Rock & roll as we know it wouldn't exist without Buddy Holly.
The bespectacled '50s teen idol roughed up familiar musical influences—rhythm & blues, rockabilly, country & western—with upbeat tempos, a jittery vocal approach, and youthful lyrics filled with edgy declarations of love, lust and heartbreak.
With his black-framed glasses, sharp suits and tousled hair, Buddy Holly looked like any other earnest young man entering adulthood in the late 1950s. Yet the Lubbock, Texas, native's approach to music was anything but standard.
A fluid, nimble guitarist, he brought velocity and intensity to his rockabilly- and rhythm-and-blues-inspired riffs. Holly's voice could also have a gritty edge (see the early hit "Oh Boy!" and the ragers "Ready Teddy" and "Rave On"), although his gulping vocal delivery and playful rhythmic contortions kept his songs light. Still, he was a sympathetic, expressive singer: On "Everyday," a sparse song driven by clapping percussion and a twinkling celesta, he was positively wistful about the possibility of finding his perfect match.
Indeed, Holly sang about topics to which modern teenagers could relate—love, lust and loss—and his tunes favored lyrics full of bold, dramatic declarations. "Modern Don Juan" lamented romantic miscommunication; "Peggy Sue" mooned over the absence of a "pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty" gal; "Ting-A-Ling" didn't shy away from admitting to (and expressing) sexual desire; and "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" celebrates how opposites attract. The main character of 1957's No. 1 single "That'll Be The Day," meanwhile, swears that he'll die from heartbreak if the girl he loves ever leaves him.
By the time "That'll Be The Day" hit it big, Holly was a seasoned performer. Born Charles Hardin Holley, he started playing guitar, banjo and mandolin as a kid, and cut his teeth performing bluegrass and country tunes for his classmates during assemblies. Later, Holly and junior high pal Bob Montgomery paired up under the moniker Buddy & Bob for public concerts—anything and everything from supermarket openings and talent shows to club gigs—as well as a Sunday radio show on Lubbock's legendary country music station, KDAV.
In addition to these appearances, the country-leaning pair opened for Elvis Presley in early 1955. For Holly especially, exposure to the King changed his worldview: The burgeoning pro was certainly already moving toward embracing a wider palette—after all, Buddy & Bob's business card tagline read "Western and Bop"—but he was enthralled. And so on back-to-back nights in fall 1955, when Holly, Montgomery and upright bassist Larry Welborn (a frequent Buddy & Bob live collaborator) opened for Bill Haley & The Comets and then Presley again, the ambitious singer was primed for sonic rebellion.
It wasn't an easy ride, and rock & roll stardom wasn't immediate. His first label deal with Decca Records—earned in early 1956 thanks to an agent, Eddie Crandall, who liked what he heard from Holly at the Haley concert and other gigs—fizzled out after a year and no chart hits. Still, Holly kept plugging away: On February 25, 1957, he recorded "That'll Be The Day," in Clovis, New Mexico, with producer and future manager Norman Petty. His band that day featured old pals Welborn and drummer Jerry Allison, and a relative newcomer, guitarist Niki Sullivan. The latter two, along with new bassist Joe Mauldin, formed the nucleus of the Crickets, a band alias created so Holly could avoid potential legal issues with Decca.
This time, he hit pay dirt: The Crickets landed a record deal for "That'll Be The Day" and future recordings, and by November, The “Chirping” Crickets full-length LP arrived in stores. Simultaneously, Holly started releasing songs under his own name under a separate record deal: 1958's Buddy Holly LP produced the hits "Rave On" and "Peggy Sue." Couple these studio tunes with a busy touring schedule and well-timed appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, and Holly finally achieved cultural ubiquity.
Ever restless, however, he shook up his life during the later half of 1958. Holly married Maria Elena Santiago and moved to Greenwich Village with her, and decided to part ways with both the Crickets and Norman Petty. Plans for a solo career were tragically cut short, however: On February 3, 1959, while traveling between dates of the Winter Dance Party Tour, Holly died in a plane crash alongside fellow idols Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. He was only 22 years old.
This sad occasion was "the day the music died," as Don McLean put it in his song "American Pie." Still, post-humus releases followed in the aftermath of Holly's death, and artists ranging from Elvis Costello and the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen have kept Holly's spirit and music very much alive. Decades after his too-brief career and time in the spotlight, Holly's legacy and work instead remain fascinating and incredibly vibrant.