Sunday marked the 54th anniversary of the passing of Buddy Holly. The 22-year-old rocker died Feb. 3, 1959, in a plane crash outside Mason City, Iowa. He was part of the “Winter Dance Party Tour of the Midwest,” along with disc jockey J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Richie Valens, who also were killed shortly after their plane lifted off. Spared from death were Holly bandmate Waylon Jennings and Dion DiMucci (Dion and the Belmonts), who were not aboard. Both would go on to achieve their own musical fame.
Today, we still romanticize the bespectacled Holly, who was celebrated in Don McLean’s epic 1972 hit, “American Pie.” Sadly, Holly’s recording career was brief, lasting less than two years before his death. Had Holly been spared, we would likely mention his name in the same breath as Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Instead, we are left with thoughts of what could have been. Still, he left his influence on present day America in countless ways.
Born Charles Hardin Holley on Sept. 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas, “Holly” was a true rock pioneer influenced by country-Western and bebop music while in high school. He learned to play piano, fiddle and guitar at an early age and would go on to write his own material, use advanced studio recording techniques and popularize the band format of two guitars, bass and drums.
His multitude of hit songs have been covered repeatedly, and his band, “The Cricketts,” gave the “Beatles” inspiration for their name. The British band “The Hollies” also did the same. Holly’s distinctive singing style has been copied by a multitude of artists, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Bobby Vee. Vee and his own band filled in for Holly after the plane crash.
Holly and the Cricketts recorded “That’ll Be The Day” in 1957, which rose to No. 3 on the charts, prompting their first American tour. He then recorded “Peggy Sue” and “Oh, Boy,” which reached No. 3 and No. 10 respectively. By 1958, the hits were rolling for Holly, but later that year he would split with the Cricketts and manager Norman Petty, creating financial problems that led him on his ill-fated Midwest tour in 1959. His untimely death preceeded the release of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” which climbed to No. 13 on the charts and is part of a collection that still enchants music lovers today.
This infatuation isn’t just due to the fact Holly was an influential writer and recording artist. He was a man of simple means, born during the Great Depression, who won a singing contest at age 5. It was a time when no one could conceptualize cell phones, iTunes, or iPads, nor conceive of reality television or routine celebrity scandal.
Society viewed Holly as the essence of the American dream, which said that regardless of your stock in life, with hard work and determination (mixed with obvious musical talent) you could become anything you wanted to be. In Holly’s case, his music set him apart, but his success waned until McLean rekindled it, leading up to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and his placement in 2004 at No. 13 among “Rolling Stone” magazine’s “100 Greatest Artists of All-Time.”
Despite his Holly's tragically brief life, McLean described Buddy’s passing as “the day the music died.” Fittingly, Holly’s legacy lives on in a world that increasingly seems upside-down, seemingly snuffing out so many dreams. He embodies an America that was once happy, free and filled with promise. In the complex times we face today, we need and yearn for those like Buddy Holly, who lived simply, yet gives us hope that success is still possible in a crazy world.