Tag Archives: buddy holly

"Be-Bop-A-Newhall," Part 1

(Since today is the 55th anniversary of the release of the epic rock and roll classic Be-Bop-a-Lula by local legend Gene Vincent, I’ve decided to reprint a two-parter on this underappreciated rockabilly pioneer.)

If you’re a fan of 1950s rock and roll, or if you just happen to be over 40, try taking this test.

Sing the following opening lyric without singing any of the rest of the song. Ready? Here goes.

“Be-Bop-a-Lula…”

Be honest. You couldn’t stop yourself, could you? Try as you might, some dormant synapse in your brain fired off the second line “… She’s My Baby …” straight to your vocal chords.

Don’t feel bad. Since June 16, 1956 – 55-years ago this week – when Be-Bop-A-Lula first hit the airwaves, so many millions of people have sung along to the tune that it has entered the world’s musical collective unconscious.

While the song may be familiar to most, the story of rock and roll legend and permanent Santa Clarita Valley resident Gene Vincent, the tune’s singer and co-author, who would have turned 76 in February, has largely been forgotten.

If asked to select likenesses for a Mount Rushmore of 1950s rock and roll legends, most Americans would showcase the images of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. But another face would likely be added by Europeans where Gene Vincent’s popularity was on par with Presley’s near-godlike following.

Gene Vincent, whose real name was Vincent Eugene Craddock, was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1935 and began playing guitar at the age of 12. He left school early to join the Navy where he was stationed in Korea. On returning to Norfolk in 1955 he was involved in a very serious motorcycle accident that shattered his left leg, leaving him with a permanent limp and chronic pain for the rest of his life. Legend has it that he wrote Be-Bop-A-Lula in the hospital while recovering from the injury.

During the frantic months after the songs’ release, Gene and his band the Blue Caps – which featured legendary guitarist Cliff Gallup – recorded an album, played numerous concerts, and appeared in the first rock and roll feature film The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. The pace quickly took its toll on Gene and the band and before long several members of the Blue Caps exited for good.

Gene had a few follow-up hits in America after that, but nothing to approach Be-Bop-A-Lula in popularity. With his career stalling in the States, he toured Japan and Australia with Eddie Cochran and Little Richard. Afterwards he went to Europe where he was greeted as a hero by his legions of fans.

Among those fans were some lads from Liverpool.

Paul McCartney wrote in “The Beatles Anthology” that Be-Bop-A-Lula was the first record he ever bought, and in fact, the song was reportedly instrumental in bringing the nucleus of the Beatles together in the first place.

(More on this tomorrow.)

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Happy 70th, Ritchie

He was only 17-years-old when his life was snuffed out in a small plane crash 2500 miles from his family and friends. That, in and of itself, is a tragic enough ending for a young life, but what makes this story even more painful is that the young man who died that day was Ritchie Valens, the first Latino rock ‘n’ roll star.

When Valens died alongside rock ‘n’ roll legends Buddy Holly and Chantilly Lace singer J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on February 3, 1959, much of the Cold War-era adult world failed to take notice (the story was reported on page 66 of the New York Times). But the death of Valens, who would have turned 70 next week, made a lasting impression on a generation of teenagers and musicians, especially those of Latino heritage.

His most successful song, La Bamba, has the distinction of being the first rock ‘n’ roll song to be sung completely in Spanish (even though Ritchie, born Richard Valenzuela, didn’t speak the language). His pioneering efforts influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana, and earned him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

February 3, 1959, came to be known as “The Day the Music Died,” made famous in the lyrics of the 1971 Don McLean hit American Pie. (Over a decade earlier, rocker Eddie Cochran wrote a song called Three Stars about Valens, Holly, and the Big Bopper. Ironically, Cochran would die a short time later in a car crash in England.)

The date also came to be remembered by many rock ‘n’ roll historians as the moment the raucous angst-driven style of early rock ‘n’ roll went into hibernation, only to be revived just over five years later when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Valens, who was from Pacoima, was brought back to San Fernando for his burial.

Back in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of Valens’ death, my lovely wife Kimi and I got up early and detoured from our usual commute to stop at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery to pay our respects.

I knew the approximate location of his grave and anticipated being able to pinpoint the actual spot simply by approaching the throngs of fans encircling a grave mounded by flowers.

But at this early hour, there were no fans, and few flowers. A kindly groundskeeper pointed us to the grave which was adorned by two small bouquets.

A couple of notes were there as well. One read, “‘The day the music died’ is the day I wish had never come – We love you.”

We spent a few minutes alone at the site wondering if it was a source of pride or pain for Ritchie’s mother Concha, who is now at rest beside him, to hear his songs during the nearly 30 years she lived after his death.

