In Buddy Holly, best-selling biographer Ellis Amburn brings this musical genius, this flamboyant West Texas rebel, back to life. Having interviewed over two hundred people, Ellis Amburn has written the most revealing and definitive biography of Holly's life. The result is a triumphant American work.
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About the Author
Ellis Amburn, Kerouac's last editor, has written several biographies, including Buddy Holly: A Biography and Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story. He lives in Key West, Florida.
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By Ellis Amburn
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Ellis Amburn
All rights reserved.
The Cradle Will Rock
"We all sorta spoiled him, because he was so much younger than the rest of us," says Larry Holley. When Buddy was born in 1936, Larry was already ten years old and the other Holley children, Travis and Patricia, were nine and seven, respectively. Sex was a forbidden subject in Baptist families, so Larry didn't even suspect his parents, Ella, thirty-four and L.O., thirty-five, were expecting a baby until a friend told him. Hurt and bewildered by his parents' silence, Larry was so confused that he began to cry. The Holleys were a poor, decent family of hard-shell Baptists; Buddy would be the first of them to graduate from high school. His father, L. O. Holley, was a laborer who sometimes earned as little as $12 a week, going from job to job, toiling as a cook, carpenter, construction worker, car salesman, and clerk in a men's clothing store.
Buddy was born September 7, Labor Day, in the family's white-frame house at 1911 Sixth Street in Lubbock. The day had dawned cloudy and overcast, but by the time Buddy arrived a gentle, southerly wind was blowing across the South Plains. Born at the end of an age when the bedroom still served as the delivery room, Charles Hardin Holley was named after both grandparents. Mostly of English and Welsh descent, Buddy also had Indian blood from a grandfather who was one-fourth Cherokee. The Cherokees, originally from North Carolina and Georgia, had been forced to resettle in Oklahoma after a brutal march along what came to be known as "The Trail of Tears." Among their illustrious sons was the great humorist Will Rogers, who made America laugh during the Depression. Rogers died in the crash of a small airplane just a year before Buddy was born. He came from Claremore, Oklahoma, about four hundred miles from Lubbock. Of his Cherokee heritage he once quipped, "My ancestors didn't come over in the Mayflower, they met the boat."
Lawrence Odell Holley, Buddy's father, came from a farm near Honey Grove, a town in Fannin County near the Oklahoma border in northeast Texas. In his youth L.O. moved two hundred miles westward across the state to Vernon, a town situated on the Old Chisholm Trail, where he found work as a short-order cook. He met Ella Pauline Drake and they were married in 1924. Ella's parents had decided to move to Lubbock, 150 miles west of Vernon, where the construction of Texas Tech had opened up new jobs. There was also the promise of work in the sprawling cotton fields of West Texas. In 1925 L.O. and Ella Holley moved to Lubbock, settling in a rented house and moving to a different place almost every year. Larry was born in 1925, Travis in 1927, and Patricia in 1929.
The family was still poor when Buddy arrived. The Great Depression, described by John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, lingered much longer in the Southwest—well into the 1940s—than in the rest of the nation. When Buddy was still very small, his mother said his given name of Charles Hardin Holley was "too long for such a small boy." So she nicknamed him Buddy. He grew into a smiling towheaded charmer, the pet of the family. The Holley home was intensely musical, one that resounded with country-and-western songs and Protestant hymns. As soon as Buddy was old enough to carry a tune, his mother taught him "Have You Ever Gone Sailing on the River of Memories." In 1941, when he was five, he won a $5 contest singing the song at County Line, a rural school, accompanying himself on the violin.
Later the same year, on December 7, World War II began, robbing him of both his brothers, Larry and Travis, who joined the Marines and went off to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Buddy entered the first grade in 1943 at Roscoe Wilson Elementary and quickly found he didn't like to study—nor did he need to. When he brought home his first report card, it was full of A's. "He was the first of the Holley children to excel scholastically," says Larry.
