“NOT FADE AWAY”
For many years now (and doubtless for many to come) the early days of February usually find me contemplating the life and tragically early death of Buddy Holly. When the anniversary comes around I'm given to considering what might have been. He was aged 22 when he died, leaving behind a fine body of work, a testament to which is the fact that many of his songs have become standards, spawning multiple cover versions all still heard today along with Holly's original recordings. The big unanswerable question is of course what might he have become? How far would his music have developed? There are clues to be found in the careers of his contemporaries which would suggest that by the early 1960s perhaps he would have become less relevant and trading on past glories although my personal view is that his best lay ahead of him.
The Winter Dance Party, with hindsight, was ill-conceived. Having split from his manager Norman Petty and his band The Crickets in a dispute over royalty payments in late 1958, the motivating factor behind the tour in which Holly was a reluctant participant was money. The split left him with legal and financial problems, so much so that his guitarist for the tour, Tommy Allsup, described Holly as being "flat broke". A short tour criss-crossing the American Mid-West would alleviate the money worries somewhat it was thought, but because it was so hastily put together little or no thought was given to the logistics with the musicians being required to travel hundreds of miles between shows back and forth across the region through what was one of coldest winters the Mid-West had experienced in decades. The weather factor would prove significant in how things eventually turned out. All of the survivors of the tour have spoken about the abject misery endured by all concerned. They travelled from city to city on a bus with only barely adequate heating. When the heating failed altogether it led to the occupants wearing several layers of clothes and wrapping themselves in blankets in an effort to stay warm. Even this wasn't enough to save drummer Carl Bunch from getting frostbitten toes, being hospitalised and leaving the tour. To cover the gap this led to Buddy Holly himself playing drums for Ritchie Valens' set with Valens returning the favour for Holly's.
Unable to sleep properly between dates on the freezing bus by the time the Party rolled into Clearlake Iowa for a show on the 2nd of February the mood was despondent. J.P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, had been suffering from flu and was feeling particularly miserable. Buddy had had enough. He hatched a plan to hire a plane to fly ahead of the Party to the next date in Fargo North Dakota, thus allowing him to get some much needed rest as well the chance to do some basic essentials, such as having the clothes he'd been living and sleeping in laundered. Following the show in the Surf Ballroom in Clearlake Holly prepared to leave for the local airport with fellow passengers Tommy Allsup and bass player Waylon Jennings. In the Surf's dressing room the ailing Bopper made a last minute plea to Jennings for his seat on the plane while Valens asked Allsup for his. Feeling sorry for the Bopper Jennings agreed though Allsup was slightly more reluctant. Not wanting to flatly refuse Valens Allsup offered a coin toss to decide who should go. Tommy lost and was back on the bus – Ritchie Valens had his seat on the flight. A good humoured but infamous exchange took place as Holly, Big Bopper and Valens were about to leave.
"Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up" said Holly to Waylon Jennings.
"Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes" replied Jennings.
When the flight took off with local pilot Roger Peterson at the controls deteriorating weather had been reported along the route, something which he wasn't made aware of. Crucially Peterson wasn't qualified to fly solely by instruments, and this, combined with his inability to see any reference points on the ground meant that his spatial awareness was severely impaired. The subsequent investigation found that Roger Peterson may have thought he was climbing when he was, in fact, descending. The plane hit the ground at an estimated 170 mph, cartwheeling 540 feet across a cornfield before coming to a halt against a wire fence. All four occupants died instantly. The tour continued to its conclusion with Bobby Vee and Frankie Avalon drafted in as substitute headliners. The sense of tragedy was compounded by Holly's pregnant wife Maria Elena suffering a miscarriage on hearing of his death. As for Waylon Jennings, he was profoundly depressed and disillusioned and returned to his native Texas where, by his own admission, he barely touched a guitar for three years. He would of course be haunted too for the rest of his life by his throwaway remark to Holly as he left the Surf ballroom.
So to the big unanswerable question. Had he stayed on the bus and lived what would the future have held for Buddy Holly? Well given the fortunes of his contemporaries one might suggest not very much. Although nobody knew it at the time, as the 1950s drew to a close some of the decade's leading lights' best days were in most cases behind them. Elvis Presley was already in the army and barring a brief but tantalising flicker of life during his 1968 Comeback Special he would never again reach the dizzying heights in artistic terms that he had in the mid-50s. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers……. they all maintained their careers but by and large this involved little more than rehashing those bright burning early years. I believe Holly's trajectory might have been different. He'd dabbled in rockabilly, rock and roll and in the months before his death had recorded music with orchestration, witness "True Love Ways". His was a restless heart, exploring, looking to expand his musical palette, quite coincidentally not unlike the Beatles, on whom he was such an influence. Indeed, he was reportedly listening to soul music with a view to possible collaborations with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson, this just prior to the commencement of the Winter Dance Party. I don't think it requires much of a leap of the imagination to see Holly in the 1960s working with the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or being as influential on the 60s generation for that matter. Headlining at Woodstock in '69? I say why not? Even into the 1970s it's easy to see him still being relevant and making fresh, challenging music. Ultimately we don't know and we never will but if you allow yourself to dream just for a minute of how things might have been it brings home how huge and unbearably sad the loss of Buddy Holly was.