Buddy Holly and ‘Buddy’

February 9, 2009

I know I’m a bit late in the Buddy Holly jubilee stakes – it was fifty years ago last week since the plane crash – but I’ve had a Buddy Holly week, topping it off with watching the penultimate performance of the musical ‘Buddy’ at the Duchess Theatre in London. Matthew Wycliffe was in the lead role (which he alternated), and we went to see him in particular, since he’s the son of a friend (he must have been 12 or 13 when I watched him perform ‘Angels’, the Robbie Williams song, at his home, and you could tell right then that here was someone who had a special talent). So I am biased. But he was exceptionally strong.

Holly (born Holley) is one of those mystery figures from the fifties who might have been surprised how much he influenced those who followed him, and the extent of whose song catalogue, in four or five brief years, is still surprising. Some of his bigger hits (Peggy Sue, Rave On, That’ll Be The Day) are inextricably linked with him. Others, at least to British ears, are associated with others (Words Of Love – The Beatles; Not Fade Away and What To Do – The Rolling Stones; True Love Ways – The Everly Brothers; Well All Right – Blind Faith; and so on). The song most likely to be recognised is Heartbeat, since it’s the theme tune of a sentimental TV series of the same name. Ironically, at the time his career was calamitously cut short, Heartbeat was struggling very badly in the American charts, and Holly may well have been regretting his decision to ditch The Crickets and his producer Norman Petty (Petty is often accused of cutting himself too generously into the Holly royalties, but he seems to me to have been considerably less grasping than many of his contemporaries). Petty’s wife, Vi, is still alive, and there was a nice moment in a (repeated) BBC4 documentary last week, in which she casually reprised the piano vamp she added to the song Think It Over, just as she had played celeste on Everyday.

Perhaps one of the main reason for Holly’s continued popularity (and I should add that the Crickets are still going, and still feature Jerry Allison, whose drumming – or in one case, knee-patting – really marks out some of the key singles) is the quality of the sound. Listen to early 1960s recordings of his imitators, The Beatles included, and they sound tinny. Petty and Holly seem to have grasped that the sound needed to be deeper, to be more subtle, than most of their competition. It helped that he was a perfectionist.

Stage musicals about lost rock stars usually lose their way. There was a very indifferent account of Dusty Springfield a few years ago which even the considerable vocal talents of Mari Wilson (hopelessly under-rated) could not rescue. But Buddy, which has been going now for nearly 20 years, sensibly concentrates on performances (I’m not aware of any good live performances recorded by Holly – and the famous appearances on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show are mimed, I’m sure), which must have been a step up from the short, and occasionally sedate versions which appeared on shellac and vinyl.

‘Buddy’ opened with a selection of songs being played on the local Texas radio before Holly got his break. One of them was by Les Paul and Mary Ford. That coupleĀ is dogging my footsteps at the moment.

I am off to try to stop myself singing ‘Oh Boy’. The neighbours may be on the verge of complaining. Here’s a clip of Holly, dressed to the nines, and lip-syncing as well as he can: