buddy figured it out by the time he joined the girl in the car. “He quickly became so passionate he started kissing the girl,” Tinker recalls, “and one of the boys stuck his head in the window and poked Buddy in the ass with a cotton stalk. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘are you a pervert or something? You’ve got your mouth where my dick was.’ The guy had had the girl give him a blow job.”
After making the rounds of the easier girls around Lubbock, Buddy’s attendance at Tabernacle Baptist Church dropped off noticeably. Some of the guys he was running with were shoplifting. One night Buddy was in a crowd that ended up at someone’s “grandmother’s house,” Tinker remembers. “It was about four maybe in the morning when we got there. She got up and cooked us a nice breakfast. A real down-to-earth grandma. She took care of her little grandson. He was about ten years old [and was] so delighted to see us. Wonderful little kid. They made pallets on the floor for us. We were laying down there and that little kid was showing us all his toys. He made the mistake of showing us ten dollars that he’d saved up. Next morning it was gone.”
Buddy and some of the local boys would shoplift when they stopped for gas at service stations, loading up on food while the attendant was outside pumping gas. Larry Holley noticed that musical instruments started disappearing from the house when Buddy realized they could be hocked for pocket money. When a banjo worth $10 couldn’t be found, Larry “wondered if Buddy had hocked it,” but decades later, after Buddy Holly became a legend, it turned up in a storage room in the home of Buddy’s parents. “We sold it in the auction for a tremendous price,” Larry reveals. “Buddy’d hocked every other instrument around the house. I had a mandolin that was the keenest thing you’d ever seen, one of them gourd-shaped [ones, with] different-colored wood, and I could play it. Buddy couldn’t. The mandolin disappeared. I had a Steiner fiddle, a really pretty one. I could play it, but Buddy couldn’t play it. It disappeared, and I know where. He’d hock them every time he needed some money. Mother and Daddy were poor and couldn’t help him any.”
In our 1992 interview, Larry reflects, “Baptists seem like a wilder bunch of people. They realize that they’re not good and can’t be good enough to get to heaven on their own merits.” Looming before Buddy and his brothers was Baptism, which Baptist youths customarily undergo as the path to salvation. It involves a physical dunking in water in front of the whole congregation. Larry was the first to face it and says he was initially reluctant. “When I was a little boy of fourteen,” he recalls, “we was havin’ a revival. I mean we had a good preacher. It was in my heart and my mind that I needed to take Christ as my savior sometime, but not right now. Mother got us in the room over there—me and Travis and Pat. Buddy was too little to know. Mom said, ‘I want to read something to you in the Bible—the plan of salvation God has for us.’
“‘Mother, I don’t want to hear it,’ I said. ‘I’m readin’ a book,
“‘Well, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I’m goin’ to read to Travis and Pat.’
“I got in there and covered up my ears with pillows and I tried to read that book and I went over and over the same lines. Directly I got up and went in and listened and I could see that I was a sinner. I went to church and confessed that I’d done this and was baptized into the church.… It’s showin’ the world that you’ve died the old life and took Christ as your savior.”
Even as Buddy outgrew his church’s narrow-minded dogma and ran wild, he never lost his spirituality. This was confirmed by Bill Griggs during the 1992 interview in Lubbock, when he displayed some of Buddy’s keepsakes from this period, which Buddy’s parents had given to him over the years. They included spiritual literature and copies of hymns that Buddy had carefully saved. Buddy studiously underlined his copy of the Gospel of John, his favorite book of the Bible. That he highlighted the lines “
These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and that believing ye might have life through his name
” indicates that Buddy’s faith was strong and that he felt it would bring him everything he needed.
Another key teaching of St. John that Buddy heeded was “
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.
” Despite the white-supremacist, homophobic society he grew up in, he cleansed himself of racial prejudice and macho snobberies and began to embrace people who were different from him, notably blacks, Hispanics, and gays.
Along with the Gospel of John, he always kept a copy of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” handy. Like Hank Williams, he loved hymns and was fascinated by “What a Friend,” in which the composers Joseph Scriven and Charles C. Converse describe a way to turn over worries and achieve inner peace. According to Scriven and Converse, all anxieties and guilts can be unburdened regularly on God, who is better equipped to dispose of them than human beings. Peace of mind comes from devoting a portion of each day to meditation or prayer, according to the wise old hymn. Buddy discovered that when he turned his trials, temptations, troubles, sorrows, weaknesses, and pain over to his higher power, as prescribed in the song, even if he had to do so over and over, they went away. The hymn gave him a powerful weapon for dealing with a life that would be anything but easy. As Scriven and Converse put it, “Take it to the Lord in prayer, in His arms He’ll take and shield thee, thou wilt find a solace there.”
Not long after his sexual initiation, Buddy told Tinker Carlen, “I think I’m going to get baptized. I’ve been putting it off since I was twelve.” The fact that he considered it carefully and discussed it with a friend shows Buddy knew exactly what he was doing. Despite his differences with Tabernacle Baptist, he felt good enough spiritually to want to declare in public that he believed in and trusted his higher power. And that was
he intended by his baptism—he wasn’t about to give up the newly discovered pleasures of sex. “I’m ashamed of a lot of the stuff we do, but it’s not going to stop me,” Buddy said. “I like girls and like to git out and be noticed.”