Buddy Holly: Gold

Buddy Holly

From about the time that my mom was 11 or 12 until she was 14, she would take the bus with a friend almost every day from Violetville to WJZ Studios in Baltimore to be a dancer on the Buddy Dean show. Dean was a Baltimore version of Dick Clark (without the objectionable business practices), running a regional live music program that hosted all of the early rock ‘n’ rollers: from Bill Haley (who premiered “Rock Around the Clock” on Dean’s show) to Chubby Checker to Little Richard to Chuck Berry to Brenda Lee to the Everly Brothers, and that was at one point the highest rated local television program in the nation. Ultimately, the show was cancelled for refusing to integrate the teenage dancers. The Buddy Dean show was something that I remember hearing about from as early as I can remember listening to Oldies radio. By the time that my mom saw the Beatles at the Baltimore Civic Center on their first tour of America, she was married and had already given birth to my brother. Rock ‘n’ roll is, to her, the performers she saw live on Buddy Dean.

Instead of appearing on Dean’s show, Buddy Holly played Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (the two shows were direct competitors and it’s rumored that performers appearing on one couldn’t appear on the other). This was in October of 1958, and between that appearance and an earlier recording session at New Mexico’s Clovis Studios in February of 1957, Holly recorded and released his best known singles; “That’ll Be the Day”, “Peggy Sue”, “Oh Boy!”, “Rave On”, “It’s So Easy”, “Maybe Baby”, and appeared twice on the Ed Sullivan show. That’s also the period during which he recorded the majority of songs collected here. By February of 1959 he was dead at the staggering age of 22.

It’s probably impossible to overstate his importance (and almost impossible to say something about him that hasn’t already been said). Writing in the Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Jonathan Cott lays it out as such: “During the Crickets’ first cross-country package tour in 1957 Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry used to spend their time traveling together at the back of the bus, kneeling on the floor and shooting craps with their night’s earnings. And in hindsight, it is clear today that it was Holly and Berry who were the major influences on the rock music of the ’60s. But Holly’s specific contribution is too often underestimated. He was certainly the main inspiration for the Beatles, as well as the entire English Mersey school, the Kinks, the Hollies, and Eric Clapton. In the States, of course, he directly influenced singers and groups like Bobby Vee, Tommy Roe, the Bobby Fuller Four, the Everly Brothers, Skeeter Davis, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tom Paxton, and Bob Dylan.” You can add Buddy as a major influence as well on the Rolling Stones, the Who, and, I think, the Velvet Underground. Branching out from these bands, almost no rock or pop performer since then can be untouched by Holly’s songs.

He wrote most of his own material, even if the songwriting credits, a mess of attempts to confuse contractual obligations and grab royalties, don’t exactly tell the tale (Charles Hardin, here credited with five songs, was Buddy’s songwriting pseudonym built from his first and middle name) and saw the potentials of the studio long before the Beatles figured out how to string together two four-tracks. Buddy’s shadow has as far of a reach as Elvis’s, Chuck Berry’s, Ike Turner’s, or that of any other early rock ‘n’ roller. Bruce Elder, writing about Holly for the All Music Guide, places his influence as, “just as far-reaching as these others, if far more subtle and more distinctly musical in nature”. It’s a critical distinction that makes him even more significant. After only a few listens, you can start to hear the impact of Holly’s songs in almost anything else that you put on.

Buddy Holly Gold isn’t the definitive collection of Holly’s music that his talent is due (the more thorough six-LP Complete Buddy Holly set from 1979 has never been issued on CD, but it’s the most reasonable place for non-Holly collectors to go for an overview of his work. From his first Decca recordings in late 1954 through to his final set of home recordings made one month before his death and overdubbed with full band arrangements half a decade later, this set is a repackaging of 1993’s Buddy Holly Collection. Fifty Holly songs arranged mostly chronologically, it’s reveling without being overbearing.

Listening straight through, you can easily pick out the variations in studio quality and approach to recording Holly that the producers took. You can hear Holly move from straight-up country & western to “Rock Around with Ollie Vee”… the way the put-on Elvis drawl in “Baby, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” and “Changing All Those Changes” gives way to a first stab at the hiccup-y “you-ooh-oohs” of “I’m Gonna Set My Foot Down”… how he fell short of Chuck Berry on “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, but came back barely two months later with a sound of his own on the still-staggering Clovis version of “That’ll Be The Day”… how he learned to scale back the instrumentation to create recordings that struck on an almost primitive level (from “Peggy Sue” through to “Everyday” and on to “Well… All Right”)… how his final recordings were reaching even further for a new sound.

It’s been over 10 years since this collection of songs was originally released and it’s certainly been long enough to warrant re-examining the inclusion of some tracks, the sequencing, or even whether or not to include new tracks unearthed since the initial release. The music on the disc gets a 10 but Universal loses two points for not giving Buddy the more thoughtful, or comprehensive, retrospective that his music deserves and his fans have been long hoping for. They lose another two points for, instead of releasing such a retrospective, essentially repacking a previous release as something new without giving any further consideration to the music. And worse, it’s a part of their Gold series, lumping it in with all of the other lesser bands they’re trying to squeeze a last few dollars out of, instead of making it more of a more tailored release. They get two points back again for the music, it’s way too necessary to walk away with a six or even a seven, and for making so much of it available in an affordable package. It’s far from the final word, though, and should be approached accordingly.

RATING 8 / 10