Even so, he preferred the outdoors, which are nowhere grander or more alluring than the wide-open spaces of West Texas. He spent the summer of 1944 horseback riding, hunting, and fishing on his Uncle Jud's farm with his cousin from New Mexico, Sam Modrall, whose mother was Ella Holley's twin sister. Nights he sat in front of the radio with his parents tensely listening to war news. Travis was with the Marine Corps' 4th Division when it stormed ashore on Iwo Jima on February 18, 1945. "Right after Iwo Jima we were in Hawaii," Travis later told writer William J. Bush. There a shipmate with a $15 Harmony guitar got Travis hooked on the instrument. Throughout the war, soldiers from Texas had been spreading C&W all over the globe. Everywhere from Piccadilly Circus to Pearl Harbor people were singing "You Are My Sunshine" and "San Antonio Rose," wartime megahits that launched the crossover phenomenon that would vitalize the pop scene for decades to come. When the war ended later in 1945, Travis brought his guitar home and taught Buddy how to play.
Later Buddy got his own guitar, an acoustic Epiphone, and "made a clean sound," says Larry, who had managed to make it home from the war safely. "I would have swore it was another instrument entirely—the way he pressed down on it," adds Larry. Soon Buddy progressed to banjo and mandolin, applying a driving attack on any instrument he took up. His singing was equally spirited. One day the family heard him belting "Love Sick Blues," a difficult tune full of vocal somersaults. Though his voice hadn't changed yet, he managed every trick and turn of the 1949 No. 1 hit that heralded to Buddy the arrival of C&W's greatest star, Hank Williams, Sr., who became Buddy's musical model. Williams and Holly, by age only separated by thirteen years, by sound a great deal more, had in common a passion for breaking and twisting words into almost as many fragments as Handel, making them spin and loop to the delight of the listener. Before his thirtieth year, Hank Williams, Sr., would die, of alcoholism, on New Year's Day 1953.
Buddy's idol in every other respect was his brother Larry, whom Buddy seemed to cling to, perhaps because his mother and father were growing old and showed little understanding of the particularly treacherous adolescent years Buddy was entering. Larry let Buddy tag along, although Larry was far more interested in chasing girls and soon found and married the woman of his dreams, Maxine. When they went on a camping trip to the Red River, Buddy not only came along but insisted on sleeping between them when coyote howls alarmed him at night.
In the years just before adolescence, from ten to twelve, Buddy was the star of his class—a cute, lovable showoff. Lois Keeton, the playground director, adored his "infectious laugh. He just bubbled all over," she remembers. "He was a good-lookin' little fellow at ten, just as cute as he could be, but very small." He was also clever, quick, and sly. Lois, who always wore huge dark sunglasses in the glaring Texas sun, taught him to play Canasta. After he won every game for a month, she inquired, "How is it you manage to beat me every time?"
"Because I can see your hand in your big black sunglasses," he replied.
Still financially strapped, the Holleys experienced little of the prosperity that others enjoyed in the years following the Depression. To make ends meet, they moved outside the Lubbock city limits in 1946, to the less expensive Loftland Addition. Ineligible to attend city schools, Buddy transferred to suburban Roosevelt Elementary and had to ride the bus twenty miles daily. When he was twelve he could tell from the way girls flirted with him that he was the most popular kid in class. At one point, he peroxided his hair, and looked a little like Marlon Brando in The Young Lions. At an age awkward for most kids, he turned out to be at the peak of his physical attractiveness. So much so that in 1948, his classmates voted him and a girl named Barbara Denning "King and Queen of the Sixth Grade." On the school bus, everyone gathered around when he played his Epiphone guitar and sang Bill Monroe's "Gotta Travel On." One day classmate Wayne Maines brought his guitar and they performed duets on the bus, singing C&W hits such as "Pistol Packin' Mama" and "Born to Lose." Wayne was more advanced in his guitar playing but Buddy quickly soaked up everything he knew and left his classmate far behind.
