Buddy Holly Tribute Albums and Concert
How did The Beatles get their name? Who set the stage for the otherwise unprecedented but now perfectly normal mode of songwriters performing their songs? Who would be turning 75 this month, had not the music died the day his plane crashed when he was all of 23 years old?
Well, the headline gave you whatever clue you needed. Buddy Holly and his Crickets paved the way for The Beatles and so much more. In a chillingly short span of 18 months, Holly sent 27 songs into the Top 40. He founded the classic rock band format of bass, drums and two guitarists. In 1974 John Lennon said “his influence continues.” Fifteen years earlier, Holly’s thick black glasses probably gave the young Liverpudlian a modicum of confidence with his own poor eyesight. Lennon had another insight, when he reflected on seeing Holly on TV, “It was the first time I ever saw a Fender guitar being played…while the singer sang.” And more recently another genius named Brian Wilson said Holly’s music “matters because it is timeless.” Several generations of musicians concur.
Holly melded country and bluegrass with blues, rockabilly and R&B. He wrote, arranged, played and recorded his own songs. He began to bridge black and white audiences. Pretty much everything about Holly was unprecedented.
As part of the celebrations around the 75th anniversary of Holly’s birth, a pair of high profile tribute albums were released, one of which will also see the light of day in December on PBS. Listen to Me was a labor of love for Peter Asher, who took Holly’s “True Love Ways” as half of the duo Peter and Gordon into the Top 20 in 1965. Asher oversaw a bevy of artists assaying Holly’s songs for the current tribute, many of whom assembled at The Music Box in Hollywood for the PBS taping on Holly’s 75th birthday.
Stevie Nicks opened and closed the show, delivering a fiery version of “Not Fade Away.” The song has been covered by everyone from Springsteen to the Grateful Dead to the Rolling Stones. Lyle Lovett, another gentleman from Texas, followed up with “Well All Right.” A highlight of Lovett’s performance was James Burton on guitar; his work with Rick Nelson and Elvis Presley influenced everyone on the stage and countless others in the prior four decades. Priscilla Presley was in the audience.
Waddy Wachtel [left] and Stevie Nicks
Co-hosting the evening’s festivities was Chris Isaak, who brought his uncanny vocals and droll demeanor into perfect pitch. Isaak proved yet again he is one of the most accomplished and underrated performers touring today. His liquid vocals evoked the delicate pain of Holly’s lyrics. On “Crying Waiting Hoping” Isaak commented that doing harmonies with Phil Everly sitting in the front row was one of his most daunting tasks ever. Everly was seated next to Holly’s widow Maria Elena Holly, but later took the stage for the first time in years to sing. Buddy Holly wrote a few tracks in 1958 for his buddies Don and Phil Everly, but the brothers’ manager oddly turned down the opportunity. In fact, both the Everlys and Holly had manager issues and eventually hired the same lawyer to straighten out matters. Some say Holly signed on to his fatal final tour because his manager (who also somehow held songwriting credits on many Holly hits) was withholding royalty payments due Holly. Phil Everly was a pallbearer at Holly’s funeral.
Peter Asher [left] and Chris Isaak
Two rock and roll widows Maria Elena Holly [left] and Priscilla Presley
Phil Everly [left] and Chris Isaak
For many of the tracks on the Listen To Me CD and for all of the performances at The Music Box, Asher assembled a crack support band. Drawing from his work with Linda Ronstadt in the 1970s (which included serious hits with three Holly covers, one of which appears on the current tribute CD), Asher brought in Russ Kunkel on drums, Leland Sklar on bass and Waddy Wachtel on guitar. Only the Ramones wore their guitars lower than Wachtel. The CD version of “Learning the Game” is beautifully performed by Natalie Merchant. Shawn Colvin played a similar arrangement on stage.
Further testifying to the Beatles connection, Ringo Starr romps through a version of “Think It Over” on the CD. Another great pairing on the CD is Jeff Lynne on “Words of Love.” Besides playing all the instruments and producing the track, Lynne evokes one of his best Lennonesque vocals on a song the Beatles covered in 1964.
Graham Nash is no stranger to Holly’s music, having named his original band after the tall Texan. The Hollies were one of the many bands from northern England that were enamored by Buddy Holly. Four guys in Liverpool were similarly predisposed. Although Nash does not appear on Listen To Me, he performed admirably on several songs in concert. An earlier star-studded CD tribute also included Graham Nash (with his fellow Hollies) and a perfectly poignant contribution from Waylon Jennings (who gave up his seat on the ill-fated plane that took his pal Buddy Holly to his death). That 1996 collection is called Not Fade Away and is worth seeking out.
At The Music Box, Raul Malo was introduced by Asher as the vocalist all the performers wish they could be. He performed stunningly well, which is always the case. Although Malo is not on Listen To Me you can catch him croon “True Love Ways” (as lead vocalist for the Mavericks) on Not Fade Away, which is probably why Malo was invited to perform at the recent concert.
“It Doesn’t Matter” was a thorough surprise. Although not on the CD, its author Paul Anka performed the song on stage like a consummate pro. Anka and Holly met each other on one of many endless package tours, and Holly asked Anka to write him a more orchestrated song. It was one of the last songs Holly recorded, and in 1959 Anka said he was giving his composer’s royalties to Holly’s widow. At The Music Box event, Anka waited patiently (but with a modicum of consternation) for the crew to adjust the lights and microphones. He then gave a bravura performance that brought the crowd to its feet for the first time. As he left the stage, he grinned and shouted a line that will undoubtedly end up on the cutting room floor “I am not frigging doing the song again!”
Although there were a seemingly endless array of retakes due to the demands of TV production, Isaak and the other performers did their best to keep the pace from flagging. The evening ended up with the requisite all-hands-on-stage rave up. The cluster of musicians again brought the audience to its feet, and Isaak had the quip of the evening, that I hope does NOT end up on the cutting room floor. James Burton scorched the fretboard during an instrumental break, and after the song ended, Isaak asserted that “Wait, we have to do it again, Burton missed a note!”
James Burton [left] and Lyle Lovett
Indeed, as I left the venue near midnight, I saw Isaak and Burton huddled in the middle of the stage while the roadies broke down the set. Perhaps the topics included Burton’s work with Rick Nelson (a model for Isaak’s role in his sadly now unfindable TV show) or the invitation for Burton to join Bob Dylan’s first touring band (Burton was too busy already).
For the various Listen To Me performers on the CD who did not appear on stage, they sent video clips that will undoubtedly be integrated into the TV airing: Brian Wilson, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, Natalie Merchant, Imelda May, Pat (Train) Monahan, Jackson Browne and Eric Idle.
Rave On: Buddy Holly is the other recent tribute CD. Released a few months ago, it stretches further and features an eclectic roster including Paul McCartney (whose earliest notable investment was the Buddy Holly publishing catalog), Modest Mouse, Lou Reed, Cee Lo Green, Kid Rock, My Morning Jacket, John Doe, Nick Lowe, Fiona Apple & Jon Brion, Patti Smith and the Detroit Cobras. Also featured are the rather ubiquitous Graham Nash and She & Him (whose Zooey Deschanel also appears on Listen To Me). Nash’s album closer “Raining In My Heart” is the delicate and lush opposite of Eric Idle’s boisterous Python-esque album closer on Listen To Me.
Please let me know if there is any other artist whose 18 month output was as influential as Buddy Holly.