Buddy Holly, who was killed in 1959, would have turned 75 on Wednesday. (MCA Records )
What possible impact could a young pop musician make if given just 18 months to carve out a career? Only the most dreamy-eyed optimist could think of placing 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, much less scoring induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and continuing to win fans among new generations of musicians and listeners more than a half-century later.
Yet that's what Buddy Holly accomplished in his short time in the spotlight, from the day he first entered the national sales charts on Aug. 12, 1957, with "That'll Be the Day" until the plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, that took his life at age 22 along with those of Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson).
Wednesday marks what would have been the Texas rocker's 75th birthday, when the world can once again wonder, "What if?"
"If you had to pick one untimely death of someone who would have had a really interesting and extensive future, it would be Buddy Holly," said veteran musician, producer and talent manager Peter Asher, executive producer of "Listen to Me," one of two new all-star tribute albums that put a multi-generational spin on such Holly classics as "Peggy Sue," "That'll Be the Day," "Not Fade Away," "Maybe Baby" and "True Love Ways."
Asher has a particularly close relationship with the last song — it was a Top 20 pop hit for him in 1965 with his singing partner, Gordon Waller, when they were better known as British pop duo Peter and Gordon. Asher even modeled his own appearance on Holly's, copying his signature horn-rimmed glasses.
"He changed the look of rock and roll, and he changed the definition of exactly who could become a rock star," writes James Henke, vice president of exhibition and curatorial affairs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the liner notes for "Listen to Me." "Buddy Holly did not come across as a hotter-than-thou, sexier-than-thou performer. Nope, Buddy Holly was the Average Joe."
"Listen to Me" opens with Stevie Nicks happily rocking atop the Bo Diddley beat of "Not Fade Away" and includes the Fray handling "Take Your Time," Ringo Starr shuffling through "Think It Over," Chris Isaak crooning "Crying Waiting Hoping" and Cobra Starship reimagining "Peggy Sue." Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, who said "Buddy Holly's sweet voice and his trademark hiccup always intrigued me," layers his signature harmonies into the title track.
Zooey Deschanel sweetly follows in Linda Ronstadt's footsteps on "It's So Easy." That's one of three Holly songs Ronstadt — with Asher producing — brought back to the radio airwaves in the mid-'70s, a time when it wasn't universally hip to revisit the '50s rock canon.
Ronstadt's attraction to Holly's songs, however, was as simple as, "We liked them, and they were fun to play," she said. "You could sit on a sofa in a hotel room with a guitar and play them and they sounded really good. In later years we made some good records, but sometimes the songs weren't as strong. His were very sturdily constructed."
Deschanel — in her other guise as half of She & Him — is the common thread between "Listen to Me" and "Rave On," the recently released tribute produced by Randall Poster and Gelya Robb with tracks from Paul McCartney, the Black Keys, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Kid Rock, Nick Lowe, Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, Cee Lo Green and nearly a dozen other artists.
The tribute albums constitute just part of the many celebrations of Holly's life and music surfacing in conjunction with the 75th birthday anniversary. Wednesday has been declared "Buddy Holly Day" in Los Angeles, and he will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which will be presented in the presence of his widow, Maria Elena Holly, who will speak along with Asher and old friend Phil Everly.
The Everly Brothers, part of the inaugural class of Rock Hall of Fame inductees along with Holly, were close friends and frequently shared shows with the Crickets. Phil Everly recalled one in Florida where a band of 16-year-old neophyte musicians had been rounded up to back him and his brother at a show where Holly, Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis were also on the bill.
"When Buddy heard the band and how Don and I were being messed up, they played their set, then Jerry Lee went on, then they played background for Don and me, because that's the kind of guy he was."
After the Walk of Fame ceremony, a stellar lineup of pop musicians will gather at the Music Box in Hollywood for a concert to be filmed as a PBS-TV special slated to air in December. On the talent roster: Nicks, Asher, Isaak, Lyle Lovett, Raul Malo, Graham Nash, Michelle Branch, Patrick Stump and others.
British rocker Lowe calls Holly "the first fan of rock 'n' roll to make it big…. Even though he was hot on the heels of those first people like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, he was a fan, and that's why I dug him as well."
As exuberant as many of Holly's best-known songs are, Asher thinks another reason for his exceptional longevity given his brief time on Earth is the preternatural emotional depth of many of them, qualities brought to the surface on "Listen to Me" in Jackson Browne's beautifully anguished reading of "True Love Ways," which Holly wrote as a wedding song for Maria Elena, and "Learning the Game" as sung by Natalie Merchant.
"There's a kind of seen-it-all aspect to [Browne's] vocal, nonetheless it remains a song of devotion," Asher said. "With Natalie singing 'Learning the Game,' at first I thought we should do that one a bit more forcefully. But when I heard the first take with just her and the piano, I realized, 'Oh, I hadn't seen that deep into it.' It almost brings me to tears."