“Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile…’’
I was 13 years old, and at the beginning of a tragic love affair with the guitar, the first time I heard that clear, honest voice on my transistor AM radio, which was strapped carefully (with my tongue sticking out) to the handlebars of my red Murray bicycle.
That bike with the transistor AM radio went swimming, fishing, baseball-playing and trouble-making with me everywhere I went. But mostly, it was teaching me songs—great, future classic songs—and firing me up about what would become my own passion: pop music.
I asked all my friends and family about the American Pie song, and a few of the junior high school gurus (there are some in every circle) told me it was about Buddy Holly and his friends, the way they were sadly taken from us on Feb. 3 of ’59, my second year on the planet. The story spoke to my heart, and I set my mind to finding out more about this Buddy Holly.
I cannot tell you in a story this length by what shock of crazy, poetic, cosmically impossible events I wound up working in Clovis, New Mexico, just seven years later. At the radio station built by Norman Petty, Buddy Holly’s producer. Buddy Holly, the guy whose band, the Crickets, inspired those kids from Liverpool, England, to name their band the Beatles. The guy who inspired American Pie.
Sometimes, while I was the overnight jockey, or jock (we rarely used the term “D.J.” back then), Norma Jean Berry, who was Norman’s personal assistant, as well as our news director at KTQM/KWKA, would come to check the AP wire, stop for a chat, and make coffee. She told me stories—in simple, matter-of-fact words and tone—about Buddy Holly and all those years that, in my imagination, must have been magic. She told me about Waylon giving up his seat on the plane, about how Vi Petty played on famous records and didn’t care about credits, about how Norman would always work at night (and why), about his meticulous habits and absolutely perfect ear, about the little studio on 7th, and the “new” studio on Main Street, both of which eventually would be dreams-come-true for me when I actually got to work in them.
Once in a great while, like a friendly old Ghost of Rock-and-Roll Past, Norman Petty himself would walk into that station, looking this way and that, checking out the equipment, giving me a wave, or even asking me how it was going. For a kid that never shut up, I couldn’t find a word, or a breath, around Mr. Petty.
I went back east to go to school in Kentucky, and my great friends in Clovis called in 1984 to tell me that Norman had passed, died of leukemia. Two years later I returned to Clovis, New Mexico; that music thing was a strong pull. Randy Egan and Johnny Mulhair came to help me pack all my earthly belongings—some clothes, some records and a couple of banged-up guitars—in a 1966 Ford pickup truck (that I eventually traded for a guitar) and haul them back to Nuevo Mejico.
The next chapter of my life included a return to radio, the beginning of the Clovis Music Festival, a date with the true-blue Peggy Sue, playing shows with Buddy Holly’s band and with other greats like the Fireballs, Carl Perkins and Joe Ely. I had learned, somewhere along the way, to play guitar.
One afternoon during one of the first Clovis Music Festivals, as I sat at the Citadel with Vi Petty, who had become a great friend, I said, “I have so many questions I would have loved to ask Buddy Holly.” Vi replied, “Well, why don’t you ask his mother?” Vi was one of those crazy talented people, and so off the wall I couldn’t tell sometimes if she was joking. I looked at her, and she grinned and pointed at the little lady an inch from my elbow that we had been chatting and drinking iced tea with all afternoon. It was Buddy Holly’s mother, but she hadn’t minded spending her day with the likes of me, away from the crowd, tea in the shade. I eventually got to spend a lot of sweet time with the Holly family and, to this day, the phrase “Salt of the Earth” comes to mind whenever I think of them.
Those days are always a treasure to me, and even though I was 1 when Buddy left for Rock-and-Roll Heaven, I feel a great debt to him, and all those brilliant ones whose lives ended in Clear Lake, Iowa, in February 1959. And to Norman Petty, who made stars shine.
I always believed that if I could sing from my heart, and pay tribute that way, a tiny piece of that magic would be brought to whatever little corner of the world I was in. I still do.