Friday, June 26, 2009

Not Fade Away

Buddy Holly sat wearily, his face lit by the bulbs that lined the perimeter of the wall length mirror in front of him. The top bulb had been flickering and finally went out. His tuxedo shirt was soaked through, translucent. There were dark wet patches on his powder blue jacket. He pulled his bow tie, and left it dangling, untied. Two shows a night were starting to wear him down.

The reaction of the crowd had been raucous. They cheered wildly for all his old hits, especially “Peggy Sue.” It was a long way from the clubs and dance halls of Lubbock. Las Vegas. Caesars Palace. Since 1966, the hotel had booked a wide variety of acts, from Evel Knievel to Xavier Cugat, and now they were looking toward the pioneers of rock and roll to bring in a different, younger audience to lose their money at the casino. The International Hotel was also planning on bringing in rock stars of the 1950’s. It was rumored they were in talks with the biggest of them all, Elvis, possibly for the upcoming summer of 1969. The King would surely bring in another 2,000 suckers to fill their new show room.

Buddy was happy to be hanging in there, playing his classics for an appreciative audience. He wished they liked his newer songs as much, but for that there was only polite applause. He was having a hard time relating to the record buying public these days. They were buying “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Hey Jude.” His spare style of pure pop, with a Texas edge, didn’t fit today’s sound.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like the new groups. Like many fifties stars, he had toured England in the early years of the decade, and he had met The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Nice boys, all of them. He loved The Beatles version of his “Words of Love.” It was a solid take, Liverpool, not Lubbock. The Stones’ cover of “Not Fade Away” was a bit sloppy, but Buddy thought it was exciting. But now he couldn’t relate. “Sgt. Pepper,” what was that? It didn’t rock, that’s for sure, and you couldn’t dance to it.

Buddy leaned forward and flipped on the transistor radio that sat on the counter. He took off his heavy black frames, still his trademark after all these years and rubbed his eyes. The country music emanating from the portable was awful. It was either bland mainstream like Glen Campbell or the overly polished sound of a crooner like Eddy Arnold. It wasn’t the gritty back home sounds of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Snow. It had lost its soul. Buddy liked country, always had, starting as a little kid tuning into the Grand Ole Opry. It was a passion he shared with Waylon.

Waylon. Ten years ago and it was still painful to remember. He thought back to the day he met Waylon at KLLL, a young disc jockey at the number one radio station in the Lubbock area, spinning hillbilly rock and worshipping Buddy Holly. They hit it off right away when Buddy dropped in to visit the K-triple-L studio. Buddy became an instant mentor to the 21-year-old who had dreams of country music stardom, his baritone carrying him to the top of the charts. Waylon hung on Buddy’s every word, heeding his advice on music, fashion and hairstyle.

When Buddy was ready to join the “Winter Dance Party” tour he was in need of a backup band and fast. They were scheduled to begin January 23, starting 1959 on the road in Milwaukee. His thoughts turned to Waylon and, though Jennings could only play guitar, Buddy convinced him to play bass in the band. Waylon was jittery, but Buddy knew he would do fine. Waylon flew to New York, where Buddy now lived. Handing over his first two records, Buddy, with a grin, told Waylon, “Learn these.” He set out to practice on the Fender bass, a gift from Holly. The newest Cricket didn’t let Buddy down. Waylon was great and he could write songs, real jewels. When Buddy oversaw Waylon’s recording of “Jole Blon” he knew this cat had the muscle to become a force in country music.

Looking back at that fateful plane ride, that terrible early winter morning of February 3, Buddy could see it all clearly, just like a movie. The Big Bopper had pushed and cajoled Waylon, who had a seat on the small plane to Fargo.

“Oh, man, you know a big fella like me can’t ride no busses no more. My back is killing me and I can’t sleep. Come on Waylon, you’re a young man, you can take the bus from Iowa to North Dakota.” Sniffling, The Bopper whined, “Plus, I think I have the flu.”

Bopper worked on him relentlessly, rolling his eyes and pleading. Jennings knew Bopper had also started out as a deejay before he became a star, having achieved what was still just a dream for Waylon. Jennings relented, genially making way for the big man.

Buddy had watched from a short distance away and didn’t like what he saw. He didn’t believe in pulling rank, but if anyone was the star of the show at the Surf Ballroom that night, it was himself. It wasn’t Ritchie Valens, Dion or The Big Bopper that drew 1,300 people to cram themselves into the Ballroom. Sure, “Chantilly Lace” was a smash, Top Ten the previous September, but all the “Hello bay-beees” and “You know what I likes” didn’t give the Bopper the right to bully a member of Buddy’s band. To make that point, that no one was bigger than the headliner, Buddy decided to give Waylon his seat on the plane. He protested but Buddy insisted he take it and fly the 400 miles to from Clear Lake to Fargo. Buddy could still see that four-seat Beechcraft rolling down the runway.

Now he was dead, dead ten years from that horrible crash. Buddy thought of Waylon every day, how he made him get on that plane to prove a point. “Wichita Lineman” was playing. What would Waylon Jennings have done with country music? Buddy wondered. He would have brought the Nashville establishment down to its knees. But he was dead.

Waylon Jennings played bass in Buddy Holly’s backup band during the fateful tour that ended abruptly in February 1959. He was scheduled to get on the small plane that night until The Big Bopper convinced him to give up his seat. Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly died when the plane crashed. Waylon Jennings rocked the country world with his “outlaw” honky tonk and revolutionized country music starting in the 1970’s and ending with his death in 2002.

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