When I was a kid, we used to make trips to Raton, New Mexico, every summer, where my day trained quarter horses and thoroughbreds at La Mesa Park.
Usually, the route we’d travel would take us through miles and miles of Texas plains, through Amarillo and beyond. Every once in a while though, we’d take a more circuitous route, for various reasons — such as a horse to pick up on the way, for example.
One of those out-of-the-way excursions took me through some towns I didn’t always see on the regular route — such as Clovis, New Mexico. I looked curiously out the window as we drove through the town. It didn’t look much different than many others towns or cities in the Southwest at the time, filled with local businesses and cafes before franchises become ubiquitous along America’s roadways.
I didn’t realize at the time that some things that had transpired in Clovis years before my drive through the city had gone on to change the musical and popular culture of the world.
I would later learn that nondescript city was steeped in a rock ‘n’ roll lore. If I had known it at the time of my youthful trip, I would have kept a watchful eye out for the Norman Petty Recording Studios and would have begged my parents to stop and let me look around for the studio where Buddy Holly had recorded his first hit songs.
Today, Holly is considered one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, along with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and others who were there for the music’s beginnings.
Although Holly is legendary today, he had a tough time getting started. Primarily a country and western performer in Lubbock, Texas in the beginning, he switched over to the then-new rock ‘n’ roll music after opening a couple of shows for Elvis Presley.
When Holly landed a contract with Decca Records, he seemed on his way to musical success — but the producer he worked with in Nashville, Tennessee apparently didn’t share Holly’s vision for his music or his new rock ‘n’ roll leanings.
Fed-up, Petty returned to Texas and then decided to take musical matters into his own hands. He and his band made a road trip to a town in a neighboring state — to the Norman Petty Studios in Clovis, New Mexico — where Holly convinced Petty to let him record his songs the way he wanted.
Holly especially wanted to record one of the new songs he’d written. Like thousands of other Americans. he’d gone to the movies to watch John Ford’s epic Western “The Searchers,” starring John Wayne. In the film, one of Wayne’s tag lines repeated several times throughout the movie was “That’ll be the day.” It must’ve stuck in Holly’s head as a great title for a song.
By the time Holly traveled to Clovis, he had a song written and ready to record. Petty knew musical magic when he heard it and when the band made a wrap on the song, Petty became the group’s manager and mailed the demo recording to Brunswick Records — where the company’s executives rushed to release it.
It not only shot to the top of the charts in the U.S., but in the UK as well.
Since Holly was still under contract to Decca, Petty released the record under the band’s name — the Crickets. Although Holly would soon be releasing records under his own name, those early recordings didn’t mention his name at all (except in the songwriter’s credits).
With those early records by the Crickets being snatched up on both sides of the Atlantic by teenagers who loved the new sound, Holly’s music had a big influence on British teens, just like their American counterparts.
When a young Liverpool band decided they needed a better name than the Quarrymen, they remembered their favorite records by the Crickets. In honor of Holly and his band, they decided to call themselves the Beetles — which John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison would modify a short time later into the Beatles, to give the name a musical spin. (Ringo Starr would come along later).
Meanwhile, Holly went on to have hit-after-hit, including “Peggy Sue,” also recorded in Clovis. His music not only influenced the Beatles, but the young Rolling Stones as well, who featured Holly’s song “Not Fade Away” on their debut album.
Holly continued his hit-writing ways with “Oh Boy,” “Maybe Baby,” “It Doesn’t Matter Any More,” “Well All Right,” “True Love Ways” and many more.
He was in the midst of the Winter Dance Party Tour when he chartered a small plane to fly him from Clear Lake, Iowa, to the tour’s next stop in Fargo, North Dakota. A couple of Holly’s fellow recording artists also climbed aboard.
It was 60 years ago this month, on Feb. 3, 1959, that Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, better known as the Big Bopper, died in the crash of that small chartered plane during its nighttime winter flight.
Valens had already hit the charts with an ode to his girlfriend, “Donna,” and with “La Bamba,” a Mexican folk song he turned into a rock ‘n’ roll hit. The Big Bopper had a hit with his song “Chantilly Lace.”
He also wrote a song that a then-up and coming country singer named George Jones recorded, called “White Lightning.” Jones recorded it shortly after Richardson died in the plane crash, so the Big Bopper never got to see his song become Jones’ first number one hit .
In 1971, singer Don McLean wrote a song called “American Pie” and referred to the crash that claimed the lives of Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper as “The day the music died.”
McLean was wrong about that, though. Although the tragic crash ended their lives, the music of Holly, Valens and Richardson has never died.
It still endures today.