Buddy's guitar playing progressed with such remarkable speed that his family was astonished at his proficiency and individual style, and by the fact that he'd memorized the words to all the traditional Texas cowboy songs, such as "Home on the Range" and "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." Like Williams, he was deeply influenced by the spiritual sound of the old country church. He loved Mahalia Jackson's "Move On Up a Little Higher." The Baptist gospel singer with the deep, emotion-drenched voice, astonishing control, and awesome inflections was Buddy's introduction to the glories of black music. Adapting both Jackson's and Hank Williams's bizarre vocal feats, Buddy learned to mimic Williams's yodel-like falsetto and the elaborate jazz spins Mahalia had picked up while marching in New Orleans funeral parades as a child. He blended in his own vocal tricks, which included hiccuping or stuttering in the middle of a word or stretching it until he shattered it to pieces. The word "Well," for example, became the multisyllabic "Weh-eh-eheh-el."
In 1949, when Buddy was thirteen, the Holley family moved back to Lubbock, renting a house at 3315 Thirty-sixth Street. The move provided him with an introduction into a faster, more socially aggressive world. He entered J. T. Hutchinson Junior High School and met Bob Montgomery, Don Guess, and Jerry Allison, precocious musicians who played important roles in his life for years to come. A multitalented youth just a year Buddy's junior, Don Guess could play stand-up bass and steel guitar and was beginning to write songs. From Lampasas, Texas, dark-haired Bob Montgomery could play guitar and sing C&W and rhythm and blues.
R&B, the precursor of rock 'n' roll, was the creation of black musicians and was known as "race records" or—in Texas in the late forties—"nigger music." Buddy Holley was racially prejudiced in his youth but overcame it, his brother Larry revealed in a 1992 interview. This family secret, heretofore unknown, emerged as Larry recounted Buddy's falling out with a famous bluegrass singing star in 1958. The star had "a bigoted attitude, like Buddy used to be," Larry said. It was in Buddy's adolescence, as he listened to R&B on Gatemouth Page's radio program on KWKH from Shreveport, Louisiana, that he began to question his racial intolerance. How could he be better than anyone who left him so far behind musically, in the dust of simplistic hillbilly and bluegrass? Blacks were cool. Their music was dirtier than sin, with titles like "It's Not the Meat, It's the Motion," "Sixty Minute Man," and "Big Long Slidin' Thing." Unlike the segregated whites at Tabernacle Baptist, blacks knew the score. He wanted to be like them. So he shed those bigoted Texas ways.
Bluegrass has been called C&W in overdrive, and Buddy and Bob cooked up a sensational act around it—a combustible mix of R&B and bluegrass that sometimes shocked the staid Protestants of the prairie. Buddy's mother later told Bill Griggs that Buddy and Bob were "big hams ... [W]here there are two, there is more enthusiasm and push." By 1949 they were making home recordings such as a cover of Hank Snow's "My Two Timin' Woman," using equipment that a friend who worked in a local electronics store temporarily "borrowed."
In 1950 when they were in the eighth grade, Buddy and Bob scandalized half of Lubbock by singing a notorious C&W novelty song, "Too Old to Cut the Mustard," at a PTA open-house program. Jerry Allison, a transfer student from Plainview, Texas, who was a grade below Buddy, heard them sing the suggestive Jumping Bill Carlisle tune and was "really impressed," he later recalled, by Buddy's gutsy singing and guitar playing. Jerry had been playing drums since the fifth grade. One day he asked Buddy to come home with him after school and played Fats Domino's record "Goin' to the River." When Buddy heard rock 'n' roll, he saw his future; it was as if the heavens had opened. But it was more than just the music. From that moment on, Buddy identified closely with blacks. At first Buddy just wanted to be uninhibited, black from the waist down—hip, cool, sexy, and rhythmic. Later this would become the essence of his whole being and culminate in the most important relationship of his life—an interracial marriage. Fortunately, Buddy's moral development out of prejudice started early, freeing him for personal and artistic growth. Ultimately, all Americans are defined by the attitude they take toward race; until that is right, nothing can be right.
Though he was coming of age in a segregated town before the beginning of the civil rights movement, Buddy identified with blacks so much that when he acquired his first cat, he named it after Booker T. Washington, the founder of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute and the first published black author. The small black kitten began life as "Booker T" but eventually became known simply as "Booker."
