That'll Be the Day

Revisiting the legacy of Buddy Holly

Among the honored too-early-dead of rock 'n' roll, Buddy Holly is untouchable. Not only did he help invent the genre, but he also helped invent the too-early death. Holly died at 22 (it's still astonishing, given the tower of hits he'd already piled up), not due to anything we can really hate or worship him for, like an overdose or an eaten gun, but because he wanted to make his touring schedule more efficient and less taxing. In the winter of 1959, on tour with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens and worn out from traveling by unreliable bus, Holly chartered a plane for all of them. It crashed, and in one fell swoop, the three were gone.

With Holly in particular, there's no need for talk about what might have been, because what was was more than enough. His legacy is obvious in his music -- it's been covered by the Beatles (Paul McCartney has for years owned the rights to all of Holly's songs), the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Beach Boys, Blondie, and so on, and alluded to, consciously and un-, by countless others.

Predictably but necessarily, the point of entry into Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story is Don McLean's song "American Pie." It's important to begin on that rueful note, to acknowledge the day the music died, because with this out of the way, the show can go right ahead being brightly fun and tuneful and vital. Although it's not immediately evident from the unimaginative title, Buddyis committed to being (and celebrating being) alive -- so much so, in fact, that it comes off as peculiarly hyper, like a bereaved person in an early stage of grief, feeling too fragile to fully confront the real rottenness of the loss, keeping distracted with happy thoughts. The book, by Alan Janes, is a pastiche of feel-good, PG-rated stuff, vignetting the essential plot points of Holly's career and his life. It doesn't probe, and almost seems like it wouldn't dare.

No, It's Not a Young Elvis Costello: Travis Poelle as 
Buddy Holly.
Robert Bengtson
No, It's Not a Young Elvis Costello: Travis Poelle as Buddy Holly.

But true enough, it rocks. Travis Poelle, who played the lead role to packed houses in Carmel and San Jose, seems so thrilled at being Buddy, so easy with a guitar in his hands and the eyes and ears of an audience all over him, that there's no need to rank his impersonation for authenticity. Nor is there time -- another song is always imminent.

We first meet Buddy playing on the radio station KDAV, the voice of Lubbock, Texas, where he's bursting at the seams to liven up the studio piffle. When told rock 'n' roll has no place on the airwaves, he gives an ultimatum: "My music, my way." When told that record executives figured he and his band, the Crickets, were black, he says, "Well, I take that as a compliment."

Later his whiteness comes as a hilarious surprise to the performers and audience at Harlem's Apollo Theater. But with a little aw-shucks charisma (and some solid chops), all is forgiven. As a matter of historical record, the Crickets did win the Apollo over, but not without a couple of tough nights of being booed.

Having collapsed the action for narrative purposes, Janes' show might at first seem a little suspicious. It makes Holly seem like an intuitive musical genius -- getting ideas at the drop of a hat, making them work immediately, turning them into perfect hits. But then when you look at his prolific output and listen to the songs, the only reasonable conclusion is that he wasan intuitive musical genius.

Later, dramatic conflict becomes a matter of foreshadowing the sad fate we already know, and the suspicion is that the proper narrative material has run a little thin, so Janes decided just to load up on production numbers (all handsomely staged and lit). It turns out, though, that this tack isn't a problem. By now we've got the Big Bopper (Scott Free) and Ritchie Valens (Davitt Felder) in the mix, not to mention a fine horn section, and a real sense that the whole company feels unified by a common purpose.

In appearance, sound, and mood, Buddy evokes a special age in American music, the forward-looking mid-'50s, when a kid like Holly, coming up from shirt sleeves and cuffed jeans into dapper white suits, was thrilling to behold. It does no harm to remember the momentum he imparted, that trademark hop-skip vocal styling, the self-made stage image -- "Buddy Holly wears glasses," he says, "and here they are." Better still to rediscover Holly's musicianship. In the gorgeous harmonies of "Words of Love" or the perfect changes in "Raining in My Heart," you can appreciate his great strength as a balladeer, and hear the future.

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