It’s 1963, England is slowly wrenching itself from the slumber of the ‘never-had-it-so-good’ post-war era, and youth is finding its feet not as little replicas of older generations but as a new breed of young adults. Good music is needed, music which reflects the new times, music which belongs to the new identity, music which rocks.
There were a lot of good English musicians during the 1950s, but they were controlled by the big companies and often restricted to cover versions of American originals. There was a distance between us and them. And anyway, someone decided we needed the ballads and the violins and the clean-cut looks. Well, if the major labels wouldn’t provide us with what we wanted, we’d create it ourselves.
That’s one of the reasons bands like the Beatles and the Stones emerged.
London, like elsewhere in the country, had its vibrant teenager scene—not only Up West but also further out in places like Eel Pie Island, Chislehurst Caves and elsewhere. All that was needed now was a musical direction.
Enter a man who had gained worldwide fame some five or six years earlier: Buddy Holly. Holly’s life was tragically cut short barely two years after he hit the big time, but his music and his influence continues to this day.
The Holly who was known in England was an ordinary looking guy, far from the glamour and glitter of other performers. But he could sing and he could play. His band, the Crickets, was a three-piece band featuring Holly on vocals and guitar, Jerry ‘JI’ Allison on drums and Joe B. Mauldin on bass. And between them, they could recreate live the sound of their records, many of which were songs they had written themselves. A self-contained unit forging its own way, far from diktats of the recording establishment.
But this very same Holly could also handle mainstream music as well—he could sing with an orchestra; he could perform with gospel singers; blues, rock, country, pop, he made it all his own. Holly showed anyone could get up there and do it. He gave a generation the direction it needed.
During his short life, he released two albums, The Chirping Crickets and Buddy Holly, filled with hit 45s along with flip sides and a handful of studio versions of popular live songs. Over the next couple of years, three more somewhat disjointed albums appeared, The Buddy Holly Story volumes one and two and That’ll Be The Day, between them offering a mix of already available material, unissued songs from the archives and ‘rejects’ from an ill-fated trip to Nashville. Fans devoured at least the first four LPs, leaving the much maligned Nashville recordings as something you bought ‘only to complete the collection’.
Our appetites had been whetted the previous September when the title track of a new album had appeared as a 45. And following on the heels of a second 45 in March ‘63, Coral Records in England released a gem—Reminiscing, the catalyst for the British sound, had arrived.
Ace sax player King Curtis wrote “Reminiscing” and traveled to Clovis, New Mexico just five months before Holly’s death to record the song with Holly on vocals and guitar, and George Atwood (bass) and Bo Clarke (drums). The track opens the album with this sensuous, sultry sax and vocal duet. Even after all these years, it still represents the zenith of Holly’s singing, indeed possibly one of the best vocals by anyone ever.
Little Richard has written many rocking hits, and Holly often performed his friend’s songs including “Slippin’ and Slidin’”. Holly created a mystery for many years in that the version here, recorded in his apartment a month before his death, was very different to anything heard elsewhere: slowed down and breathed rather than hit at a million miles an hour. The solution lay in the recording speed—he taped it at half speed. When speeded up to 15 inches-per-second, he had possibly created his own version of his favorites, the Chipmunks. The accidental result of his joke interpretation is an atmospheric, sensual, husky recording.
From a young age, Holly lived for music. He recorded at every opportunity and the album includes eight songs from 1956: “Bo Diddley”, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, “Baby Won’t You Come out Tonight”, “Because I Love You”, “It’s not My Fault”, “I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down”, “Changing all Those Changes” and “Rock-a-Bye Rock”.
The first two, also released on 45s, were made famous by R&B pioneers Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, respectively. Holly and Jerry Allison traveled to the Petty Studios in Clovis along with long-time friend and bassist Larry Welborn to record these favorites. (Sadly, the name of a fourth musician, the rhythm guitarist, has been lost with time). These two songs were also important not just because of the excellent performance, but also because they drew the attention of a new generation to two highly influential performers.
