We follow a few of the threads that led to the tapestry of Buddy Holly’s sound.
Buddy Holly is widely acknowledged as one of the most important influences on rock ‘n’ roll music. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones… Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen… Elton John, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton… they’re just a few of the rock superstars whose music wouldn’t be what it is without Buddy Holly.
But Buddy Holly’s music didn’t spring from a void, fully formed and perfect. Before Holly influenced rock ‘n’ roll’s greats, he himself was influenced by some of the pioneers of rock, as well as musicians from other genres. Bluegrass and blues, rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll percolated together in Holly’s imagination and emerged as the unmatchable music that he made with The Crickets. Today, the day when Buddy Holly would have turned 76, we follow a few of the threads that led to the tapestry of his sound.
Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, young Charles Holley (“Buddy” to his family; his last name was misspelled in his first record contract – and he stuck with the misspelling) listened to and played country and bluegrass music. Hank Snow was a favorite. Snow’s guitar sounds and rhythms might sound vaguely familiar to Buddy Holly fans.
The first song Holly ever recorded was a Hank Snow song. Holly was just 12 years old. His voice hadn’t changed yet and he had a ways to go on his guitar skills (though he’s impressive for a pre-teen), but perhaps you can hear a bit of the future in the scratchy recording.
Six years after that prototypical Holly recording, an up-and-coming singer came to Lubbock – Elvis Presley. Presley was on the verge of stardom, but still struggling to find an audience for the unusual blend of R&B and country music he was playing. Eventually, it would come to be known as rockabilly, but in 1955, it was yet unnamed and hard to categorize.
Later that year, Holly and his band had the chance to open for Presley at another Lubbock concert. Holly liked what he heard when Presley played, and he started incorporating that same blend of music into his own style. His early recordings with The Crickets displayed Presley’s influence, both in the rockabilly sound and in the sometimes stuttery, hiccuppy vocals – a style that would become associated with Holly’s singing, but that could often be heard from Presley as well.
Holly took further influence for another band he and The Crickets opened for – Bill Haley & His Comets. Haley was one of the first to bring rock ‘n’ roll to a white audience, and those early rock sounds were tantalizing to young Holly.
Buddy Holly’s rock ‘n’ roll was more stripped-down than Bill Haley’s, but the rock sound was clearly there in the last years of Holly’s life, when his transition from bluegrass picker to rock star was well underway.
Rock ‘n’ roll took its influence from a variety of styles, and so did Holly. And almost anything that white rock stars did in the 1950s, black musicians did first. That includes the blues, which had a strong influence on the rock of Holly and countless others. Bo Diddley was one of the great bluesmen of the ’50s who helped usher in rock ‘n’ roll.
The cocktail of sounds that made up Holly’s music included the “Bo Diddley Beat” – listen to the rhythm in “Hey Bo Diddley” and then check out the rhythm of “Not Fade Away.”
In the few short years of musical success Buddy Holly enjoyed before his untimely death at age 22, he grew immensely as a songwriter, helped along by those who came before and inspired his work. We can thank him for passing rock ‘n’ roll along to the many other musicians he influenced in turn.