LOS ANGELES — The Hollywood Walk of Fame star unveiled Wednesday in honor of pioneering rocker Buddy Holly was a bittersweet moment for Maria Elena Holly, the woman who spent less than six months as his wife and the ensuing 52 years as his widow after the Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash that took his life, which “American Pie” singer-songwriter Don McLean famously immortalized as “the day the music died.”
“One of his dreams was to write scores for movies and to come to Hollywood and make his mark,” Holly, 78, said during the midday ceremony outside the Capitol Records tower before a crowd of a couple hundred fans and several dozen guests from the entertainment world and local politics. The ceremony was timed in conjunction with what would have been Holly’s 75th birthday. “Half of that dream did not come true,” she said, choking back a tear. “But the other half did come true with this beautiful star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”
The placement of Holly’s star was neither random nor had anything to do with his record company affiliation: the Lubbock, Texas-born musician who scored influential hits, including “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh, Boy!” and “Rave On,” recorded in the 1950s for rival labels Brunswick, Coral and Decca.
The site chosen is just north of stars for John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who along with their bandmate Paul McCartney named their group the Beatles after Holly’s group, the Crickets.
There were other goals that Holly, who died at age 22, didn’t live long enough to see to full fruition, including starting his own record label to nurture developing talent and a bilingual project in which he had aimed to record some famous Spanish-language songs with English lyrics, and translate favorite English-language songs into Spanish, with the help of his Puerto Rico-born bride.
“My aunt was in charge of the Latin department of Peer International (publishing company), and that’s where I met him,” Maria Elena said at a private reception in Capitol’s Studio B following the star unveiling. “I was teaching him how to pronounce the words. It was something we both really wanted to do.”
On Wednesday, Holly became the final member of the inaugural class of inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — a stellar group that also includes Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown and the Everly Brothers — to receive a star on the Walk of Fame.
The impetus came from Kevin Magowen of the Buddy Holly Fan Club, who thought the recognition was long overdue, and for whom Wednesday brought the realization of nearly every aspect of his plan to get formal recognition of Holly and his influential music.
“I wanted it to be on his birthday, I wanted the star next to those of the Beatles and I wanted them to make it Buddy Holly Day in Los Angeles,” Magowen said after the star unveiling. The latter task fell to Los Angeles 4th District Councilman Tom LaBonge, who presented Maria Elena Holly a resolution and the Buddy Holly Day proclamation from the City Council, two certificates he likened to “the A and B sides of a 45.”
Magowen also wanted Phil Everly to be part of the ceremony, along with actor Gary Busey. Both spoke Wednesday, with Busey citing his feeling of “spiritual connection” to the man he portrayed in the 1978 musical biography “The Buddy Holly Story.”
After the ceremony, Busey recalled the movie’s Dallas premiere and watching in shock as Maria Elena left the film early, during his performance of the song “True Love Ways,” which Holly had written for her as a wedding gift.
“She left in tears, and I thought, ‘I missed the mark,’ “ Busey, 67, said in the control booth of the Capitol recording studio shortly before he stood up during the reception and accompanied himself on guitar to sing “Maybe Baby” and “Everyday.” “When I met her later she said, ‘You sang it as beautifully as Buddy did.’ And she’s always said, ‘You’re my Buddy on Earth.’ “
Besides the star ceremony, a slew of projects in conjunction with the 75th birthday observance have been rolling out this year, including the June release of “Rave On,” a cross-generational multi-artist tribute album featuring performances of his songs by McCartney — who bought the rights to his hero’s music publishing catalog in the 1970s — along with Lou Reed, She&Him, Patti Smith, the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, Nick Lowe, My Morning Jacket, Cee Lo Green and several more.
On Tuesday, a second tribute recording, “Listen To Me: Buddy Holly,” brought together a similarly diverse talent roster to help introduce his songs to new audiences, among them Starr, Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, the Fray, Zooey Deschanel, Cobra Starship, Lyle Lovett and Chris Isaak. It’s the first in a series of tribute albums spearheaded by Songmasters, an organization that offers resources and support to young musicians. Proceeds from sales of the album benefit a consortium of groups, including the Grammy Foundation and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Several of the artists who contributed tracks to the album and other musicians also convened Wednesday night for a tribute concert filmed at the Music Box Theatre in Hollywood for airing in December on PBS television stations.
Peter Asher and Isaak shared emcee duties before an invitation-only audience of several hundred, with the Music Box’s interior outfitted like an elegant dinner club, with white tablecloths, Champagne flutes and gourmet cupcakes at each table before the stage.
The show was keyed to the “Listen to Me” album, even down to Nicks getting things started as she does on the CD with a pounding rendition of “Not Fade Away.” Paul Anka, who wrote “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” for Holly when Anka was an 18-year-old aspiring songwriter, showed up to sing the song that Linda Ronstadt later reintroduced to ‘70s audiences with her hit version. “I’m not going to try to do it the way Buddy did it,” Anka said. “I’ll just do it the way I do it — I’m doing it my way,” a sly allusion to perhaps his best-known song, which became an anthem for Frank Sinatra.
Singer-songwriter Michelle Branch and alt-rocker Patrick Stump and two members of Cobra Starship, including Asher’s daughter Victoria, helped pick up the torch for a new generation of musicians from the veterans surrounding them.
Of the artists who weren’t on hand to play live, Wilson and his band opened with a video greeting in which they rendered a multipart harmony performance of “Happy Birthday,” and Browne used his video moment to expand on McLean’s famous lyric by suggesting that Holly’s death “was not the day the music died; it’s the day it became immortal.”
The evening’s performances included the usual stops and starts to accommodate the television production, in one case losing a charming exchange when Asher initially introduced his fellow British Invasion member Graham Nash of the Hollies (named after you-know-who) as “the finest high harmony singer in the world.” Nash just shook his head and pointed toward Everly at his front-row table and said, “Peter’s a great friend, but he tells lies. The finest harmony singer in the world is sitting right in front of me.” But a microphone problem forced a retake in which they didn’t attempt to replicate the banter.
Everly did join in the all-hands-on-deck finale, and took the lead on one verse of Holly’s first hit, “That’ll Be The Day,” which also was his only No. 1 single. Hallowed rock guitarists James Burton and Albert Lee were afforded solos by the house band, which consisted of veteran L.A. session aces that included guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel.
Earlier in the day, Maria Elena Holly said the most gratifying aspect of all the attention being heaped on Buddy was that “all these different artists take his music and make it their own.” That, she said, would have pleased her husband.
“One of his favorite things to say when he was working in the studio and other people tried to tell him what they thought he should do was, ‘Let’s try it my way, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try it your way,’ “ she said. There were times when indeed he did wind up heeding outside suggestions.
“But usually,” she said, “his way worked.”