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The Lost Promise Of Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly died in a plane crash at the age of 22.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Buddy Holly died in a plane crash at the age of 22.

On Feb. 3, 1959, a plane crashed in an Iowa field, ending the lives of three performers onboard. Disc jockey J.P. Richardson, who'd had a novelty hit under the name the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens, a 17-year-old Mexican-American rocker from Los Angeles, were just starting their careers. But the third rocker, Buddy Holly, had begun to emerge as the biggest star since Elvis. After a long wait, two albums have now been released: Memorial Collection, a three-disc, career-spanning survey of Holly's work; and Down the Line: Rarities, two more discs that give some hints of what might have happened had he lived.

Buddy Holly probably needs no introduction to most rock fans, no matter their ages, because his legend has been kept alive by both a film and a song. Don McLean's "American Pie" was a hit for McLean, and later for Madonna. But the legend bears little relation to the actual story of Charles Hardin Holley, the skinny kid with glasses from Lubbock, Texas.

The film The Buddy Holly Story not only casts his parents as ignorant, redneck fundamentalists who opposed his music — which they certainly were not — but totally ignores Norman Petty, who ran the only recording studio for miles around, and who helped Holly and his band, The Crickets, refine their sound until it was good enough to take to the big leagues. As for "American Pie," well, any fool who's got ears knows that the music didn't die in 1959.

But Holly did, and it's fair to wonder what would have happened if he hadn't. His recording career, after all, had lasted just under two years, from an early, unsuccessful trip to Nashville in 1956, to New York City, where he was living on lower 5th Avenue with his new bride when he went on that last tour. For years, I've always assumed the worst because of the products of his last recording session.

"It Doesn't Matter Any More" bore all the hallmarks of disaster: Written by teen idol Paul Anka, with a syrupy string arrangement by Dick Jacobs, who also produced the session, it fit well into the pop landscape of the time, where proponents of so-called "good music" were getting the upper hand on the unruly rockers by putting out music performed by young crooners carefully selected to appeal to teens. Holly could have been the next Anka or Bobby Darin.

Or maybe not. The Dick Jacobs session was at the end of October 1958, but a month later, Holly got a new toy: a tape recorder and a microphone. From early December to Jan. 20, he fooled around with it and also recorded new songs he'd written. After his death, the so-called apartment tapes were overdubbed by Petty, using both The Crickets and a local band called The Fireballs as backing; these new singles came out through 1960. Now that the complete, undubbed tapes are available, though, a more complex Holly emerges. For one thing, his lyrics, which had never been so good, continued to improve.

And he was thinking about rock 'n' roll, as if he were trying to figure something out, recording acoustic versions of current hits like Mickey and Sylvia's "Love is Strange" and The Coasters' "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the latter of which strips away some of the song's comedy, but somehow leaves it still funny. Most telling, though, there are three versions of a song by Little Richard — fast, slow, on electric and acoustic guitar — as if he were looking for something the tempo would reveal.

We'll never know what he was looking for while his wife, Maria Elena, did the dishes, but I'm confident now that he'd probably have found it. If it gave him the strength to stand up to the suits who wanted him to be a teenager's Sinatra and make recordings that built on his already-impressive past, American rock 'n' roll might have been very different.

I wrote a friend of mine with some of these speculations after I got the Memorial Collection and Rarities, and he wrote back, "Imagine what we'd think of John Lennon if the Beatles had all died in a plane crash after their first album." Lennon and Holly would have been the same age, after all.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.