Friday, February 6, 2009

Buddy Holly figures prominently in any potted history of rock music. He’s characteristically included among that handful of late-‘50s avatars who lit a spark that was all but extinguished until a bunch of shaggy-haired British boys crossed the Atlantic to remind Americans, and thence the world, of what they’d been missing.

As we remember the 50th anniversary of the untimely death of Mr. Holly - and Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson Jr. - this week, it’s perhaps a good time to make an even greater claim for Mr. Holly’s legacy.

Think of it this way: There are two epochs of rock - Before Buddy and After Buddy.

In his book “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity,” University of Chicago art historian David W. Galenson sets this bar for an artist’s influence: Can anyone subsequently ignore his work?

In Mr. Holly’s case, the answer is an emphatic no.

If Elvis Presley changed the face (and hair and hips) of pop music, Buddy Holly - himself influenced by Mr. Presley, to be sure - went on to alter its molecular structure.

As Marshall Crenshaw - the eclectic singer-songwriter who played Mr. Holly in the 1987 Valens biopic “La Bamba” - notes, Mr. Holly, along with quintessential rocker Chuck Berry, “invented ‘60s rock. It was really those two guys.”

“His music was unique, original and distinctive,” Mr. Crenshaw adds. “He influenced all the important stuff that came afterward.”

More so than Mr. Berry, however, Mr. Holly became what Mick Jagger called the “archetypal singer-songwriter”: a vessel for original musical ideas that did not necessarily obey a particular form or genre.

Mr. Holly and his backing band, the Crickets, were rock music’s first self-sufficient writers and performers of their own material.

In this, he prefigured both the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Of the nearly 100 songs he recorded in just three years, Mr. Holly wrote or co-wrote about 40. According to the Silver Spring-based musician and Holly fanatic J.P. McDermott, his creativity had been accelerating rapidly until the fatal plane crash.

Mr. Holly was the first rock artist who glimpsed a future that was open to exploration and experimentation. He toyed with the sonic possibilities of ancillary instruments such as the celesta. He recorded with a string section - rare for a rocker in those days. He seemed to grasp intuitively an insight that critic Terry Teachout credits to the Beatles and their producer, George Martin: that the recording studio itself could, in effect, become a kind of instrument.

What more would he have accomplished? One can only speculate - he died in 1959, at the age of 22. Rabid Holly fan John Lennon was certain his craft would have grown even more inventive and sophisticated.

Mr. McDermott, who earlier this week delivered a lecture on the singer at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, says that in the months before he died, Mr. Holly was keen on collaborating with R&B star Ray Charles.

Mr. Holly and wife Maria Santiago had moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village. So perhaps, Mr. McDermott theorizes, he would have immersed himself in the folk scene there.

It’s possible, too, that the Lubbock, Texas-born Mr. Holly might have beaten country-rock pioneers Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman to their discovery.

All of these are tantalizing what-ifs - but their plausibility does not extend to any of Mr. Holly’s peers.

Mr. Holly’s influence was important for other, subtler reasons. His association with the Fender Stratocaster guitar, for instance, was iconic and helped popularize the brand.

Furthermore, a 1958 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” had made Mr. Holly a huge star in England. (The Beatles chose their name in part as an insectival homage to the Crickets.)

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said that the bespectacled Mr. Holly’s resemblance to a “bank clerk” was an inspiration of sorts: Rock stardom “was not just for guys who looked like Elvis,” he concluded.

Those less-than-conventional-good-looks proved a confidence booster to countless talented geeks, from Joey Ramone to Elvis Costello to Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo.

Still, 50 years after the “day the music died,” it’s instructive to remember that Mr. Holly’s greatness was far from universally acknowledged at the time. Rock then had yet to transcend its origins. With Mr. Presley shorn of hair in the Army, the music seemed like the fading novelty many older Americans had suspected it of being all along.

Manufactured teen idols such as Frankie Avalon and Fabian had begun to eclipse rock’s first wave of stars.

Mr. McDermott says Mr. Holly’s October 1958 recordings in New York City with an orchestra (known as the “String Sessions”) was as much an effort to rebrand Mr. Holly as a traditional pop singer as it was a forward-thinking experiment.

By 1959, Mr. Holly’s power as a hit maker was in decline, says Mr. Crenshaw, who points out that the Winter Dance Party tour on which he, Mr. Valens and Mr. Richardson had been performing was, for Mr. Holly, a “dismal” undertaking necessitated by the need for a paycheck. (His manager, Norman Petty, though indispensable to Mr. Holly’s rise, was one of rock music’s proverbial financial sharks.)

Mr. Holly’s legacy was obvious only in hindsight.

With his No. 1 single “American Pie” (1971), singer-songwriter Don McLean paid nameless tribute to all three of the musicians who died in the Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa.

However, he sought to monumentalize the life and music of Mr. Holly in particular.

The man’s importance probably came as news to most Americans.

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