“Bo Diddley” features a high-pitched Holly, Texas accent and all, bopping along to the hypnotic beat. The accompaniment is heavy on rhythm, following the original quite closely while still retaining a distinctive sound.
It’s followed by the Harry Von Tilzer/Andrew Sterling classic, “Wait till the Sun Shines Nellie”, one of Holly’s strangest recordings. Avid fans had noticed a peculiarity in that, unlike the 45 version, it has extremely bizarre electronic beeps in the introduction. And unlike any other track on the album, the airy vocal sounds distanced from a schizophrenic accompaniment—a muffled doo-wop main guitar and vocal backing, paired with a warm rhythm guitar and solid bass. The result is a somewhat disjointed recording, but we forgave producer and compiler Norman Petty because it was Buddy Holly, because it’s a fine song and because we were desperate and knew no better.
“Baby, Won’t You Come out Tonight”, a rocking Holly song in an Elvis mode, ends the first side. “Well a-go-baby go-baby go-baby-go ” A bluesy lead guitar weaves around his breathless singing, powered by the scaling bass line and ever-present drumming.
Side two bursts into life with a typical Chuck Berry riff. On “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, Holly shows his mastery of what later became known as the British sound—a classic song adapted to his own vocal with guitar, bass and drum approach. “Because I Love You”, another of his compositions, switches to his softer side, his gentle voice set on a rolling, warm accompaniment. Track three, “It’s not My Fault”, written by his old friend Ben Hall with Weldon Myrick, moves into new territory, country music. It’s a sad song of lost love which jogs along allowing Holly to extend his voice into a desperate emotional realm.
The album ends with three rock and roll songs written by Holly. “I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down” is again Elvis-like, with it’s pushing vocal and rocking guitar. Another version of “Changing all Those Changes” appears on the Nashville album. What a difference a few months make. On this later version, the key is lower, the vocal more mature and there is an overall less frantic sound. Finally, “Rock-a-Bye Rock” is a strong, slower song with much in common with the instrumental “Honky Tonk”, a great way to wind down the album.
In the years after its release, complaints arose concerning the album and, indeed, the whole handling of Holly’s music. There seemed to be a lot of fighting by various parties ranging from his producer to his parents to his widow to his fellow musicians—indeed, even his record labels seemed to be at odds at times. Norman Petty, owner of the Clovis studios in which so many classic recordings were made, his some time mentor and some time producer, emerged as the dominant party.
Crickets’ drummer Allison has pointed out that many of these recordings were good enough to issue in their original state, but Petty reworked most of the material by adding overdubs by the Fireballs (later responsible for such hits as “Sugar Shack” and “Bottle of Wine”).
At the time, most of the record buying public was unaware of the controversies surrounding the music and was simply grateful for yet another treasure from their hero. Gradually, the original recordings have become available and Allison has been proved right—no overdubs were needed at all.
In fact, “Wait till the Sun Shines Nellie” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’” are absolute gems in their original form with just Holly’s voice and guitar. Who needs more than that? And less is often more—the other ‘56 recordings actually benefit from the stripped down approach of vocal, guitar, bass and drums. And the extended overdubbed ending to “It’s not My Fault” now seems so unnecessary. (Petty wanted to extend the short demo from its original 1:15 length to a more acceptable 1:45).
However, it has to be agreed that Petty’s overdubbing work was exceedingly tasteful, the layers are for the most part well-constructed and create a good stereo effect on the demo, home and garage recordings. Complaint can be found with bits and pieces but overall the man was a genius.
Many people were influenced by Holly’s example to take up playing in public: his concept of a small self-contained combo such as the Crickets made musicians realize they too could stand alone; his approach to repertoire, performing his own compositions along with the best of everybody else’s, in his own inimitable style was an inspiration; and his bravery in delving into other genres and breaking the accepted mold of what was expected of a pop star is an example for all today.
Reminiscing demonstrates how successful a musician can be. Although the individual tracks are undoubtedly better in their original form, the album itself is probably the starting point of modern rock music. Petty took Holly’s music, recordings not intended for public consumption, and crafted a true classic album—consistent in quality, varied in sound, professional in performance and simply entertaining.
// Notes from the Road
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