Buddy Holly: Biography, Songs & Death

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will extrapolate on the life, career, and tragic death of Buddy Holly. We will examine his impact on the history of rock 'n' roll music and American style.

Buddy Holly

The Golden Age of Rock 'n' Roll

Buddy Holly represents one of the foremost figures in the early years of rock'n'roll. The mid to late 1950s is often described as 'The Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll' in which the genre established itself as the sound of youth culture in America. In some respects, the concept of youth culture itself was devised in this period and attributed to a generation of post-war youth looking to distinguish themselves from their parents' generation. Buddy Holly was one of the most influential figures in the 1950s rock 'n' roll milieu, bridging the gap between white country and western, radio friendly pop, and African-American rhythm and blues.

Career, Hits, and Image

Charles Hardin Holley was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1936. His stage name, Buddy Holly, would be adopted later. Holly would only live to be 22 years old, but he retains an iconic status in the history of rock 'n' roll that far outlasts his tragically short life. Holly began his career playing a regionally comprehensible form of country and western music. The concept of rock 'n' roll as a distinct genre was still coalescing in people's minds in the mid-1950s when Holly and his band started playing at a local radio station. A major shift occurred for Holly when he was given the opportunity to open for Elvis Presley in Lubbock in 1956. That same year, Holly signed to Decca records and jumped on the rock 'n' roll band wagon.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets

Buddy Holly's career flourished over the next two and half years. Rock 'n' roll in the 1950s was very much geared towards teenagers, who did not necessarily have the money to spend on full-length records. Consequently, most early rock 'n' roll music was focused towards singles that were less expensive for teenagers to buy. With his newly formed band, The Crickets, Holly released a string of hit singles, including 'That'll Be the Day,' 'Peggy Sue' and 'Not Fade Away,' that can still be heard on the radio today. The Crickets' album 'The 'Chirping' Crickets' was released in 1957. The end of 1957 marked one of the high points of Holly's career with his performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a major platform for rock 'n' roll music.

In many ways, Holly's somewhat geeky, bespectacled image was as pivotal to his success as his catchy music. While Elvis was the hypersexual dreamboat and Little Richard was the outrageous, flamboyant eccentric, Buddy Holly seemed safer and more accessible to many white teenagers, as well as their parents. His 'nerd chic' appearance was the forerunner for many similar nerdy public personas today, such as Weezer frontman, Rivers Cuomo, or the Decemberists.

Following a series of important tours including shows in Hawaii, Australia, and crucially, the U.K., Holly disbanded The Crickets and moved to New York City in 1958. Although his live dates in the U.K. would win him British fans, such as The Beatles, who would go on to become deeply important to rock music in the 1960s, Holly was dissatisfied with his management. Buddy Holly continued writing, producing, and recording until his star-crossed tour of the Midwest in the winter of 1959.

Death and Legacy

Like many mythologized figures in rock history, Holly's posthumous reputation was amplified by his sudden death in a plane crash while on tour in 1959. Like other rock heroes such as Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison who would die young in the years to come, Buddy Holly's untimely death gave his career a legendary quality that would help his music endure.

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