Although February is the shortest calendar month of the year, it has served as one of the most significant months for momentous musical events — both happy and sad.
On February 3, 1959, a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, took the lives of promising young rock musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (known as the “Big Bopper”). In his 1972 classic ode “American Pie,” singer-songwriter Don McLean memorialized the tragic event as “the day the music died.”
Yet five years and just a few short days later — February 9, 1964 — the music experienced a rebirth. This was when the Beatles, just after flying in from their native United Kingdom, performed live for the first time in the United States on the popular TV program “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The Beatles’ phenomenal success on the U.S. pop charts led to a great burst of creativity in performing and songwriting that continues — in fits and starts — to this day.
The two events are connected through the innovations of Holly in his musicianship. Though Holly’s life was cut short when he was just 22 and he had been recording professionally for less than three years, he had already made music that greatly influenced the Beatles and many others. When they first started performing together as teens in Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were enthralled not just by Holly’s songs but by his entrepreneurial involvement in every aspect of the music that he performed.
While musicians writing their songs is common today, it was a new phenomenon when Holly began composing his hits such as “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day.” When Lennon and McCartney formed the band that would become the Beatles, they recorded “That’ll Be the Day” as their first single and included many of Holly’s songs in their early live performances. But Holly also inspired them to write their own material. As McCartney would recall (in the book “The Beatles Anthology,” as documented by music blogger Aaron Krerowicz), “John and I started to write because of Buddy Holly.”
In tribute to Holly’s band, the Crickets, Lennon and McCartney would also name their band after a type of insect, albeit with a spelling that alluded to their music. Hence, the name the Beatles.
Holly’s influence is also reflected in the Beatles’ use of musical instruments not typical for rock. Their “Sgt. Pepper” album in 1967 featured a range of classical and exotic instruments such as the harpsichord and the sitar.
While Holly would never record concept albums with avant-garde themes such as “Sgt. Pepper” —though he may very well have done so had he lived — he did select atypical instruments for many of his songs. His single “Everyday” featured the celesta, a keyboard instrument with a glockenspiel-like tone. For the recording of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” a song written for him by pop singer-songwriter Paul Anka, Holly commissioned violinists who had played in the New York Philharmonic to add backing instrumentation. This is believed to be the first instance of rock music using classical strings.
Holly would also influence the Beatles and others — directly and indirectly — with his budding entrepreneurship in the music industry. In 1958, he formed a song publishing company named Maria Music, after his wife, Maria Elena Holly. And he began producing other artists, including a young singer from his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, named Waylon Jennings, who would later become one of the biggest stars of country music.
Jennings, who passed away in 2002, talked to me about his memories of Holly for an Investor’s Business Daily article I wrote on Holly’s legacy in 1999. “He had faith in me; he was one of the first people who ever did,” Jennings recalled. He remembers Holly advising him that when dealing with the music industry, “Don’t let them put you in a pigeonhole” regarding the genre of music performed. Jennings took this advice about mixing it up and became famous for melding his country music with rock influences.
Above all, Jennings remembered Holly’s zest to make the most out of every day he was alive. “You’d have to know him to know how happy he was, how excited he was about music, how excited he was about living,” Jennings recalled. Far from Holly’s innovations in music dying with the February 3 plane crash, his legacy lives on in those he influenced, such as the Beatles and Jennings, and those in turn influenced by them.