It’s hard to fathom that Buddy Holly was only 22 years old when his remarkable sense of song was stilled. One of rock’s first pioneers, his musicality had only begun to realize its potential, and the body of work that he left has resonated throughout subsequent eras and generations as a fount of inspiration. His classics — either in their original versions or the countless covers they’ve generated — are well celebrated, but Buddy’s long hours in the studio, as he sought to keep up with his expansive talent, provides many gemstones beyond his greatest hits. In what would have been his 75th year on this planet, these you-don’t-knows trace his evolutionary tale and revolutionary talent, and his singular mark of greatness. [All of these songs can be found on Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More — Ed.]
Buddy Holly and Bob Montgomery, “Down the Line”
By the start of seventh grade, Holly had already joined classmate Montgomery in a duo that was influenced by the close harmonies of the Brothers Louvin and Delmore; but there was no way they could escape the winds of change sweeping country music in the wake of Elvis Presley, who visited Buddy’s home town of Lubbock, Texas, in 1955. Buddy and Bob’s business card soon read “Western and Bop,” and this track, recorded as a demo, clearly shows that Buddy’s guitar prowess was already accomplished. Drums were overdubbed at a much later date, which, though added in hindsight, gives “Down the Line” even more gutbucket propulsion.
“Blue Days Black Nights”
Despite being a kissing cousin to roadhouse country, the powers that be in Nashville were suspicious of rockabilly’s wilder edges, and Holly’s first sessions there, for Decca in April of 1956, confirm this ambivalence. He sounds restrained, and the instrumental backing has a cleanliness that puts it more within the country tradition than Holly might’ve liked. Still, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with country, and I listen to this imagining he might’ve been on his way to becoming a countrypolitan George Jones or Jerry Lee.
“Rock Around With Ollie Vee”
This is more boppin’ like it, and Jerry Allison’s sense of swing in the drums gives a chance for Buddy to run through all the hiccups and drawled syllables and bemoans that is rockabilly at its wackiest, the band getting more and more excited. The live feel contrasts with another version cut a few months later with Sonny Curtis taking over lead guitar abetted by studio musicians, even if one of them is rhythm guitarist Grady Martin; same song, different world.
“Listen To Me”
The why of how the Beatles got their name, this chirpy single that seems to have gotten lost in the wake of “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy” is the exemplar. Simple melodies, harmonies, a rolling drum and a highly reverbed guitar figure, place heart on sleeve, and even a talking part with Buddy asking you to listen….
“Love’s Made A Fool Of You”
Buddy wanted to branch out into songwriting, and with his old partner Bob Montgomery, crafted this with the Everly Brothers in mind. Not content with a simple strum, Holly recorded his own studio versions for consideration, but was unable to break through the Acuff-Rose publishing wall surrounding the Everlys, and they already had Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. The pistol-shot handclaps, Tommy Allsup’s lead, and the Everlys trademark blend makes this one of Buddy’s first productions, as he began to think outside of his own persona, an expansion of self that would characterize the rest of his foreshortened career.
Buddy’s exposure to los ritmos latinos could only grow more pronounced in the southwest, though he was never overt in his use of cross-border influences. The gentle cha of “Heartbeat,” its responsive Tommy Allsup guitar figure (there is a lovely sway bar bend in the solo) and plaintive vocal mark this as one of his most affecting performances, and show him moving away from the Crickets sound in the summer of 1958, in the final days of working at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico.
“Raining In My Heart”
Recorded at the Pythian Temple in Manhattan on Oct. 21, 1958, the lush use of strings and flute (arranged by Dick Jacobs) was a turning point in Holly’s reach and grasp, especially since rock ‘n’ roll was considered teenage music, and Holly didn’t want to be left behind in perpetual adolescence. Nor did he want to remain in Lubbock; the opportunities for experimentation were boundless in New York, and his new bride Maria Elena lived there. Buddy moved to lower Fifth Avenue (between 8th and 9th streets, east side), on the verge of his promising future.
“Peggy Sue Got Married”
They went on honeymoon together, Jerry Allison — perhaps Buddy’s closest musical compatriot — and Holly, with their respective brides. Allison had married the real Peggy Sue, and so this sequel, home recorded in Buddy’s apartment as a demo, became its own wedding announcement, with the narrator not even sure if it’s true or not. It was overdubbed after Buddy’s death by the Fireballs in Petty’s studio, which accounts for its strange sense of other worldliness, as if Buddy’s voice had been summoned in séance.
“Slippin’ and Slidin’”
There is an interesting tale about this slooowed demo version of the Little Richard classic, which can be found, among other places — like the comprehensive Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings — on a fascinating collector’s set called Down The Line Rarities, which also includes some wonderful eavesdropping on Maria Elena and Buddy conversing in their apartment. Was Buddy thinking of that Christmas’s success of the Chipmunks, and could he have been intending a novelty version of the song by speeding up the track? (I tried it on my trusty turntable and was tickled at the results.) Whatever his intentions, this measured take reveals the lascivious nature of the lyric, and Buddy’s own sly sense of humor.
“It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”
Forever post-dated, the tragedy of Buddy Holly’s loss only reveals the splendor of what was left behind, and Buddy’s last single turned out to be an irony not lost on the plane crash that seemed to symbolize a turning point in the history of rock and roll. But as the orchestrations of this song shows, rock ‘n’ roll was already changing, overwhelmed by a pop music in which unruly teenage rebellion was proving prodigal. Forever preserved in the amber of youth, Buddy Holly became a legend, and that his songs and memory burn so bright over half a century later is testament to the Mattering.