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Rock's First Everyman : RAVE ON: The Biography of Buddy Holly. By Philip Norman (Simon & Schuster: $24, 332 pp.)

September 29, 1996|Jonathan F. King | Jonathan F. King is a senior editor at Sunset magazine. He conducted a 10th anniversary memorial for Buddy Holly in his UCLA dorm room on Feb. 3, 1969, carefully allowing for the time differential between Westwood and Mason City, Iowa

Buddy Holly appeared on the mid-'50s pop music scene as a complete rock 'n' roll package. The exuberant youngster from Lubbock, Texas, was a capable songwriter, an exciting guitarist and an innovative vocalist. He departed the scene--and this world--on "the day the music died," killed in the crash of a light plane into a frozen Iowa cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959. Only 22 years old, he left behind a solid handful of classic recordings (songs like "Peggy Sue" "Maybe Baby" and "That'll Be the Day") and a population of mourners that would coalesce into a cult.

One needn't be obsessed with Holly to wonder what he might have made of a longer career. Would he have pursued the experiments with orchestral strings that colored his final recordings, continuing the transition from rocker to pop balladeer? Would he have followed through on his dreams to record albums with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson or to pursue a career in movies? Would he, in short, have regained the career momentum that was flagging badly when he died and gone on to fulfill the promise of his youthful talent?

These are intriguing questions, and Holly fanatics wrestle with them regularly. Even Holly's most ardent admirers acknowledge that his early death not only renders these speculations tantalizingly moot but contributes immensely to the luster of the legend. Yet they quickly add that he was a worthy idol in his own mortal right--a pioneer and a distinctive stylist who helped define early rock 'n' roll, setting standards for future generations to adopt and emulate.

In "Rave On," the second ambitious Holly biography in as many years, the Briton Phillip Norman (best known in the U.S. for 1968's then-definitive group biography of the Beatles, "Shout!") makes the adulators' case sound convincing. He reminds us that the fledgling rocker--far removed from pop's fleshpots in New York and Los Angeles--wrote, performed and recorded songs, the best of which have become primal rock classics ("Oh Boy," "Rave On"), while many others remain in currency through innumerable cover versions ("It's So Easy," "Well All Right," "True Love Ways," "Love's Made a Fool of You," "Not Fade Away" and "It Doesn't Matter Anymore").

In addition, Holly introduced the rock trio lineup (lead guitar, bass, drums) that not only presaged the particular lineups of such latter-day groups as Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience but was, in Norman's typically unambiguous declaration, "the prototype of every rock band there has been or will be." He "extended the vocabulary of the rock 'n' roll guitar" while breaking the rock mold by recording with a gospel choir, a full-scale string section or (in "Everyday") a simple celesta accompanied by hand-pats on a drummer's knees. He exerted artistic control over his recordings to a degree unheard of in the genre, at the same time employing unusual recording techniques (echo, double-tracking, overdubbing) that have since become commonplace. And he undertook to master and pursue the extra-musical aspects of the music business: publishing, recording, artists and repertoire.

Most of all, Norman emphasizes, Holly's influence is inarguable because rock's greatest white performers have taken pains to attest to it in word and deed. Among those who found inspiration were the Beatles and the Hollies, both of whom took their names from Holly and his backup band, the Crickets; the Rolling Stones, whose breakthrough single was a cover of "Not Fade Away"; and the Grateful Dead, who closed innumerable marathon shows with their own thundering version of "Not Fade Away."

Does the music itself support the judgment of the faithful? "Rave On" is of little help here; Norman is no musicologist, and when he does attempt to evoke a performance he does it poorly. Fortunately, the records survive and they make clear the whyfores of their enduring appeal. Though Holly's songs were elementally constructed, the best of them are catchy, even memorable, tunes. His lyrics, likewise invariably simple, suited the genre's poetic aspirations perfectly, and they certainly stayed out of the music's way. ("If you knew / Peggy Sue / Then you'll know why I feel blue.") Holly's electrified Fender Stratocaster was the defining instrumental voice, here strummed in a vivid rhythm, there chiming out single-note solos, biting and raw for their time and place.

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