Buddy Holly's shockingly early demise -- he was only 22 when the light plane carrying him, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson crashed outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, in February 1959 -- brings an extra dimension of appreciation to his legacy. Holly's accomplishments as a singer, writer and bandleader run deep, and his music remains a favorite of casual oldies listeners, hardcore music fans and musicians nearly 50 years after his death.
Charles Hardin Holley grew up listening to country music in tiny Lubbock, Texas. The advent of Elvis Presley as a regional star on Sun Records in 1954 and '55, along with a general acceptance of the newest rhythm and blues sounds among hip white kids, pushed Holly toward his own rocking style. While those leanings were tamped down on his earliest singles for Decca (including the first version of the later smash "That'll Be the Day"), the rechristened Holly was soon punching out a highly original version of rock 'n' roll with his small band the Crickets. Holly's music displayed a number of colors; he was able to blend soft and hard to differing degrees, helping his smart, romantic songs range across the emotional spectrum. There are varying levels of assurance ("That'll Be the Day," "Well All Right") and joy ("Peggy Sue," "Rave On," "Every Day"), but straightforward pain is curiously absent from much of his work. Holly is much more likely to manifest an adult bewilderment, as he did in one of his last compositions, "Peggy Sue Got Married." Critic Jonathan Cott would later point to that song as prefiguring folk rock and the Beatles' Rubber Soul -- six years before their advent.
Holly's death is all the more tragic given what we now know about the business pressures that led him to join the poorly managed Winter Dance Party tour of early '59. His legend has been burnished by the horrible results -- Bob Dylan has testified to a sort of metaphysical passing of the baton during a show he attended -- but that alone hardly explains the ongoing love for the tough, innocent sounds Holly left behind. The Beatles, Stones and Hollies (wink, wink) all took major inspiration from him, as did later generations of Bruce Springsteens, Elvis Costellos and the participants in several tribute albums and countless cover versions. But one only has to put on a recording by the man himself to feel that, as the old slogan goes, Buddy Holly lives.