VINE VOICEon 13 January 2009
I was a little surprised but delighted to see this handsome little book in my local Waterstone's bookshop at the weekend.
John Gribbin, a self-confessed Holly fan of long standing clearly has a deep knowledge and love of Buddy's music, and has done his research thoroughly for what may well turn out to be the book of choice for anyone seeking an introduction to the story of Buddy Holly, his impact on the music scene at the time (and since) - notably in Britain - and his lasting, extraordinary musical legacy. His stated aim is not to compete with any of the existing books, but a celebration of Buddy's short life through focussing on his music, and the influences that made him the musician he was. This focus is a welcome change from for example, the seemingly agenda-driven, error-strewn and fanciful assertions that marred the Ellis Amburn book of a few years back. A number of more worthwhile sources are credited, in particular the Philip Norman and Goldrosen/Beecher books, though there is no reference to Bill Griggs's work.
The book is an easy read with an engaging narrative: the context of life in small-town Lubbock, the influence of religion on the community, and the prevailing hard times for Buddy's family set the scene for his musical development, including his formative years, his early disappointments, and eventual (probably inevitable) if rather brief period of stardom - by which time he was a seasoned stage performer - and ending with the final, fateful tour and plane crash are entertainingly covered in the first 171 pages. All the main people in Buddy's life, the recording sessions, TV appearances and tours including Australia and Britain are covered, if briefly.
In the last chapter, titled Not Fade Away, the author goes on to give his views on Buddy's influence and legacy, including the British beat boom of the early '60s, the subsequent record releases, what Buddy might have gone on to achieve, the post-Holly Crickets, (some of the) covers by other artists, the Busey film, and the DVDs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Norman Petty does not come out of it particularly well, though the author does give him appropriate credit for what he did achieve with Buddy. Petty had real musical expertise, an impeccable ear for music and sound, and of course a modern recording studio, and business acumen. Against this are set his greed, selfishness - and certain (if not unknown, then and now) sharp business practices. John Gribbin does speculate on his character and what may have contributed to the way he operated. I'll leave you to find out (p. 66 and p. 69).
It's interesting to surmise how Buddy would have got on without Norman Petty in his life. We'll never know of course, but with his prodigious talent? Real talent tends to win out.
Other books have been more comprehensive - the Norman and Goldrosen/Beecher books in particular I can recommend - but there are numerous little anecdotes that inform and entertain. These include, for example, when Elvis came to town ('Everything changed...') when Buddy noticed in particular his effect on girls; Little Richard at the Cotton Club (similar impact); the recording of Peggy Sue; the story of Buddy's iconic new glasses; The Crickets' appearance at the Apollo in Harlem, with their Bo Diddley Beat; the impact Buddy's Stratocaster made at the London Palladium; and Carl Bunch's view that JI effectively invented rock drumming by using the drums as a lead instrument. Though Buddy (and Elvis) were heavily influenced by black music, in particular blues and rhythm and blues, it is worth noting how things were for black artists at the time. Though black or 'race' music was readily accessible through radio, records, and appearances at local venues, throughout the southern states white and black artists were not allowed to appear on stage together. A little later in the book there is also a reference to the so-called 'Boston riot' when white youths objected to white and black artists appearing on the same bill there.
There's one small detail I noticed. Norman Petty is credited with playing the celesta on Everyday, when I'd always understood it was Vi. There you go.
The book is illustrated with 8 excellent full-page black-and-white photos.
At the end is a list of sources and further reading, and a useful index (always an essential).
What do we learn then? Well, if you are a total Holly perv, perhaps not a whole lot. But as a Holly aficionado since 1957 (OK, a perv) I found the book most entertaining and a very worthwhile read. If you don't know much about Buddy's story then this is for you - yes, a celebration of his life and music.
And Buddy's importance as a musician? The author quotes Rolling Stone's Dave Marsh (from 1978): 'One of Buddy Holly's greatest contributions was his involvement with every step of the record-making process: production, arranging, writing and, as one of the pioneers of the overdub, even engineering. In a way it's this part of Holly's vision that is his greatest legacy. Today (in 1978) rock musicians are free to spend months in the studio trying to craft perfect recordings without much corporate interference, in large part because of the battles fought by such earlier musicians. Holly helped to contribute to rock the notion that it was possible to do it all, no matter what anybody said.'
Buddy's legacy is all the more remarkable given the fact that he died at 22, less than two years after his first hit record, leaving just over 100 recordings. Since then of course there have been numerous reissues including hundreds of compilations, particularly since the year 2000 (many to be avoided!).
Now, in the digital age, of course it's possible to do it all at home - in the bedroom. How times change. And, as John Gribbin says, Buddy would have loved that!