(The fans and flowers arrived after our visit. When I stopped back the next day, the grave was mostly covered and a groundskeeper told me that a steady stream of fans had shown up at the gravesite throughout the day.)

Kimi had previously downloaded Valens’ three major hits – La Bamba, Donna, and Come On, Let’s Go – onto her iPod. We listened to these songs through our car’s sound system as we made our way to work. She observed that it would probably astound Valens to know that his music was still around, and that it could now be played from a device smaller than a matchbook.

It could be better stated that February 3, 1959, was the day the music-makers died, but not the music. … That’s because the songs of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper Richardson, and Ritchie Valens will live on forever.


It’s About “Buddy” Time

If I could borrow Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine for a day, I’d be tempted to set the dial to October 15, 1955 – 55 years ago today – and head for Lubbock, Texas. On that day, a young headliner named Elvis Presley played shows in two clubs in the Lubbock area – Fair Park Coliseum and the Cotton Club – with soon-to-be legend Buddy Holly as his opening act.

Holly, who had recently graduated from Lubbock High School, was a regular at the Cotton Club, where he was often let in free by the owner’s daughter. The club was unique at the time in that it was a West Texas roadhouse that was “blind to race, color, or musical genre.” This cross-pollination of styles greatly influenced Holly. One of the acts he saw the previous April was Presley, who had created a following in the South from the Louisiana Hay Ride radio program. On seeing the future “King,” Holly immediately changed his musical style from Country-based to the new genre of Rock and Roll.

A few months later, nineteen-year-old Holly and his partner Bob Montgomery, performing under the name “Buddy and Bob,” opened for Presley (Johnny Cash was another of the opening acts). It was thrilling for Holly to be on stage with his idol, and the excitement would only compound when he caught the eye of a talent scout that night from Decca Records and ended up in Nashville a few months later cutting his first demos. (Incidentally, Decca would misspell Buddy’s last name, dropping the “e” from Holley. Buddy would perform under the new spelling for the rest of his too-short career.)

The Fair Park Coliseum still exists, but the original Cotton Club closed down several years ago. It had a wall that all of the performers who played there signed, but some moron later painted over it when it was converted into an adult book store. It has since been reopened as a performing hall.

It was recently announced that Holly will finally be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on September 7, 2011. The date would have been Holly’s 75th birthday, and comes over 52 years after his death in a small plane crash, along with early rockers Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

Holly and Presley were two of the original ten performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. With his Walk of Fame tribute, he will once again share the stage with Presley, who already has a star at 6777 Hollywood Boulevard.


Buddy Holly: Rock’s First Martyr

For the want of clean underwear, rock and roll got a legend.

Legendary rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly boarded a small plane in Mason City, Iowa, on February 3, 1959, along with fellow rockers J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens. All three musicians were part of a rock and roll tour which some fool thought was a good idea to schedule  in the upper Midwest during the winter.

The musicians usually travelled in a bus with faulty heating, which resulted in one tour member being hospitalized with frostbite. Holly wanted to get to the tour’s next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota ahead of the bus so that he would have enough time to do his laundry, so he chartered a plane after the show in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Future country music superstar Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on the flight, but gave his seat to Richardson, who had the flu.

Holly kidded Jennings on departure by saying, “I hope your ‘ol bus freezes up.”

To which Jennings playfully replied, “Well, I hope your ‘ol plane crashes.”

Jennings would be haunted by his words for the rest of his life after learning that his friends had died minutes later in a crash eight miles north of the airport.

The wreckage of the plane that killed the pilot and rock and rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the “Big Bopper” on the “day the music died.”

Charles “Buddy” Holley, who would have turned 74 this week, was only 22 years old the night he died. Although his recording career lasted only 20 months, he has been called “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.”

Holly (he dropped the “e” in his stage name) began performing as a boy in Lubbock, Texas, and by the age of nineteen was opening with his band, the Crickets, for the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets, and a newcomer to the scene named Elvis Presley. The multitalented Holly played several instruments and sang with a distinctive “hiccup” style that was his signature. He was a rarity among performers in the early days of rock in that he also wrote his own songs.

The groups he influenced are a veritable “who’s who” of rock and roll history, including the Beatles, who recorded Holly songs on their records, and actually took their name in tribute to the Crickets. Paul McCartney is such a fan of Holly’s music that he purchased the rights to his catalog of songs.

There are lots of sad stories in the rock and roll “what might have been” files – tales of performers whose lives were cut down before their time – but perhaps no entry is as tragic as Buddy Holly. We can only mourn the great future songs that were lost that night, and speculate on how history might have been different had Holly only packed an additional change of clothes.

Click here to see Buddy Holly perform Oh, Boy on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” (BTW, my beautiful wife Kimi was one day old when this was broadcast.)