When Buddy's first sexual urges hit during his junior high school years, he was thrown into confusion. Tabernacle Baptist had taught him that sexual desire without marriage was evil. His parents, typically reticent Baptists, were no help. "I was ten years older than Buddy, and he looked to me for a lot of his fathering," Larry says. "He had his ornery side and his good side." When asked in a 1992 interview how Buddy learned the facts of life, Larry responds, "I just talked to him a little bit about it. I was more wild myself than I should have been at that time."
Buddy broke out of his Baptist shell in his teens when he began to disobey his parents and stay out late, hanging out with his gang in front of the Tech Café, smoking, and drinking. Friends from that period say they "stole, cussed, and chased little ol' girls." Around the time his drinking began, Buddy sprouted an ulcer. Since he and his friends were underage, they depended on the older boys in the group to acquire the beer, and they'd split a quart between five or six people. A quart of bootleg cost about three dollars.
Buddy smoked Winstons. A photograph taken of him at the time shows a pack of Salems clearly visible through the transparent material of his shirt pocket, but he only smoked menthols when he had a cold. Occasionally he bummed unfiltered Camels from his boyhood friend Tinker Carlen, but "choked to death on them," Tinker remembers. The older boys had cars and often drove to Mexico in groups looking for a good time. They returned from Acuña or Ojinaga complaining of "crotch crickets"—crabs—and the clap. "I went down and got fucked for dos pesos," one of them remembers in 1992. "She got the pesos and I got the dose."
Buddy's first sexual encounter was a "gang bang." For many young men growing up in West Texas in the fifties, this was a common rite of passage to sexual maturity. For Buddy Holley, it was a significant turning point, marking his transformation from God-fearing Baptist boy into prototypical fifties teen rebel. Tinker Carlen described the gang bang in a 1992 interview in Lubbock. He and Buddy were with several other boys one night when they spotted a girl standing in front of Tom Halsey's Pharmacy on the corner of Broadway and Avenue K. "She just had on a little halter top and a pair of Levi britches," Tinker recalls.
In the fifties, at least in West Texas, such girls were not prostitutes. They were just rebellious, and they sometimes came from the families of the clergy, high school teachers, doctors, or other prominent local citizens. When they became pregnant, as they frequently did, they had to drop out of school and were often sent into permanent exile by their parents, to live with relatives in distant cities such as Galveston or Houston.
"We drove by in a car and there was six boys of us in there," Tinker remembers. "We was out lookin', because Buddy hadn't been to bed with anybody and wondered what it was like.... Back then they called it gang bangin'. There was very few little ol' gals who'd put out and the ones that did, you could really bang 'em.
"One guy was on the rough side. He'd been used to all this wild and reckless stuff. Back then we didn't call it 'gettin' laid'; we said, 'We're going to get him bred.' We stopped at the Hi-D-Ho to get a Coke or something. Over here by Fourth Street, there's this little underpass and all of us old boys got out and in underneath a little bridge there."
The more experienced boys took the girl one by one. Tinker remembers that Buddy was uncircumcized and "had to skin it back to pee." When the other boys had finished and it was Buddy's turn, he said, "How do I do it?" Tinker says. Evidently Buddy figured it out by the time he joined the girl in the car. "He quickly became so passionate he started kissing the girl," Tinker recalls, "and one of the boys stuck his head in the window and poked Buddy in the ass with a cotton stalk. 'Hey,' he said, 'are you a pervert or something? You've got your mouth where my dick was.' The guy had had the girl give him a blow job."
Excerpted from Buddy Holly by Ellis Amburn. Copyright © 1995 Ellis Amburn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: BEGINNINGS,
Prologue: Young Man in a Hurry,
1. The Cradle Will Rock,
2. KDAV's "Sunday Party",
3. A Girl Named Echo,
4. Elvis Meets Buddy,
5. The Hillbilly Backlash,
6. The Clovis Sessions,
7. On the Road,
PART TWO: STARDOM,
8. Ed Sullivan,
9. Life Beyond the United States,
10. The Decline of Early Rock,
11. Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,
12. Sunset and Evening Star,
13. "There's Nobody Else to Do It",
PART THREE: LEGEND,
15. The Days After,
16. American Pie,
17. Buddy's Legacy: Exploitation, Distortion, and an Enduring Love,
Epilogue: The Last Dance,
Also by Ellis Amburn,