This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s tragic and untimely death. Several years ago, on what would have been his 75th birthday, I was lucky enough to go to Los Angeles to cover several events celebrating his life and career. Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2011, during what turned out to be one of the coolest and most memorable junkets of my career.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Standing in the majestic surroundings of Studio A in the bowels of the iconic Capitol Records Building, Phil Everly is reminiscing about Buddy Holly.
“I met him in Montreal when we toured together in ’57,” the 72-year-old younger half of the legendary sibling duo tells me. “It was a little like going to college together. It was like a fraternity.
“Buddy was funny. He would do comical things. I remember once we were on the road in this hotel, and of course we were all trying to get girls up there and have a party. All the other guys had girls and I finally met a girl. She was sitting between Buddy and I, and I went to get a drink, and when I came back, Buddy was telling her, ‘We’re all like a fraternity here. If I tell Phil to get rid of you, he’ll do it, right Phil?’ I said, ‘Weeellll, yeah.’ And he said, ‘Get rid of her.’ And I was stuck. Finally I said, ‘You have to go.’ And Buddy just laughed. He ruined my chance that night.”
Everly starts to talk more about the old days when we are interrupted by a friend who wants to say hello: Maria Elena Holly.
“How long has it been?” Everly asks Holly’s 78-year-old widow as they embrace.
“A long time,” says the diminutive but youthful-looking Maria Elena. “Lots and lots of years.”
It has been more than five decades since the world lost Holly in a Feb. 3, 1959 plane crash that also took the lives of Ritchie Valens and J.P. (Big Bopper) Richardson. But on what would have been his 75th birthday, Lubbock’s favourite son is getting the star treatment in Hollywood — a Walk of Fame star next to The Beatles, a star-studded tribute concert and more.
As Everly and Maria Elena catch up, the celebration begins out front on Vine Street just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Holly’s songs — his own classics and new covers — play over loudspeakers. A flash mob dances to Stevie Nicks’ version of Not Fade Away. The crowd sings along. Front and centre, just steps away from the action, stands dedicated Holly fan and memorabilia collector Bill Perry from Redondo Beach, Calif.
“I’ve been collecting Buddy Holly’s music and artifacts from his life for years,” says the 62-year-old retiree, holding a Holly poster. “I believe I have one of the largest Buddy Holly collections.”
Among his treasures: All Holly’s original 45s, EPs and albums; a motorcycle helmet and licence that belonged to the singer; and even one of the rocker’s old sweaters, which he bought at auction in 1990 for $6,400.
“Buddy Holly was the first guy who wrote his own songs, the first to sing his own songs, the first to play lead guitar,” he says, explaining Buddy’s appeal. “To a 10-year-old kid like me, that was amazing.”
He’s not the only one singing Holly’s praises. As the ceremony kicks in, dignitaries and celebrities step up to a raised podium to pay homage as Maria Elena stands by beaming. One local official points out that in his brief 18-month career, Holly had 27 top 40 hits, led the first self-contained rock bands, and inspired artists up to and including The Beatles, who named themselves in tribute to The Crickets. A blustery city councillor officially proclaims Sept. 7 Buddy Holly Day in Los Angeles, then — for some reason — awards Maria a loaf of bread baked by nuns.
Everly steps to the mic and says, “I think it’s about time we got to this. His music has echoed on for decades.” Peter Asher, producer of the new tribute CD Listen to Me: Buddy Holly and musical director of the tribute concert slated for later in the evening, pulls out the first pair of glasses he bought with his own money — a pair of thick, black frames identical to Holly’s signature pair. Gary Busey, who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Holly in a 1978 biopic, proclaims it “a magical day,” then claims that “Charles Hardin Holly chose me to play him” and dons his own Holly glasses.
Maria Elena speaks last. In a voice breaking with emotion, she movingly talks for and to her late husband: “My dear Buddy: You loved to go to the movies. You told me that one of your dreams was to write scores for movies and make your mark in Hollywood. Well, my dear, half of your dream unfortunately did not come true. But the other half did.”
After Holly’s star is unveiled and the crowd sings Happy Birthday, the invite-only celebration begins back inside Studio A. VIPs and musicians like guitarist Albert Lee mingle and munch fancy finger food. I chat briefly with Busey in the studio control room; he says he doesn’t recall his speech from 10 minutes ago, but believes Holly’s spirit was speaking through him. He adds he’s about to begin work on a T-Bone Burnett-produced album of original songs — his first release in decades. Later, he gets on a small stage in the studio and rustily strums his way through acoustic versions of Maybe Baby and Everyday.
After more speeches — but before Maria Elena and Busey cut a giant cake that features Holly and his Walk of Fame star — Everly picks up where we were interrupted hours ago.
“It was a time of true originals,” he says. “And one thing that will always be real is that Buddy Holly was a true original. And a true original will last forever.”