Album Review

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly


Release Date: February 11th, 1958

Words by: Peter Berris
January 6th, 1963


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Reviewing a Buddy Holly record in 2013 is an exercise in drawing foregone conclusions. To analyze the quality of the music would be a moot point. Decades of acclaim, record sales, and widely accepted mythology have lent all of Holly's recordings a heroic status. And make no mistake-the 1958 album Buddy Holly, is a classic.

But why is this the case? Though Holly was talented, of the other prominent 1950s rockers, Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps rocked harder, Elvis Presley had a stronger voice and came first, Carl Perkins had flashier guitar work, and Jerry Lee Lewis burned away at the piano. Ray Charles, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Fats Domino were all making rock music before Holly's first recordings, and they were enormously talented instrumentalists and vocalists as well. So why does Buddy Holly retain a status equal to or greater than many of the aforementioned artists? Part of Holly's continuing fame is likely derived from his unfortunate roll as one of rock and roll's first "martyrs," reinforced by films like 1978′s The Buddy Holly Story. The small body of work that Holly left behind before his tragic death has left generations of music fans with their appetites partially wet, wondering what would have happened if he hadn't gotten on that damned plane.

But this is where the subtler contribution, becomes apparent. Although it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty what Buddy Holly would have been able to accomplish personally, the future of rock and roll as a genre can be heard in his music. He may have started recording a few years after the initial rock boom with Elvis, Little Richard, Berry, Ray, Fats, and the rest, but his music was similarly important in defining early rock and roll. The formative roots of modern rock music extend beyond the initial heroes of the early-to-mid 50s, and they include Holly.

Listening to this 1958 self-titled album, his influence is abundantly clear. In part this is because Holly's material represents a high degree of variety and experimentation. In the 12 songs contained on Buddy Holly, his musical persona ranges from forceful rocker, to a contemplative and sensitive pop craftsman. Each of these musical personalities likely influenced different musical paths.

The faster tunes like 'ready teddy' and 'rave on' are the most directly tied to the '50s rock sound-a combination of country and R&B elements in a straight- ahead format. They are the most instantly enjoyable, and debatably the least-dated in terms of production values. These songs demonstrate a musical attitude that can be traced through rock music to the modern day.

These two songs, along with other tracks including 'peggy sue' and 'I'm gonna love you too,' showcase Buddy Holly's own unique take on rock singing. The country-tinged vocals with rock attitude that Holly so successfully employed can be heard in both Rock and Country recordings. There is more than a little bit of Buddy Holly in John Fogerty's classic 60s performances with Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the indirect influence of Buddy Holly's vocal style can be traced into the rockabilly influenced Bakersfield country sound (Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, etc.) Even Holly's signature "hiccup" technique, prominent in both 'peggy sue' and 'look at me,' has found a following in subsequent rock acts like the Ramones.

Though the rocking tunes on Buddy Holly have certainly been important, it is the slower numbers like 'every day' and 'words of love' that may have had the most important impact. While there were rock and roll songwriters before Holly, much of the 50s material was based on blues progressions and melody types, or old country standards. Holly's slower tunes are among the earliest examples of what might be called "rock-songwriting," – writing new types of songs within the recently invented context of rock and roll. Simply put, Holly was skilled at merging pop-hooks with the new rock and roll themes and styles that had so recently been developed.

While many of Holly's contemporaries and predecessors helped to give rock and roll its start, attitude, structure, and themes, Holly helped to give it both melody and maturity. While it is possible to hear early recordings by bands like the Beatles as direct antecedents of the first generation of rockers like Little Richard, it is perhaps more accurate to interpret them through an intermediate filter of Buddy Holly. Though there are stylistic discrepancies, the incessantly catchy 'every day' is only a stone's throw away from the Beatles recordings like 'please, please, me.' Another example? The Beatles would actually record Holly's 'words of love' on their 1964 album Beatles for Sale.

This emphasis on melodic songwriting not only connects Holly to the acts that followed him, but to those before, as well-to influential songwriters like Hank Williams. While'every day' may lack the introspection that marked so many of the Williams classics, they both employed artful melodies and structures to convey basic human desires: love, hope, longing, etc. In an era where many of the mainstream rock and roll hits were still coming from tin-pan alley songwriters, Holly helped carry the singer-songwriter tradition into the realm of rock. On Buddy Holly, he not only wrote or co-wrote 'words of love,' and 'every day' but 'peggy sue,' 'look at me,' and 'little baby' as well.

Musically, not everything on Buddy Holly is a success. The downside of musical experimentation is that some attempts are bound to be more successful than others. The organ on 'valley of tears,' an occasional piano part, the odd percussion stroke behind 'peggy sue,' and even the chimes on 'every day' all stand out as somewhat dated production choices. Yet these occasional mishaps are completely overpowered by the energy, creativity, and vision encompassed on Buddy Holly. For every musical decision that went nowhere, there are innumerable artistic choices that are integral to any comprehensive definition of rock and roll. Buddy Holly the album may not be perfect, but it is absolutely